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How Football on Thanksgiving Became a "Thing"

Ask anyone to name three of their favorite things about Thanksgiving and I guarantee that most would include watching football.  Alongside stuffing ourselves full of turkey and sweet potatoes, watching the NFL on Thanksgiving has become a cultural tradition that nearly all Americans share.

I've often wondered how this actually came to be and why it seems like the same teams always play on Thanksgiving.  If you've ever wondered this yourself, don't worry... I've done the research for you!

So... how did it become a "thing" that the NFL plays on Thanksgiving?

Well, the history of NFL games on Thanksgiving goes WAY back to 1876, not long after the sport itself was invented.  The reason it was played on Thanksgiving was simply that it was a day that most people had off work as a national holiday.  Colleges would often play on Thanksgiving when classes were on holiday break and this helped to solidify the connection to the holiday.  Yale, Princeton, and the University of Michigan were the first to widely adopt playing on Thanksgiving. By the time the NFL became a professional league in 1920, it was already a well-established tradition for many Americans.

The first game on Thanksgiving for the NFL was the Chicago Tigers against the Decatur Staleys in 1920.  The Tigers no longer exist, having folded just a year into the league (then called the American Professional Football Association.)

The Staleys became a team you may have heard of before... 'da Bears.

So, that's how it started but why do we always see the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys these days?

Going back to 1934, the Detroit Lions have the right to claim the oldest tradition of annual games on Thanksgiving.  The Lions had recently moved from Ohio, and the new team owner was searching for a hook to draw bigger crowds.  He scheduled his team on Thanksgiving when he knew everyone would be off work and scheduled a game against the dominant Chicago Bears.  It proved a huge success and became an annual event despite the fact that they lost badly to the Bears.

The Dallas Cowboys' tradition of playing football on Turkey Day dates back to 1966, just six years after entering the league. In that era of football, playing games on days other than Sunday was quite uncommon, and high attendance was not a certainty, so Dallas requested to play on Thanksgiving to drum up fan interest.

In 1975, the NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle requested that the St. Louis Cardinals replace the Dallas Cowboys as a Thanksgiving host team.  This eventually proved unsuccessful as the Cardinals are not as popular nationwide as the Cowboys, who were regular Super Bowl contenders during this era.  Combined with consistently poor fan attendance in St. Louis and a stretch of ugly losses, Rozelle asked the Cowboys to resume hosting the Thanksgiving Day games in 1978.  The Cowboys requested (and received) an agreement from the league that they would forever host a Thanksgiving Day game.

As of 2019, the Lions and Cowboys have agreements with the league to continuously host games on Thanksgiving Day.  The Lions host the early game, while the more nationally favored Cowboys host a game in the evening after most people are likely to be finished eating their holiday dinner.  Since 2006, a third NFL game has been played at night during prime time.  This prime time game does not have any special tie-ins and does not have a regular host.

This year, for 2019, you can catch the Detroit Lions take on the Chicago Bears.  The Buffalo Bills will visit the Dallas Cowboys and in prime time you can watch the New Orleans Saints and the Atlanta Falcons.