Sunday marked the first-ever NFL Christmas Day tripleheader, but it may well not be the last. The NFL’s three games on that day drew average audiences of 25.92 million (Packers–Dolphins, seen above), 22.57 million (Broncos–Rams), and 17.15 million viewers (Buccaneers–Cardinals), for a total average audience of 21.88 million across the holiday.
While those numbers aren’t at Thanksgiving levels (games ranging from 25.9 million to 42.1 million viewers), it’s up from even World Cup-boosted regular numbers (Fox’s 18.66 million viewers for last week’s singleheader). As expected, it’s also well ahead of the NBA’s average audience of 4.32 million viewers for its five Christmas Day games on ABC and ESPN (although that number has some of its own good points, as we’ll get to). And that may lead to even more NFL emphasis on Christmas Day, and possibly even more tripleheaders there. So that raises some questions about the future of the NBA’s Christmas Day plans.
From an NFL perspective, it seems logical to keep playing multiple games on Christmas Day whenever possible given these numbers. Yes, there are some extra logistical challenges around Christmas Day games for teams, stadium operations, in-person fans and more. But there are also a lot of people sitting around and looking for sports to watch, and large numbers of them certainly tuned into the NFL games this year.
And it’s notable that the actual number of people who watched might actually be better than the measurements we have so far. Consider the NFL/Nielsen study that suggested a 31 percent boost for the Thanksgiving numbers from a different way of measuring out-of-home viewership. That’s not necessarily “These numbers would get the same percentage boost,” but it’s worth keeping in mind Christmas Day would be expected to have a ton of out-of-home viewing. And there’s long been some discussion that normal Nielsen measurement (which only started working in out-of-home numbers in their current form in 2020) may not fully account for all out-of-home viewing, which has long provided major boosts for sports programming when specifically measured.
For most of the next several years, it doesn’t appear like it will be too difficult for the NFL to have Christmas Day games, up to and including a tripleheader. Mike Florio mapped out the Christmas Day dates at Pro Football Talk, and the only real issue is 2024, when it falls on a Wednesday. But even that could be handled with clever enough bye scheduling. The other upcoming dates in 2023 (Monday), 2025 (Thursday), 2026 (Friday), 2027 (Saturday), and 2028 (Sunday) seem easy enough to work with. So the league probably can play Christmas games of some sort in each year, and probably could get to a tripleheader each year (with the possible exception of 2024) if they wanted to.
It’s worth noting that when Fox announced its new rights agreement with the NFL in March 2021, they mentioned working with the NFL on Christmas Day telecasts. So the league’s Christmas Day expansion surely looks to be part of a long-term plan to now own both Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
The remaining question is what that means for the NBA. On some levels, absolutely, direct NFL competition isn’t great. And more direct NFL competition (from more games) presents further challenges. But the NBA games here still did decently overall, with the average viewership number rising from 4.08 million to 4.32 million (five percent) from last Christmas’ slate (which faced two NFL games). Some of that’s about all five of these games being on both ABC and ESPN, but the audiences here still aren’t bad.
Of course, these audiences are down a fair bit from some Christmas peaks (particularly, 13.18 million for Lakers-Heat in 2004, 13.11 million for Heat-Lakers in 2010, 11.17 million for Cavaliers-Warriors in 2015, and 10.21 million for Lakers-Warriors in 2018), but there was some level of NFL competition on Christmas Day (not necessarily head-to-head with the top game) in each of those years but 2018. So there isn’t a clear need for the NBA to abandon Christmas Day even with an increased NFL presence there.
But it may be worth it for the NBA to think about how it should proceed if the NFL continues to expand its Christmas Day presence. The NBA is unlikely to win any of those ratings battles head-to-head, but there are things it can do to maximize its own success. Those might include continuing to hold early/late games in slots not going head-to-head with the NFL, or maybe even making sure the markets of teams playing at a particular time don’t overlap with the markets of NFL teams playing then.
And the NBA is not alone here. Every sport outside the NFL has to consider the impact of the NFL, and sometimes go head-to-head even in losing battles, from regular-season college football to the upcoming College Football Playoff expansion to a fall World Cup. At this point, the NFL can largely go wherever it wants and do whatever it wants, and everyone else has to adjust.
That includes even established properties like the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule. The NBA’s Christmas Day approach certainly isn’t irrevocably doomed by a further NFL push on that day, but it will be impacted. And if the NFL does continue to expand its Christmas Day schedule, it will be worth watching how the NBA responds.
For generations, Christmas Day stood alone as the NBA’s national regular season showcase. It was the one day that the league largely owned to themselves as the singular feature attraction in sports. And yet now, like most everything else in the sports world, what used to be their marquee opportunity to shine alone in the spotlight appears to be gobbled up by the all-powerful NFL.
[Photo from Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports]