By Zack Peñalva, Sports Editor
While it may not spring to the front of your mind when you think about holiday traditions, the NBA’s Christmas Day games have been going on since 1947.
Since then, the league has saved some of the best matchups of the season for Dec. 25; often choosing to highlight rivalries and have a rematch of the previous year’s championship game.
This year, LeBron James and the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers will play against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in a repeat of the most-watched finals series in NBA history. The Nielsen Company reported that over 31 million people watched the Cavaliers win game 7 last year, the largest ever audience for a single NBA game. When the two teams played each other last Christmas, they attracted 11 million viewers, the best Christmas Day rating since the 2010 game between James’ Miami Heat and Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Those big numbers have attracted attention. While the NFL has traditionally broadcasted games on Thanksgiving, they have been hesitant to make Christmas day games the norm. In 1971, the Christmas match-up between the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs turned out to be the longest game in NFL history. The backlash nationwide about ruined Christmas dinners caused some states to consider passing legislation that would ban games on Christmas altogether. Since 1971, there have been only 15 games played on Christmas, the last coming in 2011. But with The New York Times reporting that the NFL’s ratings have dropped by double-digits so far this year, and the league’s addition of Christmas Day games could be their way of trying to bring those numbers back up.
The Washington Post reports that the average NFL game draws about 16 million viewers, dwarfing the NBA’s rising average of around 3.9 million. But what the NFL lacks is how effectively it chooses its games for such a big day. The NBA carefully selects who will be playing on Christmas, hoping to pick matchups that will be intriguing. Besides a replay of the previous year’s finals, they rely on big teams, superstar player and rivalries to produce entertaining games. In the NFL, the Denver Broncos versus the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens versus the Pittsburgh Steelers are far from star-studded, must-see, historical match-ups.
The NBA has established a pretty strong presence on Christmas. They bring more eye-catching names and a more fun attitude for the holidays. In the last few years, the NFL’s “no fun” policy when it comes to everything from celebrations to uniforms has caused it to get a bit of a bad rap. Meanwhile the NBA has made it a tradition to create special Christmas jerseys and give players some freedom when it comes to festive footwear.
Only time will tell if the NFL’s move to encroach on the NBA’s territory will help right the ship, or if there are some other major changes that have to go on to keep football from losing relevancy.