One of my favorite traditions on Thanksgiving, after eating a big meal at my grandpa’s house, is to sit and watch the one sport that is exclusively an American tradition. There’s nothing better than sitting around and watching football with family and friends because that is the way it was meant to be watched.
Having watched football on Thanksgiving ever since I’ve been a football fan (which I admit only really started when I was a freshman in high school) I got to wondering just how and when football became such a big deal on Thanksgiving. They have just always seemed inseparable to me, like you just couldn’t have one without the other.
This year over Thanksgiving break, I decided to figure just how long that relationship has actually existed, why it actually started, and just how NFL took control of a national holiday.
To my surprise the NFL has played games on Thanksgiving ever since it was created back in the 1920s. But even before they started playing their games, the idea of football on Thanksgiving had already become a normal affair for most people.
In fact, way back in the 1890s, Michigan State started hosting games every Thanksgiving, and high school teams started to emulate the tradition by playing their final regular season game or their playoff games on that day.
The reason that football on Thanksgiving was so popular so early on is because Thanksgiving was one of the few days that people had off in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
This tradition continued when the early form of the National Football League was created in the 1920s, with the Detroit Lions. I always thought that was weird because in my memory Detroit has been one of the historically worst teams in the NFL (as well as my beloved St. Louis Rams). It’s confusing why one of the worst teams gets to host a primetime Thanksgiving game every single season.
This game started as a gimmick to try and get more fans to come out to Lions games, but this “gimmick” has since turned into a huge success for the Lions who have hosted a Thanksgiving game almost every year since. The only seasons they haven’t hosted a game were when Roosevelt tried to change the date of Thanksgiving, which made it harder to play a game on the actual holiday, and during World War II when the NFL did not schedule a Thanksgiving game.
After WWII was over the NFL continued the tradition and later in 1951 the NFL commissioner said the Lions would be the only team to have a permanent Thanksgiving game.
However, in 1966, just six years after “America’s Team” was founded, the Dallas Cowboys started hosting Thanksgiving games as well. It was rumored that they wanted to be guaranteed, along with Detroit, the right to host a game every year. Their reason for wanting to be guaranteed a Thanksgiving game in perpetuity was that while it had been around for a while, games on Thanksgiving were still not attended as well as those on Sundays, but had the large upside in being one of only two games that people could watch on Thanksgiving.
However, in the late 1970s, the St. Louis Cardinals, who are now the Arizona Cardinals, replaced Dallas as one of the two hosts for two years. They were not nearly as popular as the Cowboys. Due to St. Louis’s weak attendance as well as opposition from local St. Louis high schools who played on Thanksgiving, hosting rights reverted back to Dallas after just two years. Ever since, the two teams that you could count on playing on Thanksgiving have been the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions.
In recent years, as Thanksgiving football has grown more popular, the public started calling for changes in how the games are chosen. More teams wanted to start hosting these games because it seemed like an unfair advantage for these two teams to get to host games every Thanksgiving.
So in 2006 the NFL responded by starting a third game on Thanksgiving that has no set host, but is decided by the NFL when they create the schedule in the offseason. The game is generally chosen as a marquee matchup that will draw a lot of viewers, such as rivalries or interesting story-lines like when the Baltimore Ravens played the San Francisco 49ers, who were coached by John and Jim Harbaugh and ended up being a preview for the Super Bowl that season.
At the same time, the NFL introduced the idea of regular football every Thursday with Thursday Night Football, which later became a year long series, and allows every team to play in one Thursday night game a season. This negated any advantages or disadvantages, at least on the field. Money and viewers is a whole different story. Still, it appears that Thanksgiving football as it stands now will remain the way it is.