Dear Sports Fan,
What’s up with the NFL football game on Christmas Eve and the five freaking NBA basketball games on Christmas Day? Are sports trying to ruin Christmas?
Sports leagues aren’t trying to ruin Christmas, but they are trying to profit off of them. At least, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is. There’s a simpler reason for why the National Football League (NFL) has a game on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve is a Thursday this year, the NFL decided years ago to have games on Thursdays, and they’re not going to change their plans for anything, not even Christmas. The NFL’s general attitude seems to be that they are bigger than any other institution in the world, why would they worry about Christmas? As for the NBA, it’s worth a closer look at why they want to profit off of Christmas, what the model of success is, and how should we feel about it.
One of the biggest questions for most sports leagues is how to create or maintain interest during their long regular seasons. Each NBA team plays 82 games during the season; the National Hockey League (NHL) plays the same number. Major League Baseball (MLB) plays almost twice that number, a whopping 162! Football is too dangerous to play that much or that often. College football teams play from 10 to 12 games during their regular season and the NFL plays only 16. As a result, football doesn’t need to try quite as hard to sustain interest during their season. The other sports are not so lucky. Even the most die-hard fan feels a little lull of interest during the long middle of the regular season. So, leagues are always on the lookout for ways to create intrigue and interest during their season.
Ironically, the league that has been most successful at creating a spike of interest int he middle of their season has been the league that needs it the least, the NFL. As we’ve covered in great length on this site, the NFL owns Thanksgiving. Since the 1950s, when the Detroit Lions became the most common host team for Thanksgiving games, and certainly since 1970 when the Dallas Cowboys joined them and the two teams basically monopolized all of the Thanksgiving hosting, NFL football has become part and parcel of how many Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. In the past seven years, the NHL has been wildly successful in replicating the NFL’s approach on New Year’s Day with its visually breathtaking outdoor Winter Classic Games. Hockey is a less popular sport, but “owning a holiday” has still proven to be a strong tactic. The Winter Classic games are watched by between three and five million people each year — around ten times more than other regular season hockey games, even the nationally televised ones.
Interest in unique sporting events can, at times, approach levels of interest that make them seem like holidays. The first two days of the men’s college basketball tournament, called March Madness, feel like a holiday, observed by office workers everywhere who develop fake colds or schedule elective surgery so they can watch, or just stream the games onto their work computers, slowing down the network for everyone. The NBA has already had some success with this, their All-Star Weekend is only half-jokingly called “Black Thanksgiving.” Still greater success, they hope, will be found by owning a real holiday rather than creating one of their own. That’s why, each Christmas, the NBA stacks as many games between their best and biggest teams as possible. This year, it’s five games in a row and the highlight is the first game between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers since they played in the finals last spring.
Now we get to the heart of your question — is the NBA right to do this? Does having so many (and so high-profile) basketball games televised on Christmas ruin the holiday? It doesn’t. Sure, it may ruin the holiday for players, coaches, and their families, but that’s a small segment of the population and one (since they are mostly very well compensated,) that most people don’t feel a ton of sympathy for. Aside from doctors, nurses, midwives, police, EMTs, fire fighters, and other essential workers, most of us have off on Christmas and if we don’t want our family celebrations sullied by sports on TV, we can either keep the TV off or change the channel.
Another segment of people who work on Christmas are people who work at Chinese restaurants and movie theaters too. Those are both traditional Christmas activities for people (stereotypically Jews.) That brings us to one point in favor of the NBA having games on Christmas: not everyone celebrates Christmas, and the NBA has a long history of inclusion. Back in the 1930s and 40s, professional basketball was mostly a Jewish endeavor. Even in the modern era of the NBA, three of the top ten scorers (Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neill, and the #1 scorer of all time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) of all time have been Muslim. Of all the big American sports leagues, the NBA has the most international fan base. This includes a big contingent in China, a country with around a billion non-Christians.
For people who don’t celebrate Christmas and live in a predominantly celebrating country, like the United States, the holiday can be alienating. Having a football game to watch on Christmas Eve and more than 12 hours of basketball to watch on Christmas Day is a comforting thought. If you celebrate and the games get in your way, just remember — these teams will play roughly fifty times again this season before the playoffs start. There’s really no need to give too much attention to any one game in December, no matter what the NBA wants us to do.
Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays, however you celebrate,