For generations, major professional leagues could only envy the National Football League's marriage with Thanksgiving, the sport synonymous with the holiday. Nearly a decade ago, the National Basketball Association increased its Christmas slate to five games spread throughout the day, a showcase for its best teams and glitziest stars, making a push toward Dec. 25 becoming its equivalent to the NFL's Thanksgiving.
As the football league battles sagging viewership amid a host of on- and off-field issues, the NBA's surging global popularity and star-studded Christmas lineup could lead to a turning point in that mission.
"You want something to attach yourself to during the holidays. Football is that for us on Thanksgiving, and now basketball is the thing on Christmas," said Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant, whose team headlines the day in a marquee NBA Finals rematch against the Cleveland Cavaliers (3 p.m. Eastern time, ABC).
Catching the NFL in the ratings someday soon is a massive long shot, but the NBA has established itself as the clear No. 2 in the American sporting landscape. Its current national television deal pays the sport $2.66 billion annually, more than a billion more than that of Major League Baseball ($1.55 billion). And its Christmas strategy — the day is its biggest ratings performer of the regular season — is at least helping to threaten to close the gap on the leader, the NFL, which last year drew twice as many fans to its highest-rated Christmas Day game than the NBA's top-rated game.
"From the start, the NFL was building on a tradition," said Richard Crepeau, a retired history professor from the University of Central Florida who specializes in American sports history. "Thanksgiving games and football go way back into the very, very early years of football, back into the late 19th century.
"What the NBA is trying to do, they don't have quite the sort of national pull of an audience behind them. The NFL is the American obsession. The NBA is not. It's the obsession of some of us but not on the scale of the NFL. To me, that's also a very, very big difference."
The NBA officially designated Christmas the most important day of its regular season in 2008, when, at the urging of ESPN, its Christmas Day lineup expanded to five games instead of one to three. Nine seasons later, Commissioner Adam Silver said players have embraced the prominence the holiday stage offers.
"As much as many of them would like to be home with their families on Christmas, they recognize they're in the entertainment industry," Silver said. "I think they've come to see it as an imprimatur of being a marquee attraction."
It's just business as usual, Durant said.
"Now it just feels like part of the routine for me as a player," he said. "I know I'm going to have to get ready for a game, and then I'm going to come home and open presents with my family."
Paul George, who spent the first seven years of his career with the Indiana Pacers wishing he was in the Christmas game, will get that chance this season. His new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, takes on the Houston Rockets (8 p.m. Eastern time, ABC).
"I always wanted to play on Christmas," said George, who grew up in Southern California, where watching the Los Angeles Lakers was his family's holiday routine. "It brought families together. . . . It went along with Christmas. Basketball and Christmas.
"I grew up on it, so to be part of it is that much bigger. It's fulfilling a dream."
For the NBA, life has never been better, and Christmas Day is a chance to capitalize on that momentum. Interest in the league has been boosted by an offseason of frenzied player movement, leading to skyrocketing ratings and never-ending story lines.
Ratings for the league's three national television platforms — TNT, ESPN and NBA TV — are up 20 percent from last season, averaging 1.2 million viewers, the highest in four years. ESPN is averaging 1.8 million viewers across 30 games this season — the second-highest number through Christmas Day in the network's 16-year partnership with the NBA. The only season that topped that number was 2010-11, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade with the Miami Heat.
The NBA's influence, meanwhile, has spread far beyond its arenas. A generation of marketable stars such as Durant, James and Stephen Curry has pushed the NBA's cultural recognition into the mainstream, making forays into the worlds of music and fashion. More than any other pro league, the NBA embraced social media to draw new fans and allowed its players to speak on social and political issues.
"There's no doubt that the NFL and other leagues have to be looking at the NBA right now and have to be envious," said Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated's media reporter. "To be up double-digit viewership in an era of cord-cutting and cord-nevers, that's an amazing story.
"It's been a great year for the NBA. There's sort of no other way around it."
For the NFL, 2017 has been a year to forget. The sport has struggled to shake controversies off the field, from President Trump's furor over players kneeling for the national anthem to negative headlines about the league's concussion issues. In a particularly brutal season, some of the league's biggest stars have been sidelined with devastating injuries, including Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who signed a rich contract extension this month, remains unpopular for everything from the oversaturization of season-long Thursday night games to how he has doled out punishments.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, long outspoken about the NFL's greed, predicted in 2014 that the league was "10 years away from an implosion." This week, when asked whether he had an interest in purchasing the Carolina Panthers after its owner, Jerry Richardson, announced he was selling the team amid sexual harassment allegations, Cuban made clear that his feelings haven't changed.
"Why would I buy an NFL team if I think the league is in decline?" he told the Dallas Morning News.
On Monday, the two leagues will test their mettle head-to-head for the second straight year. While the NBA often has the holiday to itself, two NFL games again will be played this Christmas, competing directly with the NBA's five-game offering. Last year, when Christmas fell on a Sunday, the NFL moved most of its games to Saturday but left two on Sunday. The NHL, the other major league that's in season in December, last played a Christmas game in 1971.
And while the NBA had a strong Christmas Day 2016 showing, with Cavaliers-Warriors getting 10.1 million viewers, both NFL games that day had significantly higher viewership. The Kansas City Chiefs beating the Denver Broncos on NBC had 21.4 million people tune in, while the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Baltimore Ravens earned 14.8 million viewers, even thought it was shown exclusively on the NFL Network, a cable channel, while the Cavaliers and Warriors were on ABC.
Those results underscore the reality that despite the NBA's strides in the ratings and all the negative attention surrounding the NFL, there remains a massive gulf between the football league and its competitors. The Dec. 17 game between the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers generated a 15.2 rating and 26.8 million viewers — numbers the NBA can't sniff outside of the NBA Finals.
That Patriots-Steelers game was the NFL's highest-rated game this season, but two of the next three — Los Angeles Chargers-Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings-Detroit Lions — were Thanksgiving games, displaying the importance of the holiday.
"This is a long, long trail that they've been on," Crepeau said. "So you get all of those sort of things with the tradition tied in there, and it becomes a kind of personal sort of memory and nostalgia as people grow older of part of their memory of being at home, with children, with family.
"The fabric of that is pretty thick, and I think the NBA has an uphill fight to try to match that, though it's certainly worth trying."
Still, analysts said failing to match the NFL — the undisputed ruler of American sports for at least a generation — doesn't equate to failure for the NBA. Instead, they lauded the league for its ability to generate interest at a time when all parts of the media landscape are desperately looking to do the same.
Heading into the flagship day of its regular season, the league can only hope its momentum continues to chip away at the NFL's supremacy, while perhaps further embedding a new national holiday tradition.
"It's pretty cool that I get to do my favorite thing, the thing I love the most, on a special day. That makes me happy," Durant said.
"The NFL has got Thanksgiving. . . . Now Thanksgiving Day is like Christmas Day in the NBA."