Why the NFL Killed NBA Christmas
The real reason it happened
Inflation can make the rich even richer, given their disproportionate ability to own and hold certain assets. But I’m not talking about the American economy. Instead, I’m referring to why the NFL stole Christmas from the NBA, a theft that appeared all the more brutal as the numbers rolled out.
Last year, the NFL flooded the zone with three Sunday Christmas games for the first time ever, roughly 5X’ing the NBA’s viewership. This year, the NFL flooded again with three Monday Christmas games, roughly 10X’ing basketball’s viewership. Or, as Sports Media Watch put it, “NBA Christmas viewership sacked by NFL.”
There’s an odd reason for why this takeover happened recently. It’s a conquest with roots in how audience figures have been newly pumped up by Nielsen, a situation that benefits the sport with the biggest audience. Overall, this story is about an inflationary Nielsen reform, one that was supposed to help all of the sports leagues, but appears to have burned the NBA.
For those who do not know, Christmas in this millennium has been an NBA showcase, successfully branded into becoming its most watched regular season event of the year. Starting in 2008, the NBA put five games on national TV, with the biggest matchup slated for network television. It’s been a great success, with the five games yielding an average audience of 5.8 million as recently as 2018.
In 2015, 11.17 million people tuned in to watch Steph Curry’s Warriors play LeBron James’ Cavs. Why am I highlighting this? Mostly because that Christmas happened on a Friday, with no competing NFL games slated. Also because the NBA getting 11.17 viewers on one network channel seems almost unthinkable right now (Lakers-Celtics led the NBA pack with 5 million in audience on Monday). If you identified Christmas of 2015 as the NBA’s post Jordan peak, I wouldn’t argue.
Since this point, the NFL, once deferential to the NBA’s turf when Christmas fell on a weekday, has started to encroach on basketball. Why the change? First, because the NBA started to weaken, ceasing to produce eight figure marquee games on Christmas. After interest in the NBA dropped, the NFL was less worried about scheduling games against it.
Second, because, back in 2020, Nielsen started smoothing in Out of Home viewing (OOH) to its overall audience numbers.
Traditionally, televisions outside of homes (in hospitals, airports, bars, etc.) weren’t tracked in Nielsen’s audience reports. Now, these extra TVs are getting added to the viewership number, along with all the people watching at group gatherings (more on that later). Perhaps these extra watchers should have always been counted, but the sudden inclusion of OOH is like if the NFL started listing player height “in shoes” and declared their athletes newly taller. This is to say that the OOH inclusive numbers are “true,” technically, but their sudden arrival presents an opportunity for leagues to manipulate public perception.
The sports leagues love the Out of Home inclusion because it allows them to craft a narrative of growth, regardless of whether growth is happening. If you follow this stuff, you’ll notice many recent viewership “records” proclaimed in football, such as ESPN’s lead football reporter stating the following:
In a five-week span, Monday Night Football now has aired its two most-watched games in 27 years.
This is bullshit, but nobody cares enough to correct the record. It’s easier just to relay the reports and herald historic highs. Just look at this stat from football’s gargantuan Thanksgiving numbers. Referring again to the Sports TV Ratings account:
You catch that? The NFL’s Thanksgiving viewership has been spotted an astounding 17 million person bonus that they would not have received prior to 2019. This might have something to do with why the three most watched Thanksgiving games listed happened in 2021, 2022, and 2023.
Okay, by now you might be wondering what the hell this has to do with the NFL stealing Christmas from the NBA. That “17 million” figure from Thanksgiving is pertinent here. If large gatherings are now captured in Out of Home viewership, then the NFL has more incentive to chase large gatherings. Christmas, like Thanksgiving, brings a lot of people together in TV watching groups. This makes Christmas very tantalizing as a target. I’m not sure how the NFL can find a way to make next year’s Wednesday Christmas work, but don’t be surprised if they figure out the scheduling. This is their holiday now. The big bully noticed that a large milkshake had been placed in NBA territory and Roger Goodell drank it up.
The NFL stood to benefit the most from inflation because it had the most to inflate. What’s funny is that Out of Home inclusion was supposed to help all the leagues look taller. It’s been that way, sort of. God knows how bad some of these sports would appear if we were seeing them through the lens of the old Nielsen system.
The NBA was certainly thankful for the newly juiced numbers as it attempted to rebound from reports of lost audience share. Unfortunately for the league, in an odd twist of fate, the inflated counting they craved came at the cost of their premier regular season event. Two decades of branding NBA Christmas is now down the drain, largely because of a quirky Nielsen reform.