Why the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving Day

With America still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Thanksgiving Day will looked markedly different this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged Americans not to travel for the holiday, while the traditional parades have been cancelled in order to comply with social distancing measures.

For all the unprecedented circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak, there will be at least one aspect of Thanksgiving that will not differ from its previous predecessors: the sight of NFL teams playing on the fourth Thursday of November.

It may be behind closed doors or in stadiums operating at limited capacity, but the long-established tradition of watching football in between slices of turkey and a spoonful of mashed potatoes will continue this year, providing some much-needed distraction for millions across the country.

Here's all you need to know about one of the NFL's dearest traditions.

Why does the NFL play on Thanksgiving?

The choice of playing football on a national holiday is not casual, as Thanksgiving has traditionally been the day when most people across the U.S. were off work.

The first to spot the commercial opportunity of playing football on America's favorite holiday was George A. Richard.

The owner of WJR—a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network—Richards purchased the Portsmouth Spartans and relocated them to Detroit, rebranding them Detroit Lions.

Once the move was complete in 1934, Richards used his connections to secure an agreement with NBC to broadcast Lions games live on Thanksgiving. At the time seen as a major coup for the Lions, the deal has since transcended the sport in ways Richard couldn't have possibly imagined as football has become a quintessential part of Thanksgiving.

As a nod to the Lions' trailblazing role, Detroit has been a near-constant feature of Thanksgiving Day games.

NFL, Thanksgiving
A Dallas Cowboys fan on the sidelines before a game on Thanksgiving Day against the Buffalo Bills at AT&T Stadium on November 28, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. The Cowboys host NFC East rivals Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving this year. Wesley Hitt/Getty

Did football on Thanksgiving begin with the NFL?

It did not. In fact, by the time the NFL was founded in 1920, playing football on Thanksgiving Day was already a well-established tradition. Back then, however, it was college football teams as opposed to their professional counterparts, who used to play on the fourth Thursday in November.

Yale and Princeton faced off on Thanksgiving Day in 1876, before Michigan and Chicago played a series of games between 1885 and 1905, which have largely been credited with kickstarting the tradition of football on Thanksgiving.

Which teams play on Thanksgiving?

As mentioned above, the Lions have been an almost constant feature of Thanksgiving Day games since their debut appearance first established the tradition in 1934.

Detroit has always played on the holiday, except for 1939 and 1940—games weren't held on the holiday from 1941 to 1944 due to World War II.

It was not until 32 years later, however, that what is now considered a staple of the NFL Thanksgiving menu made its first appearance.

Following their debut in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys have played on the holiday uninterruptedly, except for 1975 and 1977 when then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle opted to replace them with the St. Louis Cardinals instead.

Ratings swiftly tanked and America's Team regained its berth in 1978, which it has held ever since. In the intervening 42 years, the Cowboys have always played in the 4:30 p.m. ET kickoff, while the Lions have always featured in the 12:30 p.m. ET.

While more than two games had been played on Thanksgiving in the past, a third game was only officially added to the schedule in 2006.