Watching the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving day has been a tradition every year since 1934. It doesn’t matter if they are having a good year or a bad year, the game has always involved them. When you consider that the team was founded in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio and they were known as the Spartans, they got that start at an early age.
Portsmouth was happy with their new pro team in the NFL, which was also fairly young in 1929. That being said, they also were a little small to support the Pro team so the Spartans were purchased by George A Richards, a Detroit radio station owner and moved to Detroit in 1934.
When they arrived in Detroit, they were a fairly good team, even though they were relatively new. They also were playing second fiddle to the Tigers, led by Hank Greenberg who had won the 1934 American League pennant after going 101-53 and winning it that season.
At the same time, the Lions could not pull much of a crowd and they were doing good to see 15,000 fans come to their game. Richards was looking for a marketing trick to get Detroit behind their new football franchise so he decided to put the game on Thanksgiving. He had the power of his radio station, WJR, which also had a fairly large countrywide audience. He worked with the network, NBC to broadcast the Thanksgiving game on 94 different television stations across the country.
As it turns out, the move worked in his favor. They played the Chicago Bears, who were the defending NFL champions and the Lions were only dealing with one loss that year. If they would win that first Thanksgiving game, they would become the NFL’s Western division champions.
Not only were the Lions able to sell out their 26,000 seat stadium that year, but they were also turning fans away when they came to the gate. The Bears ended up winning the game but the tradition stuck and the Lions have been on TV ever since that year.
The Lions will host the Chicago Bears this year.
The Cowboys also saw an opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as a way to increase their popularity. When 1966 rolled around, they grabbed the opportunity to hit the field. Nobody was sure how it would be seen, and although the Lions did quite well on Thanksgiving, the Texans might not have been so happy to head to the stadium.
The general manager of the Cowboys, Tex Schramm also had some marketing mastery on his side. Included in his achievements were the Dallas cowboy cheerleaders, that he was responsible for creating.
Schramm was confident that playing on Thanksgiving day would provide the national publicity the team needed as they were struggling under the new leadership of Tom Landry. The Cowboys were signed up for the game, even though the NFL was concerned that fans wouldn’t show. The league guaranteed the team a certain amount of revenue, just in case nobody bought tickets but that wasn’t a problem. The team ended up breaking an attendance record with 80,259 fans cramming into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys were able to defeat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 and another Thanksgiving football tradition was born. The Cowboys have only missed Thanksgiving twice since 1966.
Dallas will be playing the Washington Redskins this Thanksgiving.
The NFL decided that they would take advantage of the popularity of the Thanksgiving games and add a night game in 2006. Although the game has not been assigned to a particular franchise, the New Orleans Saints will be welcoming the Atlanta Falcons for the night game this year.