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How the NBA came to own Christmas Day

Dec 24, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT

Houston Rockets v Chicago Bulls Getty Images

How big is Christmas Day to the NBA?

Look at it this way: Last year’s Christmas Day game between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder drew more viewers (9.6 million people) than all but one playoff game prior to the NBA Finals (that was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between Miami and Indiana).

On the whole in 2012, 33 million people tuned in to watch the NBA on Christmas Day.

For a lot of casual sports fans Christmas Day is the day the NBA tips off — they have followed their fantasy football team closely all fall, and while the NBA started playing a couple of months ago they have only been watching out of the corner of their eye.

That changes on Christmas Day because the NBA has worked over the years to own that day of the sports calendar — once you get your new 70-inch flat screen installed you turn on some hoop because the NBA has put forward showcase games.

“The NBA on Christmas is a tradition dating back almost 70 years,” said Michael Bass, the NBA’s Senior Vice President, Marketing Communications. “Each year, our goal is to provide fans with the most compelling contests based on storylines, rivalries, player matchups, and the history and tradition of the teams and the players. Christmas Day is always one of the most watched days on the NBA calendar.”

Yes, 70 years.

The NBA had its first NBA Christmas games in 1947. Three games were played that day and it worked so well there were four the next year. Then six in 1949. Since then the number of games has fluctuated but the NBA has been consistent in making its presence felt on that day. While the NFL and college football have had some games, the NBA makes sure on showcase matchups.

It is the day that ABC starts its broadcast of NBA games, taking advantage of those matchups.

For the past six years the NBA has settled on five games — a full late that tips off at noon Eastern and features the biggest names in the sport. This year you get to see LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony (if healthy after tweaking his ankle Monday), Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and more. (The games are Bulls at the Nets, Thunder at Knicks, Heat at Lakers, Rockets at Spurs, and Clippers at Warriors.)

“The players love it,” said former NBA coach and current NBC analyst Stan Van Gundy. “The are big games with big audiences and they want to be in those games.

“I never liked the Christmas Day games and wish the NBA would stop playing them. I got fined for my opposition to the games. Christmas should be a day for family. For the players and coaches, even though I don’t like it, at least we benefit financially from the NBA TV contracts. But for the ushers, security people, ticket takers, concession workers etc. they are paid low wages, but have to work on Christmas because the NBA cares about little other than how much money they can make.”

Like Christmas itself, the NBA on Christmas Day can come off as all about the marketing and commercialism. For example you have the shoe brands breaking out special Christmas Day editions of players’ signature shoes.

In addition, this year for Christmas Adidas has designed and the players will wear a special edition sleeved NBA jerseys with an oversized logo — which are available for purchase online, not so coincidentally. LeBron has already said the Heat’s shooters don’t like them, but the reality remains the league thinks it can sell more jerseys with sleeves so you are going to see a lot of those.

Still, just like all things Christmas, if you look past the commercialism you see something good. Something pure.

In this case great basketball played by the best in the world.

Like the time more than 50 years ago Jerry West dropped 47 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden to lead the Lakers to a win. Or in 1984 when Bernard King had 60 points (but the Knicks still lost). Or LeBron’s first Christmas Day game when he had 34 points but was outdone by Tracy McGrady who had 41 points and 11 assists.

“As a player, you know the whole world is watching,” said former player an NBA coach Byron Scott, while working for NBA TV. “The Christmas and New Year’s Eve [games] have the spirit of happiness. You just opened a bunch of gifts, the kids are running around, maybe they’ve gotten a jersey or two from their favorite player and everyone is watching. So [all the players] try and put on their best performance.”

And those performances are how the NBA really came to own Christmas.

  1. philtration - Dec 24, 2013 at 9:03 AM

    The Bulls-Knicks Christmas games in 92 and 94 were classics.
    That was a great rivalry for a while and the current NBA does not have anything it going anymore.

  2. pensman29 - Dec 24, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    The only reason the nba got that many viewers is because all the decent leagues let there players celebrate the holidays with their families. The nba sucks

    • ewyorksockexchange - Dec 24, 2013 at 10:39 AM

      The NFL has games on Christmas (when it falls on a Sunday or Monday), and they make 6 teams play on Thanksgiving. Baseball is played on the Fourth of July. The only sport that really has a break to allow players to spend holidays with their families is hockey. Don’t be fooled: sports aren’t about treating the players right. They’re about making money. And if there’s money to be made by playing on Christmas, major sports leagues are going to make that happen. Heck, there’s a college football game tonight at 8 EST, and multiple games on Thursday. These kids won’t be home with their families. Those guys aren’t even being paid!

      For the amount of money NBA players get paid (even the minimum salary guys), I think they can suck it up for a few years. They know what they’re getting into, no one is forcing them to be pro athletes. I feel more sorry for hospital/nursing home staff and EMT’s, no one talks about how they miss out on time with their families during the holidays. And they get paid a heck of a lot less.

      • phipfwe76 - Dec 24, 2013 at 11:31 AM

        That’s actually not true. The NFL moves (almost) all of its games to Saturday when Christmas falls on a Sunday.

      • ewyorksockexchange - Dec 24, 2013 at 11:44 AM

        I didn’t say they had all of the normal games. Sunday Night and Monday Night football don’t get moved. But point taken, I should have been more clear about that.

    • asimonetti88 - Dec 24, 2013 at 4:37 PM

      The only reason hockey doesn’t have a game on Christmas is because they know they’d lose head-to-head to the NBA.

  3. virusgvr - Dec 24, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    What is amazing is the picture they chose to go with the story!

    • money2long - Dec 24, 2013 at 6:26 PM

      hm, which one do you want under your tree

  4. jimeejohnson - Dec 24, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    Santa might just have something to say about the NBA owning Christmas. Whadaya mean, “nope”? Merry Christmas y’all,

  5. Jeff - Dec 24, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Jerseys are too expensive. I’ll just buy a T-shirt that looks like a jersey.
    Sleeveless or not, I’m not buying something I’d only be seen wearing at a game. As a member of the NBA Fan Forum, that’s what I told the NBA too.
    And regarding games on Christmas, I rarely tune in. I’d rather spend Christmas with friends and family, and not have the TV on.

  6. mackcarrington - Dec 24, 2013 at 2:26 PM

    I can remember the Christmas I got my very first color TV, (yeah I’m that old).
    The first thing I watched was a NBA game. It was the Atlanta Hawks with Pete Maravich
    and those horrible lime green uniforms they used to wear.

  7. dallasstars9 - Dec 24, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    Christians seem to think they “own” Christmas as well…

    • Kurt Helin - Jan 25, 2014 at 12:05 PM

      The Christians took over the Roman celebration of “Saturnalia” and made it Christmas (when we know if the Biblical accounts are accurate Christ was born in the summer). The Christian church had a long history of putting their celebrations on the dates of popular events of other cultures to co-opt them.

  8. mornelithe - Dec 25, 2013 at 10:05 AM

    Maybe for families that come together around sports events, does the NBA ‘own’ Christmas. However, for those of us who don’t…this is actually the closest I’ll come to watching any game today. It could be the playoffs, or it could be the finals and it wouldn’t really matter to me.

    Family > Sports

  9. 1historian - Dec 25, 2013 at 5:18 PM

    Kurt, Kurt, Kurt – The fact that you have used such a profoundly stupid remark as the TITLE of your piece pretty much says all any of us need to know.

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