While the National Football League has long been synonymous with Thanksgiving, over the past decade the National Basketball Association has quietly laid claim to another holiday: Christmas.
After the gifts have been opened on Dec. 25, the NBA is hosting a full slate of games across the country from noon to midnight, and is putting its holiday connection at the forefront of its advertising this month with a new holiday spot.
In the ad, which will run for the first time on ESPN during tonight’s game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Toronto Raptors, the league’s top players dribble, pass and dunk snowballs on a court lined with signs of the season, including stockings, nutcrackers and twinkling Christmas lights. LeBron James’ pregame chalk routine has been replaced with snow, Russell Westbrook and James Harden share presents and Giannis Antetokounmpo swats a snowball under the rim. In the background, singer Normani of Fifth Harmony fame belts the original song “Ballin’ in a Christmas Wonderland,” a sports-fueled twist on the holiday standard “Winter Wonderland.”
“It’s a really great time to engage with our fans,” said NBA CMO Kate Jhaveri, who joined the league from Twitch in July, told Adweek. “Christmas Day is definitely a big moment for us, and we like to drive holistic campaigns that meet fans where they are.”
Following tonight’s premiere, the spot will run on ESPN, ABC and TNT, and across the league’s digital platforms.
The league has a history of putting out memorable Christmas spots: 2013’s Jingle Hoops saw basketball’s top shooters ring out Jingle Bells by shooting baskets, while in 2016 Blake Griffin dressed as Santa to croon “It’s the most dunktastic time of the year” from behind a grand piano.
The NBA started its Christmas Day tradition in 1947, expanding to a five-game schedule in 2008. These Christmas games have routinely produced the highest-rated matchups of the regular season, according to Sports Media Watch. Last year, the league averaged 5.83 million viewers across ESPN and ABC, up 14% from last year, according to the league. The Los Angeles Lakers-Golden State Warriors game had 10.2 million viewers.
The league could use the end-of-year boost, as it has faced a bit of a ratings dip in 2019, with proponents blaming injuries among star players like this year’s first-round draft pick Zion Williamson and former league MVP Stephen Curry.
This season marks Jhaveri’s first with the NBA, which has seen her team up the league with new partners such as New York Comic Con and Miami’s Art Week. She also endured a geopolitical crisis when Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong, causing a backlash that threatened the league’s lucrative relationship with China. (NBA games are back on Chinese television, but Morey’s Rockets remain left out.)
“We have a long history in China. We continue to invest in marketing in China,” Jhaveri said. “It really hasn’t changed what we have been doing to date. It’s a fluid situation—from a marketing standpoint, we continue to monitor it, but no changes to date.”
This year’s Christmas game lineup will see last year’s champions, the Toronto Raptors, take on the Boston Celtics; the Philadelphia 76ers play the Milwaukee Bucks; and the Houston Rockets take on the Warriors. The primetime game is a matchup between Los Angeles’ two teams, the Clippers and the Lakers, while the final game is between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Denver Nuggets.
If you’d like to sing along with this year’s ad, here are the lyrics to Ballin’ in a Christmas Wonderland:
NBA, Christmas greetings
The league’s best are competing
To drive and be cheered, The Klaw to be feared
Ballin’ in a Christmas wonderland
Matchups are tight
Games all day and night
Ballin’ in a Christmas wonderland