The sheer joy of the NBA on Christmas Day can’t come soon enough. Injuries to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Zion Williamson and other stars have sidelined some of the league’s top box-office draws, throwing a wet blanket on ratings and challenging audiences to find their bearings in the early going.
The dip in viewership has stirred up a sticky “What’s wrong with the NBA?” debate among those inside and outside the sport. The NBA added to the conversation with a reported schedule proposal that would include a midseason tournament, a play-in for the playoffs, a reseeding of the four conference finalists and a reduced number of overall games.
Talking about reform can be healthy, especially when framed as a way of making the on-court product better. But I have an idea to make the NBA even more compelling: Make Christmas Day the NBA’s Opening Day. Like, actually start the season on December 25.
Christmas Day in the NBA is incredible. For many across the world, the NBA has become as synonymous with the holiday as Santa Claus and candy canes. The most compelling stars and teams are matched up on network television for the first time all year, announcing to the larger audience that the NBA season has officially arrived.
But of course, the NBA arrives much earlier than Christmas Day. The regular season starts two months before that, in mid-October.
It’s hard to quantify how much juice the NBA loses by officially starting in October and unofficially starting on Christmas Day. It feels like millions of fans are missing out on the excitement and surprise of finding out about Luka Doncic, the L.A. partnerships and the other revelations of the early season.
It’s a little like looking under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning only to find that the presents have already been unwrapped. You still get the presents, but isn’t the surprise half the fun?
When I go to holiday parties this time of year and tell people what I do for a living, it’s usually met with “Oh, cool! I love the NBA … but I’ll start paying attention to it on Christmas” remark that feels more like a half-hearted apology than anything.
It’s a bummer. The more this exchange happens, I ask myself: Why does the NBA start its season in October? For other sports, the answer to that question comes down to a very real and obvious thing: the weather. The NBA doesn’t have this problem. Unlike the NFL, MLB, tennis or the PGA Tour, the NBA is exclusively played indoors, making it seasonally agnostic.
Starting the NBA season in October is therefore a choice. And I’m not sure it’s the best one.
There’s a reason why the NBA keeps all of its national broadcasts on cable networks until Dec. 25. The NFL hogs the national sports conscious for the entirety of the fall season. On top of that, the MLB playoffs are in full swing. The NBA regular season tipped off on October 22 this year, the same night as Game 1 of the World Series. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, Astros-Nationals drew 12 million viewers as compared to the 3 million who watched Lakers-Clippers. And that was the NBA’s juiciest matchup, by far.
Starting the NBA season on Christmas Day would sidestep the autumnal crush. Even more, a Dec. 25 launch would capitalize on the undeniable allure of a grand opening event. Look no further than the lockout-shortened year of 2011, when the NBA saw its highest average Christmas Day ratings since it expanded to a five-game slate in 2008.
At the time, conventional wisdom suggested that casual NBA fans had largely checked out after a very ugly and painful labor dispute. Instead, the NBA drew monster ratings on Christmas Day, averaging 6.3 million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch tracking, which is still the highest mark of the last 11 years.
Some of that jump can be explained by an absolutely loaded Christmas Day menu, filled with compelling stories in every marquee market. Reigning MVP Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls faced off against the Los Angeles Lakers, while LeBron James’ Heatles watched the Dallas Mavericks receive their championship rings in an NBA Finals rematch. There was also the Lob City Clippers, an actually good New York Knicks team and a plucky Thunder squad featuring a young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
“A Christmas Day start could have its benefits, mainly cutting out those lower-rated early months of the season,” Jon Lewis, the sports ratings guru behind Sports Media Watch, told NBC Sports.
More important to this discussion, the success of the 2011 Christmas Day opener carried over through the season. According to Lewis, 2011-12 was a record-setting year for ABC, TNT and NBATV, despite a crunched 66-game schedule that saw teams play games on three consecutive days.
Of course, a Christmas start would inevitably mean a later finish to the season, and Lewis warns that the deeper the season goes into the summer, the tougher it will be to draw fans’ interest. This is where we have to follow the NBA’s lead and agree that the 82-game schedule isn’t ideal anymore. In its latest proposal to teams, the NBA reportedly suggested reducing the season to 78 games in order to add a 30-team midseason tournament.
However, it’s my belief that the NBA should go further and lean into the “less is more” model that has buoyed the NFL’s bottom line. In 2017, Rockets GM Daryl Morey wasn’t sold that 82 games was the optimal number from a business sense, telling me, “the idea that the NFL would make more money with 82 games is absurd. A shorter schedule increases the importance of each game, which drives TV ratings, which drives the lion's share of money for most top pro leagues."
To that end, it’s hard to see how a modest reduction from 82 games to 78 games would make regular-season games matter more from a fan’s perspective. It also remains to be seen whether a brand-new, in-season tournament would do enough to drive up the interest to make up for the missing four games (per team) of revenue.
So how many games is enough to make the regular season matter? To me, a 66-game schedule -- a more spaced-out 2011-12 season -- that runs from Christmas to July would hit the sweet spot, making regular-season games more meaningful and drive up advertising premiums on a per-game basis. Here’s a general framework of my proposed season:
Season opener: Dec. 25
Trade deadline: Early April
Playoffs start: Early June
NBA Finals: Late July
NBA draft: Early August
Free agency: Mid-August
Vegas Summer League: Early September
With fewer games in its inventory, local team revenue as a whole may take a hit in the short term, but long-term gains could follow with the elimination of the back-to-back scourge (and all the load management talk that stains the conversation), leading to a healthier and more exciting product.
It also makes sense to institute a gradual multi-year shaving of games to ease stakeholders’ concerns. The league could start with 78 games in 2021-22, then move to 72 games in 2022-23 and 66 games in 2023-24 with a Christmas Day start.
There are other benefits from the Christmas Day bump that goes beyond avoiding the NFL and MLB overlap. Shifting the season later would keep the All-Star game in the springtime (hint: not freezing) and nudge the increasingly-buzzy Vegas Summer League into a time when stepping outside doesn’t feel like the heat of a thousand suns. There’s a reason why the NFL is doing the Super Bowl in Miami this February. It’s about making these signature events as attractive as possible for sponsors, investors and stakeholders.
This drastic change to the schedule doesn’t come without risk. Shifting the season would undoubtedly be met with resistance from those who like things just the way they are (a stance one NBA executive already publicly mocked). Historically, the league has tried to avoid playing games in July, when viewership tends to drop during summer vacation, but, with a host of international superstars spread across the league, the NBA Finals might be so compelling it could earn “summer-proof” status. Pushing the season back might also discourage some players from participating in the Summer Olympics, although this would likely only apply to the Finals teams (the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris begin on July 28). That said, the NBA is the only major American sports league that currently allows its top professional players to play in the Olympic games with no regular season conflicts.
But if the NBA is looking for ways to optimize the schedule and get more eyeballs on the sport, prioritizing a Christmas Day start feels like an exciting strategy worthy of consideration. A new audience is just tuning in when much of the season has already been decided. By now we know the MVP candidates. We largely know which teams are good and which teams aren’t. In 2017, I found that 80 percent of the variability in the final standings can be explained purely by the standings halfway through the season. In other words, NBA standings don’t change much after a couple months. This doesn’t happen in other sports.
The NBA has long been praised for its forward thinking. With the league looking for ways to optimize the game and its business model, it’s time to change the way it looks at the schedule. Let’s start the season on Christmas Day and unwrap the presents together.