If Tom Carelli had second thoughts about putting the long-benched 76ers in the leadoff spot of this year’s NBA’s Christmas Day TV lineup, a recent visit to the Wells Fargo Center swatted them away.
Carelli, the league’s senior vice president of broadcasting, and his 12-year-old son were part of the emotionally drained crowd that watched the Sixers fall to Oklahoma City in Dec. 15’s triple-overtime thriller.
“I think I’m finally relaxed,” Carelli said five days later. “That was one of the great games I’ve ever seen. It was phenomenal.”
It’s been 16 years since the 76ers last appeared on Christmas, which has become as important to the NBA as Thanksgiving is to the NFL, is the most public reminder yet that, at least when it comes to creating team sex-appeal, “The Process” worked.
Thanks to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia is again the kind of national attraction worthy of a spot on what, with 30 million viewers watching all or part of 2016’s five marquee games, is pro basketball’s biggest day.
“The 76ers are an impressive, up-and-coming team and Christmas is a great time to showcase our league,” said Carelli. “A lot of people are home and able to watch TV for all or part of the day. It gives them a chance to consume as much basketball as possible around their holiday traditions.”
ESPN, which will televise the 76ers-Knicks game, has recognized that appeal, too. Between Christmas and the end of the regular season, the network will broadcast six 76ers games.
On Dec. 15, in what was first-of-a-kind programming, ESPN aired recurring features on the 76ers throughout the day leading up to a 7 p.m. Sixers-Thunder telecast.
That 119-117 OKC victory, by the way, drew ratings that were a whopping 74 percent higher than a Sixers-Lakers game in the same slot a year ago.
“There’s a lot of intrigue, a lot of buzz about the 76ers,” said Mark Gross, ESPN’s senior vice-president for production and remote events, who shepherded the network’s all-day coverage. “There’s a lot of buzz about Embiid and Simmons. Brett Brown is likeable, passionate, talented. The fan base is passionate. We’ve got more of their games on our air than I can ever remember.”
In Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers now have the kind of star power necessary to attract a national audience and get scheduled in the Christmas spotlight. The four games that will follow the Sixers’ noon matchup with the Knicks at Madison Square Garden are saturated with individual stars:
The centerpiece, aesthetically if not chronologically, is the 3 p.m. face-off between LeBron James’ Cavaliers and the Warriors of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the third consecutive year for that Christmas pairing. At 5:30, it’s Kyrie Irving’s Celtics against John Wall’s Wizards. At 8, Russell Westbrook’s Thunder take on James Harden’s Rockets. Finally, at 10:30, the Timberwolves will play the Lakers, whose profile has been raised by the hub-bub surrounding Lonzo Ball.
In building its coverage upon a celebrity-athlete foundation, the league and its partnering networks have found a successful formula. Through 30 games on ESPN, Gross said, viewership is up 18 percent over last season. That’s the network’s second best start ever, surpassed only by James’ first season with the Miami Heat, 2010-11.
“There’s so much star power and likability in the league right now,” said Gross. “Every night, whether on our air or on Turner’s, it seems like there’s a star out there we care about. There are great story lines, great games. The quality of play has never been better and these guys like Curry, Embiid, Westbrook and Kyrie are national stars. There are kids in Bristol, Conn., wearing Steph Curry jerseys.”
The day-long Christmas showcase is at the heart of the regular-season schedule for ESPN, its sister network ABC and TNT. Televised in 200 countries and territories, in more than 40 languages, this will be the 10th straight season it includes five games.
“The NBA has done a great job turning that into a big day for the league,” said Gross. “It’s the second opening day of their season.[ESPN and ABC] obviously benefit from the great matchups, the great teams, the big markets. And the fact that all of that is highlighted by a Cavs-Warriors game certainly doesn’t hurt.”
NBA’s Christmas tradition
Christmas games have been a part of the NBA since 1947, when the Knicks defeated the Providence Steamrollers, 89-75. But it wasn’t until the last few decades that the league began packaging and marketing them as a special event, at first in doubleheaders, then with tripleheaders and most recently in five-game bunches.
“It’s the biggest day we have, the most viewed day of our season,” said Carelli. “In scheduling them, you want to be sure your best teams and best players are there. Then you try to think of how we can we get the best matchups within the parameters of the rest of our 1,230-game schedule.”
The league must also figure out how to be “fair and equitable” to both its big television partners — ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting. So, since the most-anticipated matchup — Cleveland-Golden State — only happens twice, each partner gets one of those games, ABC on Christmas and TNT on the Martin Luther King holiday, the No. 2 day for basketball viewing.
Before the holiday lineup is set, there are logistical problems to be resolved. Sometimes, since many schedule family-friendly ice shows during the holidays, arenas aren’t free. Or there could be conflicts with the NHL. Boston, for example, has been an NBA member since its 1947 inception and for much of that time been a championship contender, but this year will mark its first Christmas home game.
Conflicts with other games can also impact a lineup.
“The Houston Texans are playing a football game on Christmas,” said Carelli. “Well, we certainly wanted to include the Rockets, but to do so we couldn’t have them playing at home. There would be too much overlap there. So they’re a road team. We have to work around things like that all the time.”
And so when the Sixers take the floor on Monday, all those Christmas Day viewers who will be getting their first look this season at Embiid might be as surprised as Gross was on Dec. 15.
“When he came out on the court that night, I turned to my son and said, ‘Wow, he looks like he’s gotten even bigger.’ ”
Only, it seems, as a national TV attraction.