Watching NFL games on Thanksgiving has been an annual tradition for nearly 100 years. Specifically, fans know they can expect to see the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play on the holiday every single year. A third game has also joined the holiday schedule in the past few decades.
So it begs the question: When did this tradition of Thanksgiving football begin? That question has a fascinating answer.
When did the NFL start playing games on Thanksgiving?
Research shows that professional football teams began playing on Thanksgiving in the early 1900s. However, the tradition did not really take off until 1934 when the Detroit Lions hyped up the holiday game as a must-see event. The key was broadcasting the game over the radio airwaves, thus giving fans a chance to tune into a game on Thanksgiving.
So even in 1934, NFL fans could tune into a Lions game. That tradition holds strong to the present day, even if watching the Lions does not mean seeing a competitive game.
The tradition of the Lions playing on the holiday dates back to 1934. The Dallas Cowboys joined the action in 1966. The tradition is so specific that the Lions always carry the early game and the Cowboys play later in the afternoon. That makes sense given the time zone difference for both teams.
The only interruption to the Lions playing on Thanksgiving was World War II, while the Cowboys were booted from the holiday schedule a few times in the 1970s. In 1978, both teams finally got their Thanksgiving slots without any interruptions.
It is fascinating to read about how the Lions began this tradition in such a grand way. This was all the way back in 1934 when the NFL was trying to increase its popularity over the mighty MLB. Owner George A. Richards was trying to get creative and decided a Thanksgiving game would be a good marketing tactic. Who knew that this marketing tactic would become a tradition that has lasted into modern times in such a prominent way?
The concept of Thanksgiving games makes sense because everyone is at home seeking some sort of entertainment while making food and spending time with family. This means the league can get huge amounts of money from advertisers one day before Black Friday arrives.
NFL fans do have a right to be a bit annoyed that the Lions get to play every single Thanksgiving. However, they did start the tradition, and the holiday may not have become such an NFL staple if not for Lions ownership taking that huge step back in 1934.
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There is still the Cowboys game later in the afternoon, and the primetime game at night usually features a dynamic matchup. Three games is a lot of football to take in, and sometimes the lowly Lions even pick up a win in the national spotlight. NFL fans can let them have the limelight in exchange for a great tradition that will, hopefully, continue for years and years to come.