Like divorced parents engaged in the holiday-season custody shuffle, the NBA will have to get used to the idea of sharing Christmas Day with the NFL. And while pro football’s first-ever Yuletide triple-header made short work of the traditional five-game NBA feast, the overlapping TV deliveries suggest that there’s still room under the tree for both leagues.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the NFL on Sunday cruised to an easy victory over the NBA, as its three-game set averaged 21.9 million viewers, eclipsing the NBA’s 4.34 million tally. Fox beat all comers with its coverage of Packers-Dolphins in the 1 p.m. ET window, averaging 25.9 million viewers, thanks in large part to a season-saving effort by Green Bay’s defense. While the Christmas turnout was nowhere near the 42.1 million viewers who tuned in for Fox’s Thanksgiving Day showcase, Sunday’s broadcast marks the eighth most-watched game of the current NFL season.
The Packers’ 26-20 victory overlapped with ABC/ESPN’s presentation of the Sixers-Knicks holiday opener (3.95 million viewers) and the Lakers-Mavs follow-up (4.38 million). While Aaron Rodgers & Co. put up their usual inflated deliveries, the competition in the early window didn’t seem to have an outsized impact on the first two NBA games, which were up 6% versus last Christmas, when Hawks-Knicks and Celtics-Bucks ran unopposed.
The NFL’s leadoff game proved to be the most popular, as ratings for the subsequent late-afternoon and primetime windows were commensurate with the level of play. On CBS/Nickelodeon, the Rams’ 51-14 dismantling of the hapless Broncos averaged 22.6 million viewers—the kid-friendly simulcast contributed 906,000 young fans—opposite Disney’s Bucks-Celtics game (6.08 million), while NBC’s primetime broadcast (Bucs-Cardinals) scared up 17.2 million viewers during the Grizzlies-Warriors outing (4.75 million) and the early stages of Suns-Nuggets (2.52 million).
If the late NFC skirmish was like finding coal in your Christmas stocking—before leading Tampa Bay to a 19-16 overtime win, there were times during this bleak exhibition when Tom Brady looked more bored and discouraged than the viewers at home—the playoff implications probably helped keep NBC’s numbers respectable. On the whole, the NFL’s Christmas juggernaut looked a lot more promising when the league’s TV schedule was unveiled last May; as the holiday games kicked off, only Miami owned a winning record (8-6), while no fewer than three teams had amassed a 4-10 record.
That the NBA was still able to carve out a little ratings growth in the face of the NFL’s ratings-devouring onslaught is largely a function of Disney’s decision to offer all five Christmas games across its broadcast and cable flagships. Since 2018, the company had scheduled two ABC exclusives, plus two games on ESPN and one recurring LeBron James showcase that was carried by both networks. Speaking of James, Sunday’s roster marked the first time in over a decade that he did not appear in the most-watched Christmas window; this year, the honors went to the two best teams in the league (Bucks-Celtics).
While fans would have been happy to return much of the NFL’s Christmas bounty—anyone looking to bring Russell Wilson back to the mall is going to need that gift receipt—the NBA also fielded a less-than-ideal holiday roster. The Celtics’ 139-118 victory reinforced the notion that they are the most dangerous lineup in basketball, but the NBA’s two biggest TV draws limped into the festivities with losing records—and without their biggest stars. (With Steph Curry sidelined by injury, the Warriors on Sunday morning were 15-18, while the LeBron-free Lakers had cobbled together an underwhelming 13-19 record.)
As it happens, Curry and James’ head-to-head battles have accounted for the NBA’s highest holiday ratings during the last 10 years. Tops among these was the 2015 Cavs-Warriors banger, which averaged 11.2 million viewers on ABC/ESPN. The following season saw the two teams draw an audience of 10.1 million viewers, while the 2018 Lakers-Warriors matchup averaged 10.2 million.
For advertisers, there is plenty of room on the Christmas Day slate for both leagues, and the proof is in the demo comparisons. The NFL’s reach is Santa-esque, but the NBA continues to draw a younger audience. Some 42% of the league’s holiday impressions came courtesy of adults 18-49, whereas the under-50 set accounted for 33% of the NFL crowd. For marketers looking to shift athletic gear and tech gizmos, the NBA audience makes for a more streamlined, and far cheaper, target.
Holiday hubbub aside, the real monster rating arrived on Christmas Eve, as Fox’s national afternoon window (Eagles-Cowboys) delivered 27.8 million viewers on what is normally an iffy day for TV. Dallas’ 40-34 win over its NFC East rivals now stands as the fourth most-watched NFL broadcast of the 2022 season, trailing only the two daytime Thanksgiving broadcasts and the Week 10 Cowboys-Packers showdown on Fox.
Season-to-date, Fox owns six of the NFL’s top 10 most-watched broadcasts, while CBS can lay claim to the other four. Through Week 16, 18 of the league’s 20 biggest draws have aired outside the primetime window.