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NFL Plans Permanent Christmas Day Takeover



Pittsburgh Steelers Christmas Day
Pittsburgh Steelers fans dressed up a Santa Claus on Dec. 23, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers may no longer have a Rudolph, but they may be playing on Christmas Day this year, thanks to a change in NFL scheduling policy.

The NFL has tolerated games on Christmas Day in the past, leaving a few choice games on the schedule when Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, but not going out of its way to schedule games on the holiday.

From 1989 to 2000, just six games were played on Dec. 25, with most of the games that would typically have been played on Christmas moved to Dec. 24.

Starting in 2004, though, the NFL began an expansion of the Christmas Day product. In 2004, Christmas was on a Saturday, 2005 a Sunday and 2006 a Monday, and all three years, two games were played on Christmas. When the Calendar came around again from 2009-11, one game each was played on Christmas. In 2016 and 2017, the league played two games on Christmas, one in 2020 and two in 2021.

In 2022, with Christmas again falling on a Sunday, the NFL went full bore, scheduling a full slate of nationally televised games, one early, one afternoon and one night game. The move was so successful that even though Christmas fell on a Monday in 2023, the did the same thing.

This year, Christmas will fall on a Wednesday — the worst possible day for the NFL calendar and a day that the NFL has usually avoided. The only other Wednesday games since World War II was a season-opening game in 2012, and the Steelers-Baltimore Ravens game in 2020 that was pushed back multiple times because of COVID-19 issues with the Ravens.

But this year, there will be two Christmas Day games, and you can bet that if they’re going to go through the trouble of playing on a Wednesday, every other day will be in effect going forward, as well. It’s hard to see a year where the NFL won’t have a Christmas Day triple header.

That’s because the ratings for the last two Christmas spectacles have been spectacular. The early 2023 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Las Vegas Raiders drew 29.2 million viewers, the most-watched Christmas Day game since the first modern Christmas Day game back in 1989. The late-night game between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers was the second-most-watched Monday Night Football Game of this century.

Steelers president Art Rooney II, usually the voice of the traditionalists among NFL ownership, had to admit that the strong ratings showed an enthusiasm for playing the games on Christmas Day.

“You have to be flexible,” he said. “You have to be willing to go where your fans are. It’s become a popular day for our games, and so I think you’ll continue to see it.”

Of course, it remains to be seen if the games will be popular with ticket-buyers. The Steelers will likely sell out their entire slate ahead of time, as they usually do, but teams with softer demand might have a hard time pulling fans away from their families to watch football on the holiday.

There’s a health and safety factor at play, as well. The teams that play on Wednesday this year will either play on Thursday or Saturday the week before, because the NFL and NFLPA would not approve a team playing on only two days’ rest between games.

Playing on Saturday is only possible in the later portion of the NFL schedule, after the end of the college football regular season. The NFL likely won’t repeat its Christmas Day domination plans on New Year’s Day, when college football has long ruled. 

But the collegiate sports seem to have given ground in terms of the Christmas holiday. Last season, no college bowl games were played on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The Hawaii Bowl was played on Christmas Eve in 2022, but moved to Dec. 23 in 2023. The Camellia Bowl was played in Christmas Day in 2020 and 2021, but has moved to Dec. 27 in 2022 and Dec. 23 in 2023.

The newly expanded College Football Playoff will see first round games played on Dec. 20-21, and then quarterfinals Dec. 31-Jan. 1, semifinals Jan. 9-10 and the national championship game on Jan. 20.

That conveniently leaves aside Christmas for the NFL to pounce on, and even though the holiday has long been dominated by the NBA in terms of sports television, it’s another reminder that in the ratings business, the NFL is king.

The 2024 NFL schedule will be released in May. The team’s home and road opponents have already been revealed.

Steelers 2024 Schedule: What We Know So Far


The Steelers are 2-0 on Christmas Day, and have the second-best Dec. 25 record of any NFL team. The Philadelphia Eagles are 3-0, winning in 2006, 2017 and 2023.

Fifteen NFL teams have played a game on Christmas more recently than the Steelers have, though there is no indication the league intends to rotate. Seven NFL teams have never played on Christmas Day: the Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Commanders.

2016 Steelers 31, Baltimore Ravens 27, Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
2017 Steelers 34, Houston Texans 6, NRG Stadium, Houston