Why Do The Cowboys And Lions Always Play On Thanksgiving Day?

Alongside turkey, pumpkin pie, and interfamily political squabbling, there's another Thanksgiving tradition many Americans can't do without: football. Further, there are two NFL teams you know will always be playing on the day: the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys (though not against each other). And while this particular Thanksgiving-football tradition may seem modern, it's older than you may think.

According to Matthew Andrews, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Intercollegiate Football Association first held its championship game on Thanksgiving in 1876, when the sport was still largely an amateur activity confined to schools in New England (via CNN). After moving to New York in 1880, however, the college championship helped increase the popularity of football, as well as solidified its connection to Thanksgiving.

The NFL, which had only formed in 1920, latched onto this association with Thanksgiving in the early 1920s for marketing reasons, according to Andrews. And, ultimately, both the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys sought similar goals for their brands when they pursued the holiday game. While the Lions' tradition began in 1934 (the same year the team moved to Detroit and changed their name), the Cowboys hosted their first Thanksgiving game 32 years later in 1966.

The Cowboys followed the Lions' example

Though the Detroit Lions lost to the Chicago Bears 19-16 in that first Thanksgiving game in 1934, according to the Detroit Historical Society, the team's branding strategy was a success, and the holiday tradition for the Lions stuck. Detroit would go on to play on every Thanksgiving from 1934 on (outside a 1939-44 pause for World War II). The Cowboys, in 1966, aimed for similar success.

Founded in 1960, the Dallas Cowboys were still a relatively new team in the league in 1966, when team president/general manager Tex Schramm had an idea to get the team more national notice (per The Dallas Morning News). He signed Dallas up to play on Thanksgiving (in a second game), and he also secured a guarantee from the NFL that Dallas could host the game every year — just like the Lions.

And, just like the Lions and their very first Thanksgiving game, the Cowboys' game in 1966 was a marketing success. Crowds packed the stadium (with more tuning in from home), and — unlike the Lions — the Cowboys won against the Cleveland Browns, 26-14. And since, the Cowboys have kept up their own Thanksgiving-football tradition every year, with two exceptions. In 1975 and 1977, the St. Louis Cardinals got to take over Thanksgiving, but they couldn't replicate the Cowboys' ratings, so Dallas got the game back.

The teams have never faced off on Thanksgiving

As said, when Dallas signed up to play on Thanksgiving in 1966, it was with the understanding that the Cowboys would — every year — host the second game of the day, with the Detroit Lions holding on to the honor of playing first. And because each team hosts a Thanksgiving game, it's why Detroit and Dallas have never faced each other on the fourth Thursday in November. What's more, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game in 2006, with a different team serving as host every year.

As the Lions demonstrated in their loss on Thanksgiving in 1934, and the Cowboys when they eventually lost in 1972, hosting and tradition doesn't always translate into victories. In fact, as of 2022, the Lions had won 37 of their Thanksgiving games, lost 43, and tied twice (via NBC Sports Boston). The Lions' performance in recent years has been bad enough that there was a brief movement to take the game away from them in 2008, though the NFL ultimately decided against it (per Michigan Live). The Cowboys, meanwhile, who did have their game taken away for two years in the 1970s, have won 31 games, lost 22, and tied once.