Lions, Cowboys, and turkey, oh my!
There are few traditions more associated with Thanksgiving Day than watching football, and it all started with a marketing plan to get people to care about the Detroit Lions, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame website.
In 1934, the newly created Lions, in an effort to appeal to fans in their inaugural season, played the world champion Chicago Bears. Although the Lions lost 19-16, the game had a strong turnout – 26,000 seats sold – and was broadcast nationally on NBC Radio.
The Lions have remained a holiday fixture, playing a game on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1945.
THE ROARING DETROIT LIONS
Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. 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 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 franchise, 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.
HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?
The Cowboys 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 assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.
(Photo: USA TODAY)
Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a 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 young head coach 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.'
NOW THERE'S THAT THANKSGIVING NIGHT GAME
Now, there's this night game thing which started in 2006, because we need more football on Thanksgiving, right? The NFL doesn't assign this game to a specific franchise.