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Thanksgiving, like all other holidays, comes with a full slate of traditions. While some may vary from family to family, there are a few that everyone can agree on. Chief among them is watching football; even if you’re not a football fan, you’ll probably end up watching either the Detroit Lions or the Dallas Cowboys.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott shone for the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving.
Why do the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving? | Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But why do those two clubs always play on Thanksgiving? It turns out the answer stems from some NFL history that you might not be aware of.

The Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game

While it might have been quite a few years since the Detroit Lions have had a winning team, the franchise is one of the NFL’s oldest. The Lions began life as the Portsmouth Spartans in 1929 and relocated to the Motor City and adopted a new name five years later.

When the Lions arrived in town, however, they struggled to gain a foothold; most Detroit sports fans were devoted to Hank Greenberg’s Detroit Tigers. George Richards, who bought the Portsmouth franchise and moved it to the big city, came up with an idea to get people interested in his club. The Lions would play a game on Thanksgiving.

Richards also owned the local radio station and, because of the size of the Detroit market, was able to convince NBC to broadcast the game nationwide. On Thanksgiving, George Hallas’ defending champion Chicago Bears came to town, and the crowds showed up in droves. The Lions might have lost the game, but the scheduling decision was an unabashed success. The University of Detroit’s 26,000 seat stadium was sold out weeks in advance; ever since then, the Lions have played on Thanksgiving.

The Dallas Cowboys join the festivities

Since the Dallas Cowboys weren’t established until January 1960, they don’t have quite the same Thanksgiving pedigree as the Detroit Lions. The Texas team, however, has become a Turkey Day fixture.

In 1966, the Dallas Cowboys were starting to turn a corner. While the club had floundered during its first few NFL seasons, Tom Landry finally had things moving in the right direction. The Cowboys, however, were still far from a household name.

General manager Tex Schramm, however, had an idea to get the team into the national spotlight. He asked the NFL to schedule the Cowboys for a Thanksgiving Day game; while the league was concerned about attendance, they agreed, and the Cleveland Browns rolled into town. 80,259 fans packed the Cotton Bowl and saw a Cowboys victory. The game was such a striking success that Dallas has played on all but two Thanksgivings since.

Adding a prime-time game to Thanksgiving

Generations of NFL fans grew up following the same Thanksgiving routine: the Lions would play the early game, followed by the Dallas Cowboys in late afternoon. In 2006, however, that schedule changed, and a prime-time game was added. The broadcast was initially part of the NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football broadcast, but, since 2012, the game has been carried by NBC as part of Sunday Night Football.

With the addition of the third game to the Thanksgiving slate, you can watch football while cooking, eating, and digesting. NFL fans wouldn’t want it any other way.