Fans wearing Christmas costumes to NFL game Dec 17, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns fans wear Christmas costumes before the game against the Chicago Bears at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Christmas Day used to belong to the NBA. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe for multiple generations. The NBA lifts up Christmas Day as its marquee showcase for the entire regular season as it features an entire day of nationally televised games with the biggest stars and most appealing matchups. Many fans consider it the unofficial start of the NBA season and the time when we’re supposed to really start paying attention to the league…. which may be part of the reason why the In-Season Tournament now exists.

While the NBA has been most associated with the Christmas Day holiday, in most years the day is now dominated by the NFL. Like the big box store making the local mom and pop store obsolete, the NFL has claimed every effective piece of real estate on the television schedule, no matter what historical traditions may have been in place.

This past week demonstrated that new truth better than ever. Even with Christmas Day being played on a Monday, the NFL offered up a tripleheader that went head-to-head with the NBA with three matchups on national television. Chiefs-Raiders kicked it off on CBS, then Giants-Eagles on Fox, and finally the huge Ravens-49ers game on ABC – an incredibly rare sight in modern times that ABC aired a standalone NFL game like the old days of Monday Night Football. Why? Because ESPN was committed to its all-day NBA coverage.

It’s easy to see why the NFL and networks would be totally fine with the gridiron takeover. The NFL crushes the NBA and anything else in its path in the ratings. The last three years the NFL average has beat the NBA average by a roughly 5-1 margin. That will probably be a very similar story once again this year.

But the NFL’s insistence on elbowing their way into taking the Christmas Day territory away from the NBA is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, the NFL has played almost as many Christmas Day regular season games (13) since 2016, as they did in all the years previously (15). The first NFL Christmas Day regular season game wasn’t played until 1989. Games then happened sporadically all the way up until 2016, when the league made it an emphasis. Each of the last three years have now featured multiple Christmas Day games. On the other hand, the NBA has played on Christmas annually since 1947, a year after the league was born.

In truth, the NFL can probably schedule multiple Christmas Day games when Christmas falls on five out of seven days of the week from Thursday-Monday. The NFL scheduling regular season games on Tuesday or Wednesday would be new territory, at least outside of another global pandemic. But if the NFL wants to do it, they surely can, and nobody would dream of saying no.

Next year Christmas falls on a Wednesday, which should finally bring the NBA a reprieve and the holiday to themselves once again. But in 2025-2028, Christmas will fall on days that the NFL should be friendly to more NFL games. And that’ll likely be the case in the years ahead. There will be the rare year that the NBA has no NFL competition, but most years the shield will dwarf the association.

The NFL has long claimed Thanksgiving. Then they came for Christmas. This year launched a Black Friday game, which has traditionally been a strong college football slate. If the NFL could find a way to play on the 4th of July, they probably would. Don’t count it out.