NFL’s Christmas Takeover Puts a Bow on Out-of-Home Ratings Jackpot

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As the NFL wrapped its annual owners’ meetings down in Orlando earlier this week, Roger Goodell’s tailor began letting out the waist of the commissioner’s Grinch costume. On Tuesday, the man who fronts the sports monolith announced that the league will play a Christmas Day doubleheader, thereby spoiling the party for the happy denizens of Hoopsville® for a fifth consecutive year.

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Goodell’s proclamation flew in the face of the NFL’s longstanding scheduling policy, which had established Wednesday as a no-fly zone for football. The last time the league suited up for a game that aired smackdab in the middle of the week was during the plague year of 2020, when a clubhouse COVID outbreak forced the Ravens and Steelers to shift their primetime Thanksgiving matchup on NBC to the dead center of the following week. Prior to that unorthodox move, the last time the NFL had set up shop on Hump Day was in 2012, when the Cowboys and Giants elected to accommodate President Barack Obama’s address at the Democratic National Convention by meeting up the day before the event.

That marked the first Wednesday NFL game since 1948. Thus, despite having extended its tendrils to practically every other day of the week, the NFL’s anti-Wednesday stance seemed to be about as immutable as the ballast that prevents the officials’ penalty flags from floating goofily around on the breeze.

While the NBA had anticipated having the run of the place this Christmas—this year marks the 77th installment of the league’s Yuletide extravaganza—the NFL wasn’t about to pass up on yet another opportunity to throw its weight around over the ho-ho-holidays. Last year’s three-fer put up playoff-grade TV ratings, as the early Chiefs-Raiders upset averaged 29.5 million viewers on CBS (good for the No. 14 spot on the list of top 100 U.S. broadcasts), while the high-flying Giants-Eagles showdown scared up another 29 million Fox viewers. Rounding off the not-so-silent night, the Ravens-Niners game averaged 27.6 million viewers; per Nielsen, deliveries for the three broadcasts were up 30% versus the year-ago Christmas slate.

In the face of this football onslaught, the NBA averaged 2.85 million viewers with its five-game slate, which marked the league’s least-watched Christmas lineup on record.

Now, there isn’t a network executive on the planet who wouldn’t trade a day of quaffing eggnog and pulling tinsel out of the dog’s butt for a shot at those kinds of numbers, even if it does mean that players on four NFL teams will find themselves slugging it out for three games over a span of 11 days. So far, the NFL Players Association hasn’t made a peep about the late-season short-time situation, although to paraphrase Rick James, ratings are a hell of a drug.

As much as it’s fun to ascribe malice to the actions of an all-powerful entity, Goodell’s decision to plunder this rare midweek Christmas—why, he even took the roast beast!—had little to do with some sort of scheme to dim the lights on the NBA’s time-honored tradition. While stealing thunder is the NFL’s default setting, the Xmas excess is all about taking full advantage of the new-ish way of measuring TV audiences.

Since Nielsen began incorporating out-of-home data with its national TV measurement, the NFL’s holiday ratings have been nuttier than that weird Trotsky-looking kid who your niece smuggled into Thanksgiving dinner. (On the bright side: At least you’re not the one footing the bill for four years at Oberlin.) Because American holidays are structured along the lines of the old over-the-river-and-through-the-woods trope, everyone winds up at gramma’s, and once the feast has been attended to, all eyes fall on the RCA in the family room. The set may be so old that there’s a VCR built into the thing, but no matter: The bonus eyeballs that are now tallied by Nielsen have resulted in some real eye-popping holiday deliveries.

Last year’s Thanksgiving Day broadcast on CBS (Commanders-Cowboys) served up 41.8 million viewers, with out-of-home deliveries accounting for 41% (or 17.3 million) of those fans. In 2022, Fox set a record with 42.1 million viewers, as 39% of its Giants-Cowboys audience took in the action at someone else’s home. On Turkey Day, the family gathers around a bird carcass and then repairs to the parlor to huddle up with the NFL, and now that same dynamic is playing out over Christmas.

As large gatherings demonstrably lead to tens of millions of people staring at the TV, it would be foolhardy of the NFL to punt away the opportunity to tap into that reservoir of souls, especially now that the networks are being credited for all those bonus impressions. And certainly the rights-holders aren’t going to complain about working on a holiday, not when the escalators in the TV contracts are kicking in every year. On Thanksgiving 2023, CBS, Fox and NBC together booked just shy of a quarter-billion-dollars of in-game ad revenue ($246.3 million), which buys an awful lot of pie. Nobody in his or her right mind is turning down that sort of loot, and the Christmas money is starting to creep up on the November windfall—last year’s Dec. 25 tripleheader generated nearly $150 million in ad spend.

And hoo boy, the holiday deliveries are only going to get bigger. As Sportico broke back in January, Nielsen is about to expand its out-of-home measurement to include 100% of U.S. TV markets. Although the impact won’t be detectable until after Super Bowl LIX airs on Fox next February, every sport on the tube is expected to see a ratings lift starting in 2025. Which means the NFL now has even less incentive to back away from the Christmas hearth, no matter what day of the week the holiday happens to land in any given year.

For the NFL, showing up Adam Silver’s organization is just the cherry on top of a fruitcake that already weighs more than an offensive tackle. Rather than interpreting the league’s Wednesday switcheroo as an act of malice, it is perhaps better to think of the NFL as an indifferent God who pares His fingernails while space garbage kills all the dinosaurs. Like the creator who couldn’t be bothered to bear witness while his giant lizard children get turned into motor oil, the NFL doesn’t answer prayers. Or emails, for that matter.

As Michael Corleone assures his hot-tempered brother in that other great Christmas movie: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” Now that the NFL has put a round through Moe Greene’s Foster Grants, Dec. 25 is in its pocket now. As for the NBA, it has no intention of quitting the field and, say, relocating its quintuple-header to Boxing Day, but there’s no getting around the fact that the league’s holiday tradition has been diminished.

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