Turkey, Grandma’s stuffing, and avoiding political discussions with out of town family members aren’t the only Thanksgiving Day traditions. The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys of the NFL also have a tradition of playing football games every Thanksgiving. And while it’s always nice to have a good game to watch as you recover from your food coma, you might be wondering why this is. Why do the Lions and Cowboys play on Thanksgiving every year, and not other teams?
A Tradition is Born
Originally known as the Spartans and founded in 1929, the Detroit Lions started out in Portsmouth Ohio, a small town struggling to support a professional NFL team. Plagued by sparse crowds and poor performance on the field, the team was ultimately bought by George Richards, owner of a Detroit radio station. He moved the team to Detroit and changed their name to the Lions for the start of the 1934 season.
The new name and location didn’t really help the Lions. They struggled to draw fans, with the Detroit Tigers of the MLB continuing to get most of the attention in the city. Richards began to brainstorm ideas to try and boost fan support, and to increase the NFL’s faith in Detroit as a viable city for a team.
He came up with the idea of having the team play a mid-week game on Thanksgiving Day, so the Lions could be the main attraction for the day.
Using his radio ties, Richards convinced NBC to broadcast the Thanksgiving game to nearly 95 stations across the nation in an effort to put Detroit, and the Lions, on the map. The strategic move was a success, and the stadium sold out as fans lined up to see the Lions take on the Chicago Bears. While the Bears won the game, the Lions won a new tradition and have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.
How Bout Them Cowboys?
In a similar fashion, the Dallas Cowboys started playing on Thanksgiving in an effort to garner a bit more popularity as well. Yes, the franchise that is today referred to as “America’s Team” was once actually one of the lesser known teams in the league.
The opportunity to gain more national exposure came in 1966, when the team’s general manager Tex Schramm signed the Cowboys up to play against the Cleveland Browns on Thanksgiving Day. The team would go on to break its attendance record, cramming more than 80,000 fans into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys won 26-14.
Since that initial game, the Dallas Cowboys have only missed two Thanksgiving Day games: 1975 and 1977, when the St. Louis Cardinals (not to be confused with the MLB Cardinals) earned the slot instead. The Detroit Lions, on the other hand, have continued their streak every year.
This Thanksgiving, make sure to have a healthy dose of football with all that gravy.