So says the Washington Post:
For generations, major professional leagues could only envy the National Football League’s marriage with Thanksgiving, the sport synonymous with the holiday. Nearly a decade ago, the National Basketball Association increased its Christmas slate to five games spread throughout the day — including the Sixers-Knicks at noon today — a showcase for its best teams and glitziest stars, making a push toward Dec. 25 becoming its equivalent to the NFL’s Thanksgiving.
As the football league battles sagging viewership amid a host of on- and off-field issues, the NBA’s surging global popularity and star-studded Christmas lineup could lead to a turning point in that mission.
“You want something to attach yourself to during the holidays. Football is that for us on Thanksgiving, and now basketball is the thing on Christmas,” said Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant, whose team headlines the day in a marquee NBA Finals rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers (3 p.m. Eastern time, ABC).
Catching the NFL in the ratings someday soon is still a massive long shot, but the NBA has established itself as the clear No. 2 in the American sporting landscape. Its current national television deal pays the sport $2.66 billion annually, more than a billion dollars more than that of Major League Baseball ($1.55 billion). And its Christmas strategy — the day is its biggest ratings performer of the regular season — is at least helping to threaten to close the gap on the leader, the NFL, which last year drew twice as many fans to its highest-rated Christmas Day game than the NBA’s top-rated game.
“From the start, the NFL was building on a tradition,” said Richard Crepeau, a retired history professor from the University of Central Florida who specializes in American sport history. “Thanksgiving games and football go way back into the very, very early years of football, back into the late 19th century.
“What the NBA is trying to do, they don’t have quite the sort of national pull of an audience behind them. The NFL is the American obsession. The NBA is not. It’s the obsession of some of us, but not on the scale of the NFL. To me, that’s also a very, very big difference.”
The NBA officially designated Christmas the most important day of its regular season in 2008, when, at the urging of ESPN, its Christmas Day lineup expanded to five games instead of one to three. Nine seasons later, the NBA enters Monday with a tail wind that’s the envy of the sports world, and Commissioner Adam Silver said players have embraced the prominence the holiday stage offers.
“As much as many of them would like to be home with their families on Christmas, they recognize they’re in the entertainment industry,” Silver said. “I think they’ve come to see it as an imprimatur of being a marquee attraction.”