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How the NFL Came to Own Thanksgiving

The annual NFL Thanksgiving games are a holiday staple — but it wasn’t always this way. Boardroom explores how they grew to be an institution unto themselves.

Thanksgiving is a day for loved ones to gather around, eat food, enjoy some laughs, and watch the NFL. It’s a fixture in American culture that dates back to 1934, and 88 years later, it’s still growing.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, someone present at your dinner this year is more than likely to be interested in the annual Thursday NFL slate based on tradition, love for the games and teams themselves, and/or newfound betting interests as the practice becomes increasingly legalized.

And not for nothing, it may as well go without saying that the NFL is the king when it comes to US television. As of Nov. 15, Fox’s “America’s Game of the Week” telecast in the 4 p.m. ET window is consistently the No. 1 show on TV with an average of 22,463,000 viewers. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Dallas Cowboys — the most popular NFL franchise and the most valuable sports team on earth — always plays a Thanksgiving game. (For the record, so do the Detroit Lions.)

These games are peaking for several reasons, but tradition is tradition. This year, the league rolled out the red carpet for the day’s slate with the Lions hosting Super Bowl favorite Buffalo Bills, the Cowboys and New York Giants duking it out for the No. 2 seed in the NFC East, and the 5-4 New England Patriots visiting the Minnesota Vikings, who currently own the second-best record in football.

There isn’t one thesis that encapsulates exactly why the NFL is such a staple on the fourth Thursday of the month, but we’ll do our best to contextualize this phenomenon by starting right at the beginning.

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The History of NFL Thanksgiving Games

The first major football game played on Thanksgiving Day was actually within the Intercollegiate Football Association in 1876. By 1893, more than 45,000 people gathered to watch the Yale and Princeton football teams meet in New York when the New York Herald deemed Thanksgiving the official holiday for watching football.

The NFL was established fewer than 30 years later in 1920, and began its own November holiday trend in 1934. Thanksgiving Day games have traditionally included one game each hosted by the Lions and Cowboys since 1966. Over time, the Cowboys would soon achieve the status (love it or hate it!) of “America’s Team.” Jerry Jones went on to buy the franchise for $150 million in 1989 — that equates to $302.5 million in 2022 dollars — while Forbes estimates them to be worth an incredible $8 billion. Don’t think the consistent Thanksgiving spotlight has nothing to do with their uniquely powerful reach as a brand.

The Lions and ‘Boys have owned the day for decades and there’s no reason to believe that will change, but even more importantly for the league, piggybacking off the success of their games led to the creation of a third Thanksgiving game in 2006 in primetime.

The Product 

The on-field product is booming. Team valuations and player contracts are higher than they’ve ever been. The league just snagged $110 billion in their media rights deal. And there are seeds being planted in other countries (England, Germany) to build the game globally.

The demand is growing as the game becomes faster-paced behind a pass-first style. There’s never a shortage of highlights or big plays — as NFL RedZone host Scott Hanson told Boardroom: “ The NFL always zigs when you think it’s gonna zag.” And overall, there’s a level parity we so rarely see in sports, especially after the league expanded the regular season to 17 games and the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 in 2020. More specifically:

  • More than half of the NFL is .500 or better (17 teams).
  • Only two wins (or less) separate 13 teams from a playoff spot.
  • The NFC East’s .703 winning percentage (26-11) is the highest ever through Week 10.
  • The AFC East and NFC South divisions’ No. 1 and No. 4 teams are separated by two wins.

With that in mind, the idea of the NFL expanding the Thanksgiving Day slate even further one day is anything but out of the question.

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Media and the Future

The NBA and NHL don’t even bother playing games on Thanksgiving. The Association stopped hosting them in 2005, one year before the NFL first added a primetime game. Last year’s Thanksgiving Day games attracted an average of 29.7 million viewers, highlighted by the Cowboys-Raiders, which brought in peak viewership of 38.3 million.

Put it this way: The NBA Finals’ best viewership year was in 1998 — Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ Last Dance — with a peak of 29.7 million. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals peak was 5.76 million in 2013. Combine those two and you still fall short of the NFL’s 38.3 million… for a regular season game. Comparing sports leagues can be an apples-and-oranges situation, but the NFL is king no matter what, and Thanksgiving only adds more fuel to its cross-platform media and marketing bonfire.

(It’s pretty astounding when all things are put into perspective: The Super Bowl occupies 30 of the 32 most-watched broadcasts in television history — the M*A*S*H series finale in 1983 and the 2016 Presidential Debates are the only other entries on the list.)

Looking ahead, the NFL has added several new components to its media rights package that could shape Thanksgivings to come. Amazon Prime Video jumped in as the exclusive home of Thursday Night Football, joining ESPN, FOX, CBS, and NBC this year as weekly NFL broadcasters. Oddly enough, Prime Video doesn’t have Thanksgiving night despite it being a Thursday — the slot was guaranteed to NBC this year as part of its own deal. Expect that to change, however, if and when the league decides to add a fourth game.

It makes sense, too. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is hosted in the morning on free TV (NBC) and has consistently brought in 25 million viewers over the past three years. Streaming might not be traditional enough — yet — but before long, it’s likely to be an increasingly easy transition to embrace.

An Ode To John Madden

Few things are more synonymous than John Madden and Thanksgiving football. The NFL will honor the late legend beginning this year with the “John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration,” a yearly, multi-faceted salute to his indelible legacy.

“No one cared more or contributed more to our game than John Madden,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this month. “Honoring his memory and impact on the NFL is important and Thanksgiving Day brings all of the elements significant to John to life — family, football, food, and fun.”

The inaugural “John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration” will feature special broadcast tributes on CBS, FOX, and NBC. Special “John Madden Thanksgiving ” logos will be placed at the 25-yard lines of each field. And teams will feature stickers on the back of players’ helmets depicting the iconic image of Madden with his fist up in the air.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and enjoy the day however you please — though we’d imagine you’re one of many tuning in for this three-game slate.

Just remember to pace yourself. You don’t want to have to miss out when those pies are still hot.

NFL Thanksgiving Games 2022

Buffalo Bulls @ Detroit Lions

  • 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS

New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys

  • 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox

New England Patriots @ Minnesota Vikings

  • 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC

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