A holiday challenge
The NFL has expanded its Christmas Day schedule to three games for the first time in 2022, presenting a unique challenge to the NBA, fans, and the betting industry alike.
In recent years, Christmas has been mostly reserved for the hardwood. Only five times in the last 10 years has the NFL scheduled December 25 games, and none of those years exceeded more than two matchups.
NFL fixtures will run throughout most of the day
The new three-game Christmas schedule means that NFL fixtures will run throughout most of the day, rather than the usual few hours. The NBA, meanwhile, is sticking to its usual Christmas Day docket with five asynchronous matchups. Fans will be able to tune in at noon until the final game tips off at 10:30pm ET.
The NFL is undoubtedly the biggest draw in US sports and betting, which creates an interesting dynamic moving forward. The question is: should the NBA feel threatened, and if so, what can it do to avoid losing another holiday scheduling slot?
Tracking the viewers
In general, holiday matchups generate viewership totals beyond average gamedays. Just a month ago, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants drew an NFL regular-season record of 42 million average US viewers in the final of a turkey day triple-header. That figure represented roughly half of the average Super Bowl viewership and dominated numbers from other competing sports.
an integral part of many families’ annual celebrations
This regular-season record reflects one of the NFL’s most important qualities: its dominance over holiday periods. The league has a history of airing holiday games that has stood since 1934 and has become an integral part of many families’ annual celebrations. This is so true of Thanksgiving that the NBA has not aired games on the holiday for the past 12 years partly due to NFL dominance.
With this in mind, the NBA could certainly struggle for audience retention this Christmas—especially considering its 2021 Christmas games drew the lowest average viewers (4.1 million) since the league expanded to a five-game schedule in 2008 and since ESPN acquired the broadcast rights before the 2002-03 season.
If NBA viewership continues to fall while the NFL’s three-game schedule secures even more eyes, it’s no stretch of the imagination to predict that Christmas basketball games could eventually become as much a thing of the past as Thanksgiving ones.
A betting power struggle
This Christmas is also unlike any prior in regards to US wagering. Sports betting is now a mainstay in many homes across the country. A total of 36 states plus Washington DC have now legalized sports betting and 31 of those have markets open for business. Roughly one in five adults bet on sports in the past year.
NFL bettors now risk an estimated $100bn at sportsbooks across the country
Football is undoubtedly the biggest sport in the US for wagers, and Christmas Day dominance would only further increase that gap. During the season, NFL bettors risk an estimated $100bn at sportsbooks across the country, and that number is boosted significantly during landmark events such as the Super Bowl, Thanksgiving, and now, Christmas.
That said, the one spot the NBA may have a decided advantage this year in is its matchups. Fans will take in many of the league’s best stars, top contenders, and the defending champions in five highly competitive battles. Meanwhile, of the six NFL teams in action, only the Miami Dolphins have a winning record, and the nightcap, featuring the Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will see Tom Brady take on third-year backup quarterback Trace McSorely… not the best viewing experience.
It will be interesting to see how the situation plays out. If the NFL can knock the NBA off of its Christmas Day pedestal, it could redefine the viewership and betting trajectory forever.