NBA basketball on Christmas Day is as great of a sports tradition as NFL Football on Thanksgivings. For generations, the NBA has played games on Christmas making the day feel so much more special from a sports standpoint. In the last few years though, it feels as if that specialness has been declining.
The league has offered up five games each Christmas for the past decade, featuring a day full of basketball. Too many games have deluded the uniqueness of the day. Where in the past there would be two to three games, there are now five. One great aspect of playing on Christmas in years past is that it was reserved for the best teams. The Conference Finals participants from the prior year would meet in a heated rematch.
With the NBA’s recent TV deal from 2014, the demand for more nationally televised games has really hurt the value for the games on Christmas. There are now nationally televised games three or four nights of the week throughout the season which hurt the “must watch” enticement. Instead of seeing a particular matchup for the first time in the season on Christmas, there is a good chance that the matchup has been seen possibly once or twice already because of the new TV deal.
A perfect example of this was the Lakers vs Bucks game from last week that was shown on TNT. A LeBron James vs Giannis Anteokounmpo matchup would have been a perfect star vs star meeting on Christmas. It would have a inter-conference matchup that would have drawn the interest of fans across the country. The need for more premier games throughout the week really hurts the fans because this would have been a great Christmas Day game.
From a viewing standpoint, with more games comes more complexity. In the past when there were just two or three games, the games would be shown back to back as a double-header on the same channel. Recently, the five games have been broken up across three channels with the first game starting at noon and the last game being played late in the evening. It makes it hard for anyone to stay enticed for all five games, and remember which games are on which channel.
Another aspect that has hurt the league’s value on Christmas is the lack of rivalry or tradition. The marquee game this year will be the Clippers vs. Lakers pitting Lebron James and Anthony Davis against Kawhi Leonard. Although it is a battle for bragging rights amongst Los Angeles basketball fans, it doesn’t do much for fans across the country. In the past, it would be the first meeting for the two teams in the previous year’s NBA Finals which would be enticing from a rivalry standpoint.
Players constantly changing teams via trades or free agency has hurt the traditional aspect for the Christmas games. Rather than seeing the same teams every year, it is now more about seeing the same player with a different team. For instance, had Leonard stayed with the Raptors instead of signing with the Clippers, in all likelihood it would been the Raptors against the Warriors or Rockets which would have been a good game for Christmas Day.
NBA basketball on Christmas Day was at its highest value back in the 90s for several reasons. NBC would showcase two games with one game reserved for Michael Jordan and the Bulls. The games would be compelling matchups and felt like “must see TV” because of the special value of the game. It was short and simple in which the games marketed themselves. That value has been lost the last few decades.
The NBA can resolve this issue by following the NFL’s model for Thanksgiving. There should be three games on the day including an early, a late-afternoon, and evening game. The league should either showcase its top four stars or teams against one another and make sure it is their first matchup of the season. Market a rising star against an established superstar like Luka Doncic against James harden.
NBA basketball on Christmas is meant to feel special and at the moment it just doesn’t feel that way anymore. The league has the right pieces, but needs to rearrange how those pieces are put together. It is important to resolve the issue soon because the league will have rating competition with the NFL most likely scheduling games on Christmas for the next four season. It is something that needs to be fix to reenergize the uniqueness of the day.