NBA Cashes In on Its Christmas Spotlight

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

With five games stretched out over more than 12 hours on television today, all that's missing from the NBA's Christmas takeover is a parade with giant team-mascot balloons and a holiday album with new favorites like "LeBron, the Red-Nosed Cavalier," "Kobe the Snowman," and "Dwight Christmas."

The NBA Finals rematch between the defending champion Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers is the most highly anticipated game on the holiday slate, which starts at noon and likely won't end until about 1 a.m. New Orleans and Orlando get things started on ESPN, then ABC hosts a double-header, with San Antonio at Phoenix, followed by the Celtics visiting the Lakers. TNT will close out the night with a playoff rematch between Cleveland and Washington, followed by Dallas at Portland.

The five games on Dec. 25 are the most since 1979, when there also were five games. This is the busiest day ever for televised regular season games. Last year, there were only three games televised on Christmas, but with the holiday landing on a Thursday, when TNT has exclusive rights to show its weekly doubleheader, the league and its television partners decided to take advantage of the day, which accounts for one-fourth of its regular season national television audience.

"The NBA has historically owned Christmas and we felt this really gives the fans what they like to see -- and that's basketball," said Danny Meiseles, the NBA's senior vice president for production, programming and broadcasting, and executive producer of NBA Entertainment. "We wanted to maximize as much as we could."

Television is the driving force behind this year's Christmas hoops bonanza. League officials anticipate increased television ratings this season, with many fans unable to afford tickets to games during the economic downturn.

The average attendance for the first 408 regular season games is slightly better than it was at this time last season (17,081 this year, compared with 16,944 in 2007-08). With just a third of the season complete, it's too early to project how much the economic crisis will affect overall revenue, but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said last week that NBA owners are bracing for a decrease.

Such a decrease could force a reduction of the salary cap, which has declined only once in its 25-year history. "I don't think there is any question the cap is going to go down next year," Cuban said. "There is a good chance it'll go down the year after that."

While Christmas day represents only about 2 percent of the league's nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN and TNT, it serves as the tip-off for basketball on network television and provides the bulk of the season viewing audience, Meiseles said. From 2002 to 2007, an average of 21 million viewers watched games on Christmas.

The NBA has been televising games on Christmas since 1983, when CBS broadcast New Jersey against New York and ESPN showed the Los Angeles Lakers against Portland. The league hasn't established a tradition like the NFL's, with Dallas and Detroit hosting the annual Thanksgiving games, but the NBA champion is usually showcased on Christmas. (Last year, though, defending champion San Antonio got the day off.)

The league is also looking to build on its relative success last season, when ratings were up 9 percent for the regular season and 22 percent for the playoffs on all three networks. The Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup created a boon for the league, with ratings increasing by more than 50 percent. The six games were also the highest-rated television programs last June.

"The country has an appetite for Lakers versus Boston. We thought it was the marquee game to hype the fans up," Meiseles said.

The two most storied franchises in NBA history with 31 combined championships, the Celtics and the Lakers have not met on Christmas since 1970, when the Lakers beat Boston, 123-113. This will be the Lakers' 35th game on Christmas.

"I loved it, and it didn't matter if we were on the road or not. Just give me the basketball in my hand, and everybody watching me? Oh, man," former Lakers star and ESPN/ABC analyst Magic Johnson said in a conference call to promote the games. "It's fantastic. It's the best time because there's only a couple of teams playing."

Plus a few more this season.

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