When we think of Thanksgiving, we think of turkey, family, and football. The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys specifically come to mind, because each hosts a Thanksgiving-day football game. But how did this football on Thanksgiving tradition, revolving around those two teams come to be?

The first Thanksgiving Day football game occurred in Philadelphia between the Young America Cricket Club, and the Germantown Cricket Club in 1869. This occurred only weeks after what was the first ever football game.

How Did the Lions and Cowboys End Up Playing Football on Thanksgiving?

The Lions played the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving in 1934, and their then-owner looked at it to draw more fans. The Lions have played on the holiday nearly every year since. The Lions of this era were not attracting big crowds, because the Detroit Tigers were considered to be the city’s main sporting attraction.

Their owner at the time, George A. Richards, was known as a savvy marketer. Playing on the holiday immediately drew more fans to games, even though the team has struggled through the decades.

The Cowboys began playing on the holiday, nearly three decades later, in 1966, when they defeated the Cleveland Browns. They started playing on Thanksgiving as a way to build up their brand and their fan base. They only missed 1975 and 1977, when the Cardinals played instead. But they’ve since taken the game back, and traditionally play on the holiday.

Current NFL Holiday Schedules

Football on Thanksgiving continues to evolve.

The Detroit Lions typically play the early game, starting at noon central time. The Cowboys play the late afternoon game, starting at 3:30. In 2006, the NFL added a third game in the evening, to help raise the profile of other teams. The third game’s teams are selected at random, so that it’s not the same teams.