Playing games on Christmas Day has long been an NBA tradition. The annual holiday matchups have been a league staple schedule since 1947, its second year of existence. While it is safe to assume the NBA was not thinking about the prospect of international growth back then, Matt Brabants (the NBA’s SVP and head of international content partnerships) said the Dec. 25 games have become a cornerstone of the league’s efforts to popularize the game abroad. As he explained, Christmas Day is the only date during the NBA season when multiple games air in or around primetime across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. From a fan development perspective, he added, “This is a really big deal for us globally.”
JWS’ Take: The NBA has used Christmas Day as “a big pillar of [its] international outreach” efforts for decades, Brabants said. In fact, the longtime executive said he “couldn’t remember a time when [the league wasn’t using the holiday] as a real mechanism to broaden [its] reach.”
But the showcase event took on added significance abroad when it expanded to five games in 2008 (the league played anywhere between one and three on Christmas in the half-decade prior). In 2018-19, the last “normal” season, Christmas Day was the most watched day of the NBA regular season in many international markets, including Italy, France, Brazil and Canada.
There are several reasons why more international fans are watching on Christmas. For starters, the league has less competition for their attention—almost nothing is open, and few sports leagues are in action. By “starting games at noon Eastern and running [them] throughout the entire day, [the league has a] real opportunity to capture people while they’re at home with their families,” Brabants said.
Playing five consecutive games throughout the day also enables the NBA to cater to fans across a multitude of time zones. “One of the largest hurdles [the NBA has] in markets like Europe, the Middle East and Africa is time zone,” Brabants said. Typically, fans in those regions (collectively referred to as EMEA) need to forgo sleep to watch league games live. “While the avid fan will stay up on a random weeknight to watch a game that transmits at 2:30 or 3 in the morning, local time, most people aren’t able to do that for obvious reasons,” he noted.
That’s not the case on Christmas. Three of the games will air in primetime in EMEA, which will allow fans and families of players from those regions to watch at a more convenient time.
The NBA’s success in reaching fans in those transatlantic locales on Christmas Day inspired the creation of the league’s “primetime initiative” in 2014 (a collective of regularly scheduled Saturday and Sunday games, played during the afternoon EST, that are widely distributed across Europe). “We knew through the experience [of playing] afternoon games on Christmas Day that there was a real opportunity,” Brabants said. “If we just worked on the schedule [to regularly air games in primetime abroad], we could seize [that demand] throughout the course of the season.”
The NBA has done so. According to the league, TV ratings for Sunday games have risen more than 20% in Europe over the last seven years. And in 2019-20 (48 games), ratings across EMEA rose 23% YoY.
The league believes its primetime initiative viewership rose in part because scheduling consistency allowed for appointment viewing, creating a tradition that crosses borders. “People have become accustomed to seeing the NBA on Christmas Day, which is an incredible advantage in terms of awareness.… People know where to find the [games] and that [they are] going to be on” in a convenient time slot.
Having five consecutive games also enables the league to “carry that awareness throughout the day,” Brabants said, noting that international broadcast and digital partners generally carry the bulk of the day’s slate.
Of course, the league faces challenges that vary market by market. “It is less of an issue in a market like Spain, where we have a very strong foundation and history of basketball avidity and NBA avidity, [than] in a market like India, where we are in the earlier stages of building a fan base,” Brabants said. Back in early December, the league inked a multi-year broadcast pact with Viacom 18 to deliver games to fans in India.
Several of the league’s biggest international stars are expected to be in action this year on Christmas Day—including Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Rudy Gobert (France) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia). Brabants said the fact that 36 international players are scheduled to play on Christmas would likely be an “amplifying factor” on viewership in many of those countries. Of course, it is not clear if/how the number of players sidelined due to COVID-19 protocols might affect interest in the games.