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How the NFL on Thanksgiving Came to Be

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Happy Thanksgiving!

This year there will be two Thanksgiving games as the Lions host the Texans in the early afternoon, and the Cowboys host Washington in the late afternoon. For the first time since 2005 there will be no primetime game. The Steelers and Ravens were originally scheduled to play the night game, but it has been rescheduled for Sunday afternoon due to positive COVID-19 tests in the Baltimore organization.

This is one of the showcase days in the NFL. Every team wants to play on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t always this way.

Every year I tell the history of the NFL on Thanksgiving here. I will explain below. I also have attached a podcast with me telling the story if you prefer my soothing voice while you prepare your meal.

The Lions played their first Thanksgiving game in 1934. It was their first season in Detroit. They had previously been located in Portsmouth, Ohio, where they were known as the Portsmouth Spartans. A radio executive named George Richards bought the franchise and moved it to Detroit. The Lions were having difficulty gaining any sort of popularity in their new home city. Richards came up with the idea of scheduling their team’s big game against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving. The Lions were 10-1 at the time, and the Bears were 11-0. This was before the days when the league dictated the schedule to its teams. The teams themselves could schedule the times of their games. Richards used his connections in the radio business to get the game broadcast nationally. Even thought Detroit lost, it was a huge success. The Lions sold the game out, and they have played on Thanksgiving ever since with the exception of World War II years.

Thanksgiving gained a second traditional team in 1951. For the next thirteen years, the Green Bay Packers traveled to Detroit to play the Lions on Thanksgiving. Vince Lombardi ended the arrangement. Lombardi cited the end of an agreement that paid the Packers $10,000 extra for playing the game, the difficulties of playing games on a short week every year, and having to face a rival in front of an electric crowd on the road every season. It is still special on the years the Packers travel to Detroit.

When the Lions were really struggling during the Matt Millen years, there were calls to take the annual Thanksgiving game out of Detroit. The league was putting a doormat team in one of its showcase games every season. As the Lions have stabilized their franchise, those calls have gotten much quieter.

In the mid-1960’s the NFL was looking to add a second Thanksgiving game. It was not entirely clear it would work outside Detroit, where Thanksgiving NFL was already a tradition. The Dallas Cowboys were a six year old team with no history of winning. General manager Tex Schramm was a visionary. (He was a driving force behind other innovations like instant replay, the flags on goal posts, the NFL-AFL merger, and too many others to name). He jumped at the opportunity. The Cowboys hosted their first Thanksgiving game in 1966.

They kept the game annually until the 1970’s when the league hatched a plan to alternate between the Cowboys and the then St. Louis Cardinals. The Cowboys were to host the second game in even years and the Cardinals in odd years. The Cardinals only hosted two home Thanksgiving games, however, which took place in 1975 and in 1977. The games weren’t competitive, and attendance was relatively poor. Then commissioner Pete Roselle put an end to the experiment, and made a deal with Schramm that the Cowboys would keep the game from then on. Dallas has hosted the second Thanksgiving game ever since.

In 2006, the NFL added a third game in primetime. The Chiefs defeated the Broncos that night. By this time, a Thanksgiving game had become a desired timeslot. Unlike the experiments in Dallas and Detroit decades earlier, the 30 other teams in the league would probably all love to become the permanent host of the primetime Thanksgiving game. Since everybody wants it, the league has not given the game to a single team. The matchup changes every year and in recent years has usually been a division rivalry.

The last major change to Thanksgiving games came in 2014 when the NFL’s current TV deal kicked into effect. CBS and FOX both get to broadcast one game on Thanksgiving afternoon. Prior to the current TV contract, CBS could only show games where an AFC team was on the road. That meant one AFC team had to play at either Detroit or Dallas every Thanksgiving. The league’s new TV deal allows AFC road games to be flexed to FOX and NFC road games to be flexed to CBS. The new arrangement allowed for greater scheduling flexibility. Both Detroit and Dallas could be given NFC opponents, and one of the afternoon games could be flexed to CBS. In theory either the Detroit or Dallas game could also be flexed to prime time, but that has yet to happen.