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How Thanksgiving became the NFL’s signature holiday

This is how the NFL became synonymous with Thanksgiving.

NFL: NOV 28 Bears at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s that time of year again! It’s time to eat some turkey, argue with a relative about politics (preferably outside where your mom can’t hear you and tell you to stop), and most importantly, it’s time to watch some football all day long until you inevitably overdose on tryptophan and pass out in a reclining chair. I love it!

How did all this get started though? I’m not talking about the turkey and the politics of course. I’m talking about this thing where we all get together and watch football?

As a Detroit Lions fan, it’s something that’s been a part of my life since my first Thanksgiving back in 1985. It’s what we do. We get together as a family and we watch the Lions on Turkey Day. Sometimes they win and more often they lose, but what’s most important is that you get to experience it surrounded by the people you love. You know you’re going to have a good time regardless of the outcome. It’s just a fun day.

To learn how it all started, we have to go way back in time. All the back to Nov. 26, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday on that day. Six years later, the first recorded Thanksgiving Day game happened in Philadelphia. The Young America Cricket Club faced off against the Germantown Cricket Club. It’s odd that these football teams were called cricket clubs.

Thanksgiving games were typically a college football staple for much of the late 1800’s. Yale and Princeton really created the annual tradition of playing games on Thanksgiving starting in 1876. From there, pro leagues started to adopt the tradition in the late 1890’s. The first Thanksgiving Day game held by the NFL was in 1902. Although it’s not the NFL you know and love today, this was the first NFL that was founded in 1902 and then folded later that year shortly after that Thanksgiving Day game.

The first recorded Thanksgiving Day game that the NFL we know today recognizes was in 1920. The Akron Pros would beat the Canton Bulldogs 7-0 in that game. Since then, NFL football has been played on Thanksgiving every year except for a short break from 1941 to 1944 when many pro football players fought in World War II.

These games would go largely unnoticed by America. Back in this time, baseball was king. It America’s game to the point that pro football teams would often name their team after the local baseball team in hopes that it would draw fans to the building. It’s almost as if they were hoping confused fans would show up. There was an actual New York Yankees football team from 1926 to 1929.

It wasn’t until 1934 when NBC radio exec George A. Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and then moved them to Detroit and named them the Lions that Thanksgiving really became a gimmick for the NFL.

Richards was not making a lot of money with the Lions and having a game on Thanksgiving was an idea to help remedy that. The idea was that since everyone has the day off, more people could come to the game. So the Lions made a big deal about it. On top of that, since Richards owned an NBC affiliate radio station, he was able to work out a deal to broadcast the game on 94 different stations in the United States. This would become the NFL’s first nationally broadcast game.

People always ask why the Lions always get the broadcast on Thanksgiving Day. Well, it’s because they created it. That creation started the ball rolling for the NFL to become the broadcast juggernaut that it is today. The league now dominates TV viewership multiple days a week because of it. By the way, the first nationally televised Thanksgiving Day game happened in 1953 when the Lions hosted the Green Bay Packers.

From 1934 to 1965, the Detroit Lions were the only team that was guaranteed a Thanksgiving Day game. In 1966 the Dallas Cowboys, seeing the success that the Lions had shown by hosting Thanksgiving, signed up to be a part of that year’s Thanksgiving Day game. With the Cowboys being a very popular team, the NFL granted them the yearly game status along with the Lions. Since then, the Cowboys have hosted Thanksgiving every year except 1975 and 1977 when the NFL gave the games to the Cardinals instead to help make them more popular.

In 1970 the league moved from having up to four games on Thanksgiving to having just two. In 2006 the NFL added the now-popular primetime Thanksgiving game. That game saw the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos 19-10.

The Super Bowl is king for NFL. But when it comes to the regular season, it’s all about Thanksgiving. Last season 40.8 million people watched the Cowboys vs Chiefs game, making it the most watched regular-season game of the year.

I think that says a lot about what I started this whole piece with: Thanksgiving football is about family. It’s that one time of year that you’re virtually guaranteed to all be together and watching the same exact thing. It’s the one thing almost everyone can agree on that day. Because lord knows that nobody will be agreeing on whether or not cranberry sauce is good. It’s not, by the way.