What happens when Christmas Day falls on an NFL Sunday? The NBA is about to find out.
No sports league in the United States competes with the NFL for TV ratings. We’ve known this for a while.
Even the mighty NBA paused its Thursday night TNT games until after football season ends. And while other leagues make concessions to The Shield, the NFL keeps eating up days on the calendar. The NFL (and Prime Video) have already claimed Black Friday and Saturdays.
The NBA’s two major days are Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year, however, Christmas falls on a Sunday. Football’s day.
To feign playing nice, the NFL has flipped 11 of its games to Saturday, keeping three on Sunday — one in each of the NFL’s traditional broadcast windows. But that’s more than enough to challenge the NBA’s five-game slate. Just look at how the leagues compare when stacked against each other.
In 2020: The Vikings-Saints Christmas Day game averaged 20.1 million viewers across FOX and NFL Network. That same day, the NBA had slightly more than 7 million fans watching the defending NBA champion Lakers face the Mavericks.
In 2021: The NFL featured two games on a Saturday Christmas Day and dominated… again. The Packers-Browns game on FOX and NFL Network averaged 28.59 million viewers, while Colts-Cardinals brought in 12.62 million. Meanwhile, the NBA saw its lowest figure (4.1 million average) since expanding to a five-game Christmas slate in 2008 — also the lowest since ESPN acquired NBA rights prior to the 2002-03 season.
The Association’s Advantage
NBA regular season games across ABC, TNT, and ESPN have been trending up for a couple years now. Viewership rose 19% in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, which itself was up 3% from the year before. This year’s Christmas games should all be ratings hits given the combination of quality teams and major markets in action. Here’s the schedule, with all times Eastern:
Noon: 76ers vs. Knicks
2:30: Lakers vs. Mavericks
5:00: Bucks vs. Celtics
8:00: Grizzlies vs. Warriors
10:30: Suns vs. Nuggets
The draw extends beyond the teams themselves. Eight of the top-10 most-viewed players on the NBA’s social media platforms play for one of the above teams (though keep in mind Stephen Curry will not play this Christmas due to injury).
Here’s that full list:
- Stephen Curry (485M)
- Ja Morant (351M)
- LeBron James (268M)
- Giannis Antetokounmpo (215M)
- Luka Doncic (210M)
- Jayson Tatum (153M)
- Jordan Poole (148.7M)
- Kevin Durant (140.5M)
- Zion Williamson (118.4M)
- Klay Thompson (112.7M)
(Playing on Christmas)
NBA stars generate huge numbers on social media — more than 4 billion total views so far this season, according to data from the NBA. That’s up 42% compared to this point in 2021. Their Instagram has nearly triple the number of followers of the NFL. And though Instagram may not hold weight in a chase for a $75 billion media rights deal, it does show the pull the NBA has when it comes to appealing to generations that are more likely to have cut the cord. Generations, for example, that might subscribe to Prime Video, which hosts the NFL’s Thursday night games. According to Statista, 56 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds have a subscription to Amazon Prime Video.
Long-term, this is good news. But for now, they’re stuck with coal in their stocking. The NFL has expanded to five days for the remainder of the regular season, and next year, Monday Night Football will fall on Christmas Day.
The NBA hasn’t stepped on the NFL’s toes on Thanksgiving — they stopped playing Thanksgiving games back in 2005. It was a wise business decision. But Christmas has always been “their” day. This year, that will be put to the test. And if the NFL has shown us anything, it’s that once it finds something that works, it’s going to look for more.
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