UCREVIEW: Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have maintained a tradition of playing a Thanksgiving game every year, regardless of their record.
As the 7-3 Lions prepare to face off against the unbeaten Green Bay Packers, you may be left questioning why Detroit has the privilege of playing a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving Day.
Have you ever wondered about the roots of Detroit’s most cherished football tradition, which is second only to the iconic “Fire Millen!” chants?
How about the Dallas Cowboys, another longstanding Thanksgiving NFL tradition?
Back when the Lions were a relatively new franchise, they were known as the Spartans and were based in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1929. However, the small town was not sufficient enough to sustain a professional team in the burgeoning NFL. As a result, George A. Richards, the owner of a Detroit radio station, purchased the Spartans in 1934 and relocated the team to Detroit.
The team led by Richards was a strong one, but they were still in the shadow of the Tigers, who were led by Hank Greenberg and had won the American League Pennant in 1934 with a record of 101-53. At the start of the season, the Lions struggled to attract a large audience, with their biggest crowd being a mere 15,000.
In order to generate excitement for Detroit’s new football franchise, Richards came up with a marketing idea that would prove to be a game changer – playing a football game on Thanksgiving. As the owner of WJR, one of the largest radio stations in the country, Richards held significant influence, and he used it to convince NBC to broadcast the Thanksgiving game on 94 stations across the nation. This move would prove to be a pivotal moment in American football history.
The strategy paid off in spades. The Chicago Bears, who were the reigning NFL champions, arrived in town with an unbeaten record. As the Lions had lost only one game, the outcome of the first Thanksgiving game would determine the victor of the NFL’s Western Division.
When the Lions sold out their 26,000-seat stadium and had to turn fans away at the gate, despite losing to the juggernaut Bears in the game, a tradition was born. This is the reason why the Lions continue to play on Thanksgiving.
In 1966, the Cowboys were presented with an opportunity to play on Thanksgiving, which they eagerly embraced to boost their popularity. However, it wasn’t clear whether this move would benefit the team as Texans were not accustomed to holiday football, despite the Lions’ success in filling their stadium during their Thanksgiving games.
Tex Schramm, the general manager of the Cowboys, was renowned for his marketing prowess. One of his notable accomplishments was the establishment of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
When the Cowboys were struggling under young head coach Tom Landry, Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as an opportunity to gain national publicity for the team. Despite concerns from the NFL that fans might not show up, Schramm signed them up for the game anyways. The league even guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case tickets didn’t sell.
On that day, the fans came out in droves, and they broke the team’s attendance record with 80,259 people cramming into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys emerged victorious with a 26-14 win over the Cleveland Browns, cementing the second Thanksgiving football tradition.
The Cowboys have only missed playing on Thanksgiving twice since 1966.