Stomachs full of turkey, tryptophan working its magic, millions of Americans belly up to the TV to watch the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys play football on Thanksgiving. It's a Thanksgiving tradition almost as entrenched as not eating the cranberry sauce. But why do the Lions and Cowboys play on Thanksgiving every year instead of giving other teams the honors?
For the Lions, the tradition goes back to 1934. When Detroit-based radio station owner George Richards bought the Portsmouth Spartans in 1934, the newly minted Lions struggled to compete with the popularity of the Detroit Tigers, the city's then-successful baseball franchise. The Lions couldn't even manage to get 15,000 butts in the seats for some games.
In a stroke of marketing genius, Richards decided to try hosting a game on Thanksgiving. In part because of his power as an owner of a large radio station, he convinced NBC to carry the game on 94 radio stations across the country. It was, in fact, the first nationally-broadcast NFL game, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Lions faced the defending champion Chicago Bears in the first NFL game on Thanksgiving. The game had weight. The Bears entered undefeated, and the Lions had only lost once. The winner would emerge atop the NFL's Western Division. When the day arrived, the Lions had to turn fans away at the door after it sold out the 26,000-seat stadium. The turkey-day game became tradition, and the Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving showdown annually ever since.
The Cowboys tradition came later. There was no guarantee a holiday game would work in a different market, but Dallas general manager Tex Schramm wanted to give it a shot. He was an innovator of marketing techniques for the NFL team, including the introduction of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
In 1966, the team wasn't all that good, but Schramm saw an opportunity to gain national attention with a Thanksgiving game. The NFL wasn't sure it would work. It gave the team a revenue guarantee in case no one showed up. It wound up not being an issue.
The game was played in front of a record-setting 80,259 fans. The success of that game set up a second NFL Thanksgiving tradition, which, since Reba McEntire in 1997, has included a halftime concert. Only twice since '66 have the Cowboys not been in action on Thanksgiving.
The addition of a third Thanksgiving game wasn't much of an experiment. It's clearly big business for the NFL. In 2006, the League began wondering how Americans could possibly survive with only six hours of Thanksgiving football. To save people from the drudgery of talking to family, it added a third T-Day game, played at night after the Lions and Cowboys games conclude. No single team has a stranglehold on that slot, however. Two different teams are featured each year, allowing fans everywhere the opportunity to experience holiday disappointment in their hometown team.
Update: In the first of the 2017 Thanksgiving football games, the division rival Minnesota Vikings held off a late comeback from the Detroit Lions to win 30-23. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum led the way in the matinee Turkey Day game and won an odd silver, football-shaped trophy as reward. Although he seemed a little disappointed not to be getting one of the juicy turkey legs traditionally given to the MVP of the CBS (Dallas) Thanksgiving game...Thanksgiving football is a weird tradition.