by Keith Aksel
The arrival of the year-end holidays can be a welcome moment for most Americans. Unless you don’t have positive associations with them for some reason, most Americans view the Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s stretch as an exciting time to decompress with family and friends. We may attend special parties, church services, or family reunions that only occur at this time of year, bringing around the warm-fuzzies just the way Hallmark drew it up.
Sports are part-and-parcel with those warm-fuzzies, riding in Santa’s sidecar on the way to holiday joyland. When you think about it, all sports fans associate the holidays with watching sports in one way or another. But to what extent do we view sports as the reason for the season? Do we anticipate these holidays for the actual celebrations they’re meant to revisit, or do we see holidays primarily as vessels for special sporting events?
Thanksgiving has been the NFL’s holiday to shine for generations. You can bank your life savings on the immovable fact that the Detroit Lions will be featured on TV while you stuff your face with turkey, dressing, and that oddball dessert your aunt always comes around with. Even if you don’t care about Detroit, you may feel like Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without a little silver and blue on your TV screen. Not only that, Thanksgiving games come at a crucial point in the second half of the season, making outcomes of those games matter. Memorable moments like Pittsburgh halfback Jerome Bettis’ Turkey Day Coin Flip debacle came about on Thanksgiving day in 1998, and forever changed a crucial (albeit small) element of the game.
Christmas Day’s sporting entrée has for decades been a heaping helping of NBA matchups meant to pull families away from the mess of shredded wrapping paper just long enough for someone to clean it up and take a nap. While marquee Christmas Day matchups remain a constant NBA fixture (it seemed like Kobe Bryant was always magically playing on December 25th during his heyday), the NBA has recently ramped up its marketing of holiday competition, doing everything from increasing the number of games featured, to designing new, special uniforms to be worn that day only. The whimsical Christmas Day unis of 2016 were a huge hit on the consumer market, and it looks like the league is angling for a slightly modified repeat of that design in 2017. NBA officials value the league’s relationship with Christmas so much that the league has fined coaches in the past for speaking out against playing on the holiday.
New Year’s Day is the domain of college football, and has been since the dawn of the postseason Rose Bowl Game in the early 1900s (then called the East-West Game). Although college games would be broadcast over radio in the 1920s and 1930s, the number of postseason New Year’s Day bowl games really took off in the 1940s and after, more or less coinciding with a rise in television ownership in America. Families could bank on a Rose, Orange, or Sugar Bowl TV broadcast to ring in the New Year, beginning a tradition that third and fourth generation Americans today enjoy. Today the NFL, NBA, and NHL schedule games on New Year’s at their own risk; especially in today’s era of the College Football Playoff (CFP), New Year’s is college football’s turf.
The point here is that watching sports on the holidays is a long tradition that has become deeply wedded to our lives in ways we may take for granted. The removal of one or more of these sporting events form their respective holidays would bring uncertainty in fan circles, giving rise to a central question; to what extent do we tacitly believe that the holidays exist for sports, instead of the other way around? For instance, if college football was no longer broadcast on New Year’s Day, would we care about New Year’s Day the same way? Aren’t the arrangements we make on New Year’s, like who we meet up with and when, ordered according to when the bowls kick off? Most Americans with an opinion complained that holding the CFP on New Year’s Eve in 2016 was somehow inconvenient and disorienting. For serious football fans, college football is New Year’s, inextricably and inexorably.
This year, maybe take a moment and ponder the position of sports in your holiday plans; are they, in a way, the reason for the season to you? I don’t mean to place a value judgement on anyone’s answer, but your response might tell you something about why you value the holiday season. If you feel that Santa Claus isn’t Santa Claus without a little hardcourt on the side, you know sports are at least part of why you look forward all year to the year-end celebrations. If you do fall into that category of fan, you have nothing to be ashamed of- I’m right there with you.