Why is Football a Thanksgiving Tradition?

It’s time for another look at Holiday History! Thanksgiving is tomorrow and as it’s Thanksgiving Eve, it’s the perfect excuse to talk about history instead of the hydronics Sales Guy Scott thought I was writing about. In the US, there is a tradition of watching or in some cases playing football on Thanksgiving. The question on our minds today: why!? It’s Turkey Day, who wants to get a concussion and get stuck with hospital turkey?

The Origins of a Tradition

Football as we know it today basically came about in the mid 1800s (technically, it’s roots go farther back, but that’s a topic for another day). This lines up pretty well with the start of Thanksgiving as a federal holiday in the 1860s. The new holiday gave nearly everyone a day off. Various football teams took advantage of the day off and began to organize annual games on Thanksgiving.

As near as we can tell, the first such game was in 1876, held by Princeton and Yale. Other teams would pick up on the idea at all levels. Some high schools end their football season with a Thanksgiving day game still today. Professional leagues would soon pick up on the idea, with Thanksgiving day games held in the early football leagues in the 1890s.

The Big League’s Holiday

Essentially from that time forward, there have been Thanksgiving football games. It’s a core part of the sport’s DNA. In 1939,  President Roosevelt almost broke the tradition. He moved Thanksgiving for economic reasons, but not every state agreed. It would’ve fallen on the last day of November that year. He moved it to the third Thursday to extend the holiday shopping season. For a brief time, the holiday was fragmented. Only the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers played a Thanksgiving Game that year in professional football. After that, World War II came, the Thanksgiving games were put on hold again.

Following World War II, the tradition would finally resume, though without the fixed-opponents we know today. In 1966 the Dallas Cowboys would start a tradition of always hosting a Thanksgiving day game. In 1978 the Cowboys signed an agreement to always have a Thanksgiving Day slot in their league. That same year, Detroit would start its own tradition, with an annual Thanksgiving lions game.

The annual games were helped by the growing popularity of TV. Broadcast networks had contractual rights to broadcast the games. These contractual rights also required Thanksgiving games and defined some of the roles of what teams could play. This brought the games into the living rooms of families across the country. It was at one point, necessary to bundle up, travel, and watch the games out in the cold, but now, you could have your thanksgiving turkey and watch the game in comfort.

In 2006, a third game was added to Thanksgiving, giving football fans a Morning, Afternoon, and Night Time game to watch. This gives non-stop content for family gatherings and a massive bump in the league’s revenue, there was near guaranteed viewership for all three games. It’d be hard to lose.

The Tradition Continues

Tomorrow, there will be the traditional 3 games:

  • Cowboys V. Redskins
  • Lions V. Bears
  • Falcons V. Saints

From everyone at Procure Inc. have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


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