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How the NBA Stole Christmas

For generations, Christmas Day has been the time when families gather to sing carols, exchange gifts, and share meals around the holiday table. Thanks to the National Basketball Association, millions of Americans have embraced another yuletide tradition: watching hoops. For the sixth straight year, the league has scheduled five games to be broadcast nationally on Dec. 25, which has become professional basketball’s antidote for too much family, turkey, or both.

Although the NBA regular season begins in late October, Walt Disney’s (DIS) ABC television network—which pays $485 million per year for 90 regular-season NBA games and playoff rights it shares with sister cable network ESPN—saves its first national broadcasts for Christmas Day. And the league makes sure to provide the network with plum matchups. The 2013 slate features last season’s champion (the Miami Heat) and runner-up (the San Antonio Spurs), four teams from the top two markets (the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers), plus some championship contenders (the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Golden State Warriors.)

On the courts will be just about every NBA household name: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant , Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and others. “All of these games have some drama to them,” says Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media. “They are going to appeal to casual fans as well as the die-hards.”

The NBA’s Christmas Day play is simple: fill a wide-open hole in the calendar with a showcase product. There is almost no competition for the holiday’s massive, idle audience. Even when Christmas falls on a Sunday, the National Football League moves most of its games to other days in the week. College football takes a break as well, with bowl games the night before and the day after, but not on Dec. 25. “When we first initiated it …  there was no professional football on Christmas Day,” says Neal Pilson, who was president of CBS Sports when that network made the nationally broadcast Christmas game a regular fixture in 1983. “It’s a great day to gather the family, a great day for group viewing.”

A Christmas Day matchup on ABC is usually the most watched game of the NBA regular season. Three years ago the league scored big when 13 million viewers, according to Nielsen (NLSN) numbers compiled by Adgate, pushed back from the table to watch the Heat play the Lakers. Miami had signed James that summer, and the Lakers were reigning champions. That marked the best-rated regular-season game since Christmas 2004, when another Heat-Lakers matchup, featuring Shaquille O’Neal’s return to Los Angeles, drew 13.2 million. To top that, the NBA would have to bring back Michael Jordan, whose return from retirement against the Indiana Pacers in March 1995 grabbed an all-time regular-season high of 35 million viewers. Last year’s top Christmas game, the Heat vs. the Thunder, drew 9.6 million.

Last year, ABC’s rival networks mostly didn’t bother to counter the NBA marathon and left local affiliates to fill the hours. CBS (CBS) ran a special episode of its daytime chat show The Talk, drawing only about 1.6 million viewers. The NBA games that day averaged 5.4 million.

To create this bounty for the league, its advertisers, and fans means players, coaches, and stadium staff have to spend their Christmas holiday working. Over the years, a few have complained. “I don’t think anybody should play on Christmas Day,” Phil Jackson, then coach of the Lakers, told reporters in 2010. Jackson, who was in his final year as a coach, had been punished for his success by having to play 18 Christmas Day games in his 20 seasons. “It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean anything to them anymore,” he said of the league.

Pilson says the NBA was aware of such concerns as it expanded its Christmas schedule over the past three decades, but it felt that the huge exposure “justified the admitted inconvenience.” The NBA declined to comment. “It’s what we do in the sports business,” Pilson says. “We serve the audience. Once we’ve found out what they like, we keep giving it to them.”

The bottom line: ABC will air 12 hours of basketball on Christmas, when it usually gets its highest regular-season ratings.

Boudway is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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