Just weeks after indicating that the start of the 2020-21 NBA season in all likelihood would be pushed to next year, Commissioner Adam Silver is now looking to get the ball rolling much sooner than that, eying a Dec. 22 tipoff that would preserve the league’s marquee Christmas games. While the accelerated start plan would have to be ratified by the players’ union, keeping the tradition alive would be a huge boon for broadcasters ABC and ESPN, as well as the millions of fans who’ve made Yuletide basketball an indispensable part of their holiday revels.
For many Americans, that five-game NBA slate has become as synonymous with Christmas as the NFL is with Thanksgiving, and that festive connection is particularly evident upon examination of the TV ratings.
According to Nielsen data, last year’s Christmas games accounted for three of the league’s 10 biggest TV audiences, a list that includes the half-dozen NBA Finals broadcasts on ABC. The showcase battle between Los Angeles’ Clippers and Lakers averaged 8.76 million viewers and a 4.6 household rating in primetime, making it the second most-watched, highest-rated game behind only Game 5 of the championship series (8.89 million/4.8).
With all those eyeballs comes a good deal of marketing loot. The ad tracker iSpot.tv estimates that ABC/ESPN raked in some $24.2 million over the course of their most recent Christmas marathon, during which the networks delivered 2.56 billion commercial impressions. As has been the case for the last eleven years running, the top draw in 2019 featured LeBron James, who established himself as the top dog of Dec. 25 shortly after the Shaq-Kobe feud made Xmas hoops compulsory viewing in 2004 and 2005.
Given the amount of ad dollars in play, the Disney networks are understandably pleased by the prospect of keeping the ritual in place despite the mounting complications posed by the coronavirus. (One insider this weekend was caught off guard by the proposed start date, saying that the internal expectation was for sales to sit out Christmas and plan instead for a launch on or near Martin Luther King Day.)
Of course, as this is 2020, complications all but surely will arise before ABC/Disney can start peddling the holiday inventory. In looking to squeeze the coming season down to a 72-game set, the NBA would reduce each team’s home games by five. In light of the hundreds of millions of dollars lost to the pandemic, a subsequent $6 million to $10 million haircut on gate receipts per team probably isn’t going to make the owners lose any sleep. (How fan attendance shakes out in 2020-21 is anyone’s guess, but the ticket and merchandise sales that make up 40% of the league’s overall revenue aren’t going back to “normal” any time soon.)
Ten fewer regular-season games also means that the players will have to make additional sacrifices, a matter that may be clarified somewhat by the end of the month. The collective bargaining agreement is not a tremendously flexible document, but thus far both sides have managed to find a middle ground on modifications that have allowed for provisional changes to the extant financial structure.
Silver addressed the prospect of trimming the NBA calendar in the before-time of 2019. Speaking with Bill Simmons at the spring MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the commish answered a hypothetical question about a 70-game season by asking an equally hypothetical player, “How do you feel about taking a 20% pay cut?” Silver went on to say that there were a number of ways to get to a 70-game season without taking a bite out of player salaries; among these include the introduction of a mid-season single-elimination tournament.
Silver made his remarks in a time when he had the luxury to indulge in abstraction. If the players’ union decides to go along with the Dec. 22 start date, only 72 days will have elapsed between the final game of the 2019-20 season and the opening salvo of 2020-21. In that same timeframe, free agency will start up and a salary cap will be hashed out. The attendance issue will be addressed, and testing protocols established. After the longest NBA season on the books, everything will start up all over again in a claustrophobically narrow window. Taking a minute to catch one’s breath? Not in this pandemic.
As for ABC/ESPN, brokering deals for the NBA’s Christmas slate may be complicated by one very specific marketplace disruption. Film studios for years have been the biggest backers of the reindeer games, which serve as a reliable reach vehicle for the young spendthrifts who buy tickets for all the holiday blockbusters. Last year, movie trailers accounted for $3.73 million in spend across the five games, or 15% of Disney’s total ad sales haul. The studios were especially keen on advertising in the all-L.A. Clippers-Lakers game; whether a matter of hometown pride or the simple desire to reach as many would-be moviegoers as possible, studios accounted for three of the top 10 in-game advertisers, with Universal and the mini-major STX Entertainment finishing back-to-back at No. 1 and No. 2.
With movie theaters still shuttered in major markets like New York and a dearth of new releases in the wings—normally teeming with escapist fare like the Star Wars films and late-arriving Oscar bait, December’s film schedule is about as barren as the Manhattan Will Smith prowls in I Am Legend—Disney’s top sales category is effectively benched until further notice. Luckily, the categories that spent their way through the early stages of the pandemic tend to find the NBA holiday games quite attractive; wireless and insurance could help mitigate some of the studio losses, along with fast-food outlets and auto brands.
Because booze fixes everything, don’t be surprised if a tsunami of hooch ads helps keep Disney’s ad sales afloat this Christmas. When beer and spirits dollars are poured into the same marketing vessel, the resulting potion is remarkably potent. Last year, beer and liquor brands accounted for $2.37 million in Christmas NBA spend, as Heineken, Corona, Grey Goose, Budweiser and Hennessy really poured it on for ABC/ESPN. The sheer volume of brown liquors that stepped up for the Xmas games is staggering; along with the aforementioned cognac, the NBA commercial breaks were awash with spots for Jameson, Crown Royal and Conor McGregor’s Proper No. Twelve.
As much as Disney will miss all that movie money, a hearty slug of booze bucks may help take some of the sting out.