You hear the same phrases every Thanksgiving. “Please pass the gravy.” “Actually, can I have the gravy again? I missed a spot.” And “Ugh, why do we have to watch the Lions play again this year?” Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. When this year’s hapless 0-11 squad squares off against the powerhouse Tennessee Titans, you might find yourself wondering how the lowly Lions managed to get the plum gig of playing a nationally televised game every Turkey Day. So what’s the origin of Detroit’s most beloved football tradition this side of “Fire Millen!” chants? And what about the other Thanksgiving NFL stalwart, the Dallas Cowboys?
It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn’t quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.
Although Richards’ new squad was a solid team, they were clearly playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchisee, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards’ WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.
The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL’s Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and that’s why the Lions still play on Thanksgiving.
The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no reassurance that Texans would warm to holiday football quite so quickly.
Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under a young head coach named Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.
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