LAS VEGAS (KLAS) –“More football?” When we were dating, way, way before the “I dos,” my wife always seemed to ask this some time on Thanksgiving Day. To be followed by “Saturdays and Sundays aren’t enough?”
Football and Thanksgiving have a long history. There’s evidence the first Turkey Day scuffle with an inflated pigskin was in Philadelphia, in 1869, between the Young America and Germantown cricket clubs.
Go figure. From cricket to football. Why, though? Something to do, most likely. A new game, at that time, giving young men a chance to blow off steam.
For some more historical perspective, UNLV once played on Thanksgiving Day, beating intrastate rival Nevada-Reno 42-30 at Las Vegas High School’s Butcher Field. That game was the first time UNLV won the Fremont Cannon.
Yale and Princeton get credit for the first college game on Thanksgiving, in 1876. Some colleges, off and on, have played on Thanksgiving, including Alabama State and Tuskegee University as far back as 1924. Those schools resume their holiday game for three successive years beginning in 2023.
One major college game is scheduled for this Thanksgiving: Mississippi versus Mississippi State (1 p.m., ESPN).
As for the National Football League, the incentive to play on Thanksgiving is money, of course.
It became a tradition for the league in 1934, when the owner of the Detroit Lions, George A. Richards, wanted to see more fans in the stands for his new team. Owner of powerful Detroit radio station WJR, Richards had relocated the team that spring from Portsmouth, Ohio, to the Motor City.
So the Lions, from 1934 till 1966, were the NFL’s exclusive host for the Turkey Day game. The annual game was not played from 1939 to 1944, paused by World War II. The Lions are 37-43-2 on Turkey Day, including five successive losses.
The Dallas Cowboys broke into the Thanksgiving Day schedule in 1966, because ownership decided an exclusive game for a then-struggling team would boost interest and attendance. They’ve played every year since, except two, going 31-22-1. The two exceptions, 1975 and 1977, had the St. Louis Cardinals as the host team. The NFL chose the day to give a boost to the Cardinals, then a struggling franchise.
The games for years have been tied to TV ratings, of course.
Last year’s games attracted an average of 29.7 million viewers, led by the Cowboys-Raiders game, which pulled in 38.3 million viewers. It marked the best TV ratings for the league on Turkey Day since 1998.
In 2006, the league decided to add a third game, with the home team being rotated among the rest of the NFL members.
This year, the Lions host the Buffalo Bills in the early game (9:30 a.m., KLAS, Channel 8), followed by the Cowboys hosting the New York Giants (1:30 p.m., KVVU, Channel 5) and then the New England Patriots visiting the Minnesota Vikings (5:20 p.m., KSNV, Channel 3).