Food, Family, and Football: The Origins of the Gridiron as a Thanksgiving Tradition (Originally Posted November 11)

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, it is hard not to think about the many holiday traditions that we will soon be observing with our families, friends, and loved ones. Parades, feasts, and family gatherings are all sure to be featured on our calendars in the coming weeks. One interesting Thanksgiving tradition that has so deeply permeated our society is the spectacle of American football. On a day dedicated to observing the things that we are grateful for in life, many of us will sit down before or after a meal (or during), and watch twenty-two men lace up cleats and risk injury in order to move an inflated piece of leather from one end of a field to another. Some may even go out and play a game of their own, with their friends and family, or with their teammates at the high school or collegiate level.

Why?

Sure there are a number of questions related to football and to sport in general. Why do individuals dedicate so much time to watching a game they are not personally involved in? Why is the danger of football so appealing to so many people? These questions don’t have anything to do with Thanksgiving.

Why do we watch and play football on Thanksgiving Day specifically? After all, more than three centuries separate the first professional Thanksgiving football game and the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, and though misplaced some of our Thanksgiving traditions may be, it seems a bit of a stretch to connect football to the holiday at all.

It appears as if the origin of this tradition lays in a marketing scheme. In 1934, George A. Richards moved his football team, the Spartans of Portsmith, Ohio to Detroit and renamed them the Lions. The sports fans in Detroit seemed to care little about their new football team, focusing their admiration rather on the established Detroit Tigers, who played baseball. Richards, who needed to stir up interest in the city’s new team, convinced NBC to carry a Thanksgiving Day game between his Lions and the defending World Champion Chicago Bears. Though the Lions lost the game by a score of 19-16, the team was exposed to a nationwide audience and played before a crowd of nearly 26,000 people. Prior to that game, the largest crowd to watch the team play was just 15,000. Since then, the Detroit Lions have won 35 games, lost 38, and tied 2 on Thanksgiving, pausing for World War II, during which no NFL games were held on the holiday.

But what about the other games on Thanksgiving? The Dallas Cowboys, the so-called “America’s Team,” also plays yearly on the fourth Thursday of November. Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), this tradition is can also be attributed to marketing. In the 1960s, team owner Tex Schramm needed a way to boost interest in his struggling team. With NFL viewership quickly increasing, he followed the tactics of George Richards and added a Thanksgiving home game to his team’s schedule. Schramm’s ideas also had an air of strategy to them. A home game on Thursday would mean an incredibly short week of practice and travel for visiting teams, hopefully giving his team even more of a home field advantage.

In yet another display of the NFL’s search for economic success, a third professional game was added in 2006. This third game is not limited to a specific team however. Rather, any game deemed important or exciting enough to warrant a holiday timeslot is scheduled for the Thanksgiving Night game.

Since the first Thanksgiving NFL game in 1934, all but two teams, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars, have played at least one game on the fourth Thursday in November. Countless other fans and enthusiasts have followed in their favorite teams’ footsteps and have played games of their own. For better or worse, they can attribute their participation in this interesting American tradition to the pursuit of expanding markets and revenue for the National Football League.

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