NCAA Football

Why we watch football on Thanksgiving

Why we watch football on Thanksgiving


For many in the US, Thanksgiving usually means a few things: food, family…and football.

Millions attend the NFL’s annual Thanksgiving Day games each year, with last year’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Las Vegas Raiders drawing an audience of 38.5 million, making it the most-watched game of the NFL regular season. since 1990. (For comparison, 33.8 million are set at the inauguration of President Joe Biden).

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

Football began as an amateur sport, played mostly 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 began back in 1876, when the Intercollegiate Football Association began holding its championship game on the holiday. But the tradition didn’t begin to gain momentum until 1880, Andrews said, when the association moved the game at the end of the season to New York.

It was this game, Andrews said, that transformed soccer from a sport to a social one.

“This game was kind of the unofficial start to the winter holiday social season,” he said. “People from various colleges and universities will flood New York City, Wednesday night before the game, and Friday and Saturday nights will be after-game balls and trips to the theater. And then it really takes off, in the 1880s and 1890s.”

Thus, by the mid-1890s, college football and Thanksgiving had become synonymous.

Andrews said Thanksgiving didn’t become an annual holiday until 1863, when Abraham Lincoln encouraged its recognition as a way to promote labor unions during the Civil War. The rise of Thanksgiving, then, almost parallels the rise of football: The holiday fueled the sport’s popularity, Andrews said, and in turn, football made Thanksgiving a little more secular and more appealing.

And their alliance makes sense, Andrews said. Professional football didn’t exist yet, so the sport was intrinsically tied to communities at the high school and college levels, which could foster strong loyalties. School colors are often associated with football teams, and iconic events such as homecoming are usually associated with a football game.

“Football is a sport that communities revolve around,” Andrew said. “This holiday where we celebrate community, I think it makes sense that football would fit easily into that culture.”

But that doesn’t mean everyone celebrated the change.

In 1893, the New York Herald decried the rise of Thanksgiving football, arguing that the sport was ruining the holiday.

“Thanksgiving is no longer a solemn celebration of God’s mercy,” the paper is printed. “It is a holiday given to the state and the nation to see a game of football.”

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

So the league began scheduling Thanksgiving games — building on already existing traditions to help establish the league in the American consciousness. In its first decade, the NFL scheduled as many as six games on Thanksgiving Day, far fewer than the three games they have scheduled now. It was all an attempt to bring interest and exposure to the sport, Andrews said.

Why we watch football on Thanksgiving

“Of course they played on Thanksgiving because in 1920 Thanksgiving meant football and football meant Thanksgiving,” Andrews said. “The NFL would be missing out on a major opportunity to promote the game if they didn’t play on Thanksgiving. That would be almost un-American.’

And the strategy worked. The Detroit Lions, who play on Thanksgiving each year, first started the tradition in 1934 to promote their brand and bring fans to the stands.

However, professional football has not yet gained real popularity. Baseball was still the most popular sport in the United States. But by the 1960s, that began to change, Andrews said.

It was during this shift that the Dallas Cowboys, who also play every year on the holiday, began their Thanksgiving tradition. At the time, the Cowboys were a new team trying to build their brand and their fan base. So in 1966, they started playing a Thanksgiving game, Andrews said, which instantly exposed the team.

By the 1970s, the Cowboys were the most famous football team in the United States, and Thanksgiving and professional football were inextricably linked. And anyway, according to tradition, “Lions and Cowboys” continue to play on the holiday every year.

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

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

And those Thanksgiving games are important to the fans. Last year’s Thanksgiving game between the Raiders and Cowboys was the fourth-most watched game of 2021, behind the Super Bowl and the AFC and NFC championships. In addition to the inauguration of the president, the top 10 most popular TV broadcasts there were all the NFL games.

“Right or wrong, football is a religion in this country,” Andrews said. “And that’s why Thanksgiving football is sacred.”

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