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Why do the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play on Thanksgiving Day every year?

Detroit Lions sign
Why do the Lions and Cowboys play every Thanksgiving? Pic credit: City of Detroit/YouTube

It has long been a standing tradition for the Detroit Lions and more recently the Dallas Cowboys to spend Thanksgiving Day playing an NFL game.

So, how did the Lions and Cowboys get the honor of hosting games every year? There are a lot of reasons, but many believe that if it wasn’t for Lions owner George A. Richards, NFL football on Thanksgiving Day as a regular tradition may not exist.

Detroit first to test NFL on Thanksgiving

Back in 1934, George A. Richards, the radio executive who owned the station WJR at the time, decided to invest some of his money in the rising new football league called the NFL.

Richards purchased the Ohio based Portsmouth Spartans for $8,000 and moved the team to Detroit – thus renaming them the Detroit Lions. The Lions were an instant hit back then. In their inaugural season, Detroit started off with a 10-game win streak that included seven shutouts.

Although the Lions were good, Richards noticed they weren’t drawing big crowds, mainly due to Detroiters’ love of baseball and the Tigers – who were also very good at the time.

That is when Richards, a marketing specialist, came up with an idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving Day.

Richards knew his team would draw more attention by being the only game played on Thanksgiving, and he realized it would be a great chance to promote the rising league. With Richards’ radio connections, he struck a deal with NBC to broadcast the Thanksgiving Day games and the annual game grew quickly.

While Turkey Day games nowadays are part of an American tradition, back then it was a struggle to get teams to play on Thanksgiving.

None of them wanted to spend the holiday on the gridiron. After the first game back in 1934 was such a success, the Lions said they would gladly play each season on Thanksgiving, thus a Motown tradition was born.

Now fans often ask why their team isn’t playing on Thanksgiving!

While the first four-plus decades of Thanksgiving Day football featured just one game, that changed in 1966 when the Dallas Cowboys joined the party.

When the Cowboys entered the NFL back in 1960, they didn’t get off to a great start.

After the first six years, Dallas compiled a 25-53-4 record. President and general manager Tex Schramm wanted his team to succeed and he was looking for a marketing ploy.

When his Cowboys were given a chance to join the Lions on a national stage with a Thanksgiving Day game, Schramm jumped at the opportunity.

The Lions and Cowboys were the only two games on Turkey Day for decades. Nowadays, a third NFL game has been added to the schedule, however, the third spot isn’t designated to one particular team.

2019 opponents

This season the Detroit Lions will as always, be the first game on the Thanksgiving Day schedule. Detroit will take on the Chicago Bears from Ford Field at 12:30 p.m. ET.

The Cowboys will tee-off at 4:30 p.m. ET from Big D when they host the Buffalo Bills. The final game of the day will take place in Atlanta when the Falcons host the Saints at 8:20 p.m. ET.

Thanksgiving and football. a family tradition 85 years in the making!


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