Why Do We Play Football on Thanksgiving?

A Thanksgiving cornucopia with a football on the field.

For many families, watching or playing football on Thanksgiving is as important a part of the holiday as turkey and stuffing! Have you ever wondered why Thanksgiving football became an American tradition? Rocky Top Sports World did a little research to bring you the answer to this question.

The Tradition Starts Earlier Than You Think

Thanksgiving’s love affair with football goes all the way back to the 19th century. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, and just a few years later, people started scheduling football games on Turkey Day. The first major Thanksgiving football game was the 1876 match between Yale and Princeton. During this time, football was in its infancy and the sport was still developing its distinct identity from rugby. The fourth thursday in November eventually became the usual date for the Intercollegiate Football Association championship game.

By the late 1890s, thousands of football games were occurring every Thanksgiving, at both the college and high school level. The University of Michigan and the University of Chicago developed a well known Thanksgiving rivalry, and the Boston Latin School and the English High School of Boston have played a holiday game against each other every year since 1887!

(See Also: New Survey Shows That Football is the Fastest Growing Youth Sport in America)

The NFL Gets in on the Thanksgiving Football FunFord Field, home of the Detriot Lions.

The popularity of Thanksgiving football really took off when NFL teams started to participate in the tradition. In 1934, radio executive George A. Richards moved his Portsmouth Spartans to Detroit, where they became the Lions. Baseball dominated the news in Detroit, so Richards devised a scheme to steal the spotlight. He organized a game between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears for Thanksgiving Day and used his contacts in the radio industry to make sure that the game was broadcast on 94 stations across the nation.

Although the Lions lost, Richards succeeded in drumming up publicity for the team, as 11,000 more fans than usual attended the game at University of Detroit Stadium. The Detroit Lions have played every Thanksgiving since the tradition began.

The Dallas Cowboys are the other NFL team to always play on Thanksgiving. While the Lions’ foray into Thanksgiving football was boosted by the radio, it was television that broadcast the Cowboys into the homes of millions of fans on Turkey Day. TV viewership was rising in the 60s, so the NFL decided to add an additional game to the Thanksgiving lineup.

Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm thought that a holiday game would be a good marketing opportunity for his fledgling team, so the Cowboys took the open slot in 1966. This proved to be a great move, as the Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns and carried the momentum for 20 straight winning seasons.

Young boys playing football.Our Own Thanksgiving Football Tradition

Here in Gatlinburg, TN, we have our own holiday tradition: the Gatlinburg Thanksgiving Bowl. This extremely popular event has been taking place since 1972! To learn all about the tournament, read our blog about the Gatlinburg Thanksgiving Bowl.