Heat-Lakers to draw big auds as NBC readies for Winter Classic

ABC is expecting a bountiful gift on Christmas Day as it telecasts one of the most anticipated NBA matchups of the year, when the LeBron James-infused Miami Heat take on Kobe Bryant and the Lakers from Los Angeles. Sports talkradio and the local press are amping up the game to the hilt, while tickets brokers are asking for $1,000-plus for ducats.

As has become tradition, ABC and ESPN have turned the winter holiday into a basketball hotbed. This year there are five games on tap, including the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks tipping off at 9 a.m. PT and the contest between Portland and Golden State putting a bow on things starting at 7:30 p.m. on the West Coast.

The marquee Lakers-Heat contest will tip off at around 2 p.m. PT.

Sports leagues and their affiliated networks have long used national holidays — during which families gather together at home, sometimes snowed in or hesitant to venture out in freezing temperatures — as a perfect opportunity to air a smorgasbord of games.

The NFL goes back decades with its Thanksgiving Day skeds, the NBA has been onboard with Christmas dating back to 1947 and in 2008 the NHL began its Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.

The Lakers have become synonymous with Christmas and ABC: Since 2002, when the net began airing yule games, the team been involved every year.

Last year’s game between the Lakers and Cleveland drew 8.3 million viewers, while 2008 was even bigger — 9.9 million tuned in to see the Lakers play their longtime rival, the Boston Celtics. This year’s audience could top 10 million.

“While it’s not quite reached the Super Bowl, it’s our version of Thanksgiving on the NBA side,” said Doug White, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions. “Everyone’s home and relaxing, and what better way to serve them with as many games as we can?”

While the Lakers have dominated the Christmas schedule of late, the New York Knicks have actually appeared in 36 yule games, more than any other team.

In baseball, some viewers complain that there’s an overindulgence of games involving the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but White said few NBA fans are disappointed that the Lakers always land in the national spotlight. Clearly, ABC is happy to come to Staples Center, where there’s often a dozen or so Hollywood celebrities sitting on or near the court.

“They are a team that has national appeal and prove it year in and year out,” White said. “They lead in terms of ratings and viewership. Like the Cowboys, Yankees and Red Sox, they are the kind of team that viewers will always tune in to.”

Many players have criticized the league for having games played on the holiday, saying that it takes away from time spent with families. Former coach and current ABC-ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said he’s not thrilled either, but players must adapt if the league is going to continue to flourish worldwide.

“I learned a long time ago that 99% of what happens in the NBA is good and the 1% I wish I could change is not worth fighting for,” he said. “If this is what the NBA has to do to grow its business with ESPN and ABC, you have to take the good with the bad.”

The NHL had no problems persuading its players to take to the ice on Jan. 1. This year’s Winter Classic, between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh (home of the football Steelers), will undoubtedly be the highest-rated regular season hockey game for NBC.

While ratings for last year’s game were slightly down year to year, this matchup could see a surge. That’s mostly due to the pregame publicity supplied by HBO, which partnered with the NHL with its four-part “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic.”

That docuseries is similar to football’s summertime “Hard Knocks” franchise. The league has given HBO access to both teams on and off the ice. The series is also playing up the rivalry between arguably the league’s two biggest superstars: Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.

NHL chief operating office John Collins said: “What the show has really done, and we always try to do something new with the Winter Classic, is make the game more relevant.”

And hockey, Collins added, has become much more appealing to both Madison Avenue and tech-savvy consumers who are using different digital applications to follow the sport.

Heinz Field is much more technically equipped than Wrigley Park and Fenway Park — home of the previous two Winter Classics; Collins said the difference in this year’s game will be that NBC will have 76 cameras to cover the on-ice action, including a skycam already in place for Steelers games.

NHL Network will offer 20 hours of related programming.

Hockey’s television deals are at a crossroads. Pact with cabler Versus, as well as with NBC, expires at the end of this season, and the league must decide whether it reups with those two or possibly return to ESPN, where it had a home for many years.

Adding intrigue to the mix is that Comcast-owned Versus will be part of the NBC family after the merger is complete, and NBC Sports chieftain Dick Ebersol will have to determine how he’d like to shape Versus going forward.

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