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The NFL’s triple-header on Christmas Day interferes with the NBA/NFL Unspoken Rule

Usually the NFL gets Thanksgiving, and the NBA gets Christmas. Apparently that’s changing.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Mike North, the NFL’s Vice President of Broadcasting, recently went on the “SalSports...and Stuff” podcast and revealed that with Christmas scheduled to fall on a Sunday this year, the league will host a triple-header on a day that is typically known as a day for basketball. Surely, the NBA cannot be happy about this news since it has been widely known amongst sports fans that for the past 14 years, there was an unspoken rule that this Christmas Day is the NBA’s territory.

The NBA has had many great moments on Christmas. Who remembers former Spurs’ player Roger Mason Jr.’s buzzer-beater against the Suns on Dec 25th, 2008, giving the Spurs the win, 91-90? And unless you are a true sports freak who watches all sports on separate television sets, most families will now have to make a decision whether to watch the NBA or the NFL.

The NBA has also followed the unspoken rule to not play any games on Thanksgiving Day, in an attempt to not impede on all of the NFL games slated for that holiday. Last year, there were 13 NBA games played the day before Thanksgiving, and no games played on that day. The NBA hasn’t had any games on Thanksgiving since around 2005, to make space for the NFL on this holiday in addition to combat lackluster ratings. This was really passive to the unspoken rule in the past, and it will be interesting to see how the NBA will maneuver the holidays in the future. Perhaps they will play a game or two on Thanksgiving day as well, as a slight to the NFL for breaking the unspoken rule of making room for the NBA on Dec. 25th. It is too early to tell how they will move, but it will be interesting to see how this upcoming year pans out.

The question now remains, why did the NFL make this decision to host a triple-header and step into the NBA’s Christmas territory? This could be partially due to the fact that the Cleveland Browns faced off against the Green Bay Packers last year on December 25th, where the NFL - in association with FOX and the NFL Network- raked in 28.59 million viewers, making it the most-watched Christmas sporting event in the last 20 years.

Looking at it from a ratings perspective, it seems to be a no-brainer as to why the big wigs of the NFL made a decision to host a triple-header on December 25th. It was announced in March that the NFL recently inked a new broadcasting deal with NBC, CBS, FOX, ESPN, and Amazon collectively worth over $100 billion dollars for the next 11 years. This media agreement goes into effect for the upcoming season, and with groundbreaking deals such as the one mentioned, big ratings need to be a top priority for the league in order to renegotiate their deal once the 11-year contract is up.

The NFL makes most of their bread and butter with a combination of TV viewership, ticket sales, and corporate sponsorships. Christmas day is the perfect day to milk the monetary cash cow. Most Americans are off of work on Christmas day, celebrating and relaxing with their families, and some families may even create new traditions by going to their favorite teams’ football game. With all of these reasons to host games on this Holiday, it is definitely not a surprise this move was announced.

How does this affect the NBA? Well, to be quite frank, this announcement from the NFL could potentially be a ratings massacre. It will definitely be an uphill battle to combat low viewership. Last year, the NBA averaged 4.1 million views on Christmas day- making this the lowest number of viewership since the NBA expanded to a five-game spread in 2008.

The low ratings could be partially due to the fact that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were isolated due to Covid-19 and Anthony Davis was out with an injury during the Nets/Lakers game, but still, those numbers are nothing to brag about. And, as mentioned before, the NFL boasted the highest Christmas ratings in the past 20 years in 2021 when the Browns played the Packers on the same exact day. A triple-header could potentially hurt the NBA and bring them even lower ratings, since the NFL time slots for their games are rumored to be set near 1PM, 4PM, and 8PM EST.

The NBA also does strategic marketing to draw special attention specifically to their Christmas day 5-game lineup. NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri, told Adweek on twitch last July that “Christmas Day is definitely a big moment for us, and we like to drive holistic campaigns that meet fans where they are.” With the NFL now utilizing the same marketing tactics to draw in viewership, the NBA’s marketing team will have to ramp up their promotions in order to compete.

In the end, it will be interesting to see how everything pans out. Clearly, the unspoken rule means zero to the NFL, and they are strictly all about business. Yes, it is a courtesy that both leagues never stepped into each other’s holiday territories, but at the end of the day, sports is a billion-dollar business. Unless the NBA somehow negotiates a deal with the NFL in regards to broadcasting dates during the holidays, we can now expect for the NFL to break these unspoken rules to please corporate partnerships and shareholders.