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Why the Cowboys always play on Thanksgiving, in a 90-second read

The Cowboys have been a holiday staple since 1966.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys played their 52nd Thanksgiving game when they lost to the Bills in Week 13. The team’s tradition of games on the holiday dates back to 1966 and puts the Cowboys in the national spotlight annually.

The Cowboys started playing on Thanksgiving in 1966. In the first six years after the Cowboys became an NFL franchise in 1960, the team had a combined 25-53-4 record. President and general manager Tex Schramm was hunting for an opportunity to market the team and jumped at the chance to market his team on a national stage with Thanksgiving games.

The Lions did it first. When the Cowboys started playing on the holiday, they joined Detroit, who had been doing it since 1934. Other teams played on Thanksgiving before the Lions started doing so, but Detroit negotiated a deal with NBC to broadcast its games, helping to boost the team’s popularity and make it an annual tradition.

It was a risky venture. Even after a few decades of the Lions playing on Thanksgiving, the NFL wasn’t so convinced another team would be able to sell tickets to a game played on a holiday. The league guaranteed a minimum gate revenue to the Cowboys just in case nobody came to the game. It was a huge success and more than 80,000 fans were in the Cotton Bowl.

The Cowboys were briefly replaced by the Cardinals. With Dallas established as a perennial contender throughout the 1970s — including five trips to the Super Bowl during the decade — the NFL threw the St. Louis Cardinals a bone and featured them on Thanksgiving instead in 1975 and 1977. Both were bad losses for the Cardinals, and the Cowboys have been back in the holiday spotlight ever since.

Historically, the Cowboys have been successful on Thanksgiving. Dallas has a 31-20-1 record on the holiday. That’s better than the Lions, who are 37-41-2.

The Cowboys aren’t going anywhere. There used to be complaints about the fairness of two teams playing an annual Thursday game while almost every other team played its games on Sundays and Mondays. Fans also didn’t like being stuck with the same teams — especially when the Lions were struggling — every year.

But the addition of a third Thanksgiving game in 2006, and the expansion of Thursday Night Football to spread out mid-week games throughout the NFL, means the Lions’ and Cowboys’ tradition of being on your TV on the holiday is here to stay.


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