NBA Rejoices Over Christmas Day Games

Premier Matchups Are Annual Gift to Fans

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Broadcast
NBA
Published 
January 20, 2022
 | 
5
 min read

The National Basketball Association has been synonymous with Christmas for nearly as long as the league has been operating. While the NFL schedule occasionally includes Christmas games depending on how the calendar falls in a given year, the NBA has been hosting premier matchups on the holiday since 1947 and has effectively taken ownership of December 25 on the sports calendar. NBA games of yesteryear have included a 60-point performance by the New York Knicks’ Bernard King in Madison Square Garden, the first game featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on opposing teams, and mid-2010s NBA Finals rematches between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. Fans have come to expect sensational Christmas Day matchups, and this year’s slate delivered. The afternoon began with a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks on ESPN. The following two games aired exclusively on ABC as the Boston Celtics traveled to Milwaukee to face the defending champion Bucks before the Phoenix Suns hosted the Golden State Warriors. Top billing this year belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, whose game in L.A. was simulcast on both ESPN and ABC. Finally, the Utah Jazz played host to the Dallas Mavericks on ESPN in the nightcap. We used our broadcast platform to track minute-to-minute viewership numbers throughout the day in each of the home markets while also examining total viewership for the games to determine which games were the most compelling both nationally and regionally.

Lakers, Nets Deliver Largest Audience

Last year’s playoff series between the Knicks and Hawks set the stage for a budding rivalry between the Eastern Conference foes. But with Trae Young inactive for the Christmas Day tilt, the game had neither the stakes nor the star power of the previous matchups. Nevertheless, an average of 1.59 million viewers tuned in for the day’s opening game, which tipped off at noon on the East Coast. Following its conclusion, many NBA fans changed the channel to ABC for a tripleheader on the network beginning with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks squaring off against one of the league’s iconic franchises – the Boston Celtics. For the battle of new versus old, ABC drew an average of 3.98 million viewers, who were treated to an exciting back and forth affair that the Bucks ultimately won in dramatic fashion. The Warriors and Suns – who at the time owned the NBA’s best records – experienced a slight audience decline to 3.76 million. But viewership bounced back to peak during the showcase between the Nets and Lakers, which also aired on ESPN. An average of 4.5 million viewers watched the game in Tinsel Town – 50% more than the daily average of 2.98 million. The nightcap in Salt Lake City between Utah and Dallas drew only 1.08 million viewers. In total, average viewership on Christmas was 34% higher than it was for the league’s two opening night games in October and 76% higher than audiences produced throughout the first month of the season.

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No Place Like Home for the Holidays

The holidays are perfect occasions for families and friends to gather at home and spend time with each other, and the NBA provides a rooting interest around which the entire household can rally. Teams playing on Christmas consistently exhibit strong, positive viewership effects relative to either other games on the day’s schedule, markets in other regions, or both. This was extremely evident for the mid-afternoon game airing on ABC. The Boston market averaged 114,587 fans during the Celtics’ contest against the Bucks – an 84% increase compared to viewership numbers in the region throughout the rest of the games. Fans in Milwaukee provided even stronger correlative results, as the 73,729 fans who tuned in to the game exceeded the market’s average for the remaining four games by 2.31x. Other teams whose markets peaked while they were playing include the Lakers, Nets, Suns, and Warriors, meaning all six markets with home teams playing on ABC reached their apex during a game with local relevance. 

In New York, Nets Still a Stocking Stuffer

Even though the New York market drew an average audience of 245,411 viewers for the Nets’ game in Los Angeles, our data suggests that the Big Apple still belongs to the Knicks. The figure represented a 45% increase in average viewership between the teams’ games, but that was offset by viewership relative to all markets. The Nets-Lakers matchup proved to be worthy of primetime billing as it received 2.02x as many viewers in the New York market compared to an all-markets’ average, but that pales in comparison to the Knicks earning 3.12x more viewers than average for their matinee game on ESPN. Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Dallas-Fort Worth also exceeded the all-markets’ average when their home team was playing. Despite the Dallas market drawing 22% fewer fans for the Mavericks’ late game than other games during the day, the 52,339 fans who tuned in still exceeded the all-markets’ average by 70% for the time window. As a result, the only home markets that did not show a positive viewership correlation compared to other games during the day or other markets during their local team’s game were Atlanta and Salt Lake City, indicating a less intense affinity for the Hawks and Jazz, respectively. 

NBA’s Yuletide Tradition Is a Slam Dunk

Though many dream of a white Christmas, the NBA appeals to those who yearn for basketballs with their snowballs. The league’s annual yuletide offering is a showcase featuring its best teams and franchises on a stage all their own. This year’s slate included the two winningest franchises of all-time, multiple former MVPs, both of last season’s NBA finalists, and a host of teams striving to unseat the champions. Fans responded by maintaining an average viewership of nearly 3 million throughout the day, affirming the tradition of watching basketball has become a staple of the season’s celebrations.

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