How Football Became a Thanksgiving Tradition | CNN

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Thanksgiving, for many in the United States, usually means a few things: food, family… and football.

Every year, millions tune in to watch the annual Thanksgiving NFL games – last year’s matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Las Vegas Raiders drew an audience of 38.5 million people, the most watched NFL regular season game since 1990. (By comparison, 33.8 million were added to President Joe Biden’s inauguration).

But how did America’s favorite sport become so attached to the holiday? CNN spoke to experts to find out.

Football began as an amateur sport — played mainly at elite Northeastern colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, said Matthew Andrews, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The Thanksgiving tradition dates back to 1876, when the Intercollegiate Football Association began holding its championship game on the holiday. But the tradition didn’t begin to pick up steam until the 1880s, Andrews said, when the association moved the end-of-season game to New York.

Andrews says the game is what took football from a sporting event to a social one.

“This game was the unofficial start of the winter holiday social season,” he said. “People from various colleges and universities would flood into New York City, and there would be pregame Wednesday night dinners and Friday and Saturday night postgame balls and trips to the theater. And that’s when it really took off in the 1880s and 1890s.

And so, by the mid-1890s, college football and Thanksgiving Day were synonymous.

Thanksgiving didn’t really become an annually celebrated holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln encouraged its recognition as a way to promote Unionism during the Civil War, Andrews said. The rise of Thanksgiving, then, roughly coincided with the rise of football: The holiday helped boost the game’s popularity, Andrews said, and as a result football made Thanksgiving a bit more secular and more widely appealing.

And their alliance makes sense, Andrews said. Professional football did not yet exist, so the game was intrinsically tied to communities at the high school and college level, which could foster fierce loyalties. the school Colors are often associated with football teams, and landmark events such as homecoming are usually associated with a football game.

“Football is a game that communities revolve around,” Andrew said. “With this holiday where we’re celebrating community, I think it makes sense that soccer would fit seamlessly into that culture.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone celebrated the shift.

In 1893, the New York Herald condemned the rise of football on Thanksgiving, arguing that the game was ruining the holiday.

“Thanksgiving is no longer a solemn feast for God’s grace,” the paper notes. “It’s a holiday given to the state and the nation to watch football games.”

At that time, football was still an amateur sport. When the NFL was founded in the 1920s, no one was really interested in professional football, Andrews said.

So, the league began scheduling games on Thanksgiving – drawing on pre-existing traditions to help establish the league in the American spirit. In its first decade, the NFL would schedule six games on Thanksgiving, far more than the three games they schedule now. Andrews said it was an effort to bring interest and prominence to the sport.

A Detroit Lions football team photo circa 1934.  That year, the Lions began the tradition of their annual Thanksgiving game, which continues to this day.

“Of course they played on Thanksgiving, because by the 1920s Thanksgiving meant football and football meant Thanksgiving,” Andrews said. “If the NFL had not played on Thanksgiving Day, it would have missed an important opportunity to popularize the game. It would have been almost un-American.”

And the strategy worked. The Detroit Lions, who play every year on Thanksgiving, first started the tradition in 1934 – in an effort to boost their brand and keep fans in the stands.

Still, professional soccer has yet to explode in popularity. Baseball was still the most popular sport in the United States. But in the 1960s, that began to change, Andrews said.

It was during that transition that the Dallas Cowboys, who also play every year on the holiday, began their Thanksgiving tradition. At the time, the Cowboys were a fledgling team building their brand and their fanbase. So in 1966, they began hosting a Thanksgiving game, Andrews said, bringing instant exposure to the team.

In the 1970s, the Cowboys were the most famous football team in the United States, and Thanksgiving and professional football were intrinsically linked. And yet, by tradition, the Lions and Cowboys continue to play each year on the holiday.

Dallas Cowboys' Bob Hayes pictured in action against the Washington Commanders on December 11, 1996 in Dallas.

But in the end, other groups complained, arguing that they “didn’t get a piece of this Thanksgiving pie,” Andrews said. As a result, in 2006, the NFL added a third Thanksgiving game to the lineup, featuring rotating teams.

And these Thanksgiving games are important for fans. Last year, the Thanksgiving matchup between the Raiders and Cowboys was the fourth most-watched broadcast of 2021 behind the Super Bowl and the AFC and NFC championships. Aside from the presidential inauguration, the top-10 most-watched telecasts were all NFL games.

“Right or wrong, football is a religion in this country,” Andrews said. “And so football is sacred on Thanksgiving.”

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