How Watching Football Became a Thanksgiving Tradition

Football Became a Thanksgiving Tradition: Origins in College Football (Late 19th Century) Back in the late 1800s, football was primarily an amateur sport played in elite northeastern colleges. The tradition of Thanksgiving football began in 1876 when the Intercollegiate Football Association hosted its championship game on the holiday. The real boost, however, came in 1880 when the championship game moved to New York. This shift turned the game into a social event, marking the unofficial start of the winter holiday season. By the mid-1890s, college football and Thanks-giving had become synonymous.

Thanksgiving and Football Rise Together

Thanks-giving wasn’t a widely celebrated holiday until 1863, around the time when Abraham Lincoln promoted its recognition. Coincidentally, this period saw the surge of football’s popularity. The connection between the two made sense as football was deeply tied to communities, especially at the high school and college levels. The sport, with its communal nature, seamlessly fit into the Thanks-giving culture.

Not Everyone Approves

However, not everyone welcomed the fusion of Thank-sgiving and football. In 1893, the New York Herald criticized the rise of football on Thanks-giving, arguing that it was detracting from the holiday’s original purpose.

NFL Enters the Scene (1920s)

When the NFL was established in 1920, professional football didn’t have the same level of interest. To change that, the NFL scheduled games on Thanks-giving, leveraging the existing tradition. This move aimed to boost the sport’s popularity and make it a part of the American consciousness. The Detroit Lions adopted the annual Thanks-giving game tradition in 1934 to enhance their brand and attract more fans.

The 1970s: Thanksgiving and NFL Inseparable

By the 1970s, Thanksgiving and NFL football were inseparable. Baseball had been the leading sport in the U.S., but a shift occurred in the 1960s. The Dallas Cowboys, looking to build their brand, initiated a Thanksgiving game tradition in 1966, gaining instant exposure. This move contributed to the Cowboys becoming the most famous football team in the U.S. The tradition continued, with the Lions and Cowboys playing every year on Thanksgiving.

Expanding Tradition and Dominance (2006 Onwards)

Despite the Cowboys’ and Lions’ Thanks-giving games, other teams felt left out. In 2006, the NFL added a third Thanks-giving game featuring rotating teams. These Thanks-giving games have become crucial for fans, consistently ranking high in viewership. In 2021 and 2022, Thanks-giving NFL games secured top spots in the list of most-watched telecasts, emphasizing the enduring significance of football on Thanks-giving.

Conclusion: Football as a Thanksgiving Tradition

In the end, right or wrong, football has become a kind of religion in the U.S., and the association of football with Thanks-giving is considered sacred by many.

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