How the Thanksgiving Football Tradition Began

While the majority of us stress about spending too much money, dealing with large family gatherings, and answering infinite questions about when you’re finally going to get married this Thanksgiving holiday, we can all escape from the chaos by watching football all day long. Have you ever wondered why there are games played on a holiday that would seem to be perfect for players to be with their family and relax for a week? Well this is how the tradition all started, and be thankful for it since I’m sure it has been a good excuse in the past to get out of the same long conversation with Aunt Phillis about how she arrived on the Mayflower.

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn’t quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards’ new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards’ WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL’s Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

In 2006, because 6+ hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup; however, this game is not assigned to a specific franchise. Have a Happy Thanksgiving next week and enjoy some football! (References: MentalFloss.com)

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