The History Of Thanksgiving Day Football Games

Thanksgiving is the most American of the holidays we celebrate during the so-called "Holiday Season." Sure, we may have put our own spins on Halloween and Christmas, but those were existing holidays that we imported from Europe and then Americanized. Thanksgiving, however, is all ours, made official by a government decree following the Civil War, and tied, however ceremonially, to a somewhat-apocryphal narrative about a shared meal of friendship between early settlers and Native Americans.

For nearly a century, Thanksgiving has also included another all-American element: gridiron (as opposed to Association) football. Specifically, according to Sporting News, the Detroit Lions always host a home game on Thanksgiving Day, as they have done since 1934, as do the Dallas Cowboys, as they have done (with a couple of exceptions) since 1966. Further, this year, according to the NFL, a third team will host a Thanksgiving Day game. The Lions will take on the Bears in Detroit, the Cowboys will take on the Raiders in Dallas, and the New Orleans Saints will host the Buffalo Bills at the Superdome.

Thanksgiving Day football was a marketing gimmick

Back in the early 1930s, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved them to Detroit. Richards knew that, in the Motor City, his football team would play in the shadow of the city's baseball team, the Tigers. Nevertheless, in the fall of 1934, baseball season had been over for weeks, and Richards decided to take a risk and schedule a game on Thanksgiving Day. It was a calculated risk: his team was 10-1 and stacked with talent, and his adversaries, the Chicago Bears, were undefeated. The risk paid off: The game sold out the 26,000-seat University of Detroit Stadium, and the rest is history.

The Cowboys, for their part, also got in on the Thanksgiving Day game action simply because it was, by 1966, a proven system, according to Sporting News. Specifically, that year the team's general manager, Tex Schramm, figured that a Thanksgiving Day game would help his team become more popular, and sure enough, the team's first holiday game was a sellout as well as a win for the Cowboys. However, the NFL switched things around for the 1975 and 1977 seasons, during which the Cowboys sat out the Thursday games, but they've been hosting Thanksgiving Day contests every year since 1978.