A Short History of Thanksgiving Day Football

I originally published this piece for the holiday in 2017, on Stratfor.com. It now sits behind a paywall, but Stratfor subscribers can find it here.

November 23 marks the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, a time for airport delays, overindulgence and passive aggression at the family dinner table. For many Americans, Thanksgiving also means football. Fans can expect a full slate of games to accompany every bite and sip throughout the day, perhaps viewed from the couch next to the requisite drunken uncle. As we look forward to this week’s matchups, it seems like an opportune moment to reflect on the history of Thanksgiving football.

Much of the early development of American football traces back to the Ivy League, and the tradition of playing on Thanksgiving Day is no exception. In 1876, just 14 years after Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, Yale and Princeton squared off in what is considered the first Thanksgiving matchup on the gridiron. The other Ivies and early football powerhouses like the universities of Michigan and Chicago followed suit, embracing the self-evident logic of playing on Thanksgiving: In the era before television or radio, a day off work meant large crowds with time on their hands that could be enticed to stadiums for holiday entertainment. High school football programs soon kicked off their own Thanksgiving traditions, some of which continue today. On the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, Easton and Phillipsburg high schools will meet for their 111th Thanksgiving contest this year. Arguably the most storied high school football rivalry in the country, between the Boston Latin School and the English High School of Boston, has been a Thanksgiving staple since 1887.

When the National Football League was established in 1920, it was no surprise that it joined the fray. Its teams played as many as six games each Thanksgiving Day for the first decade of its existence. Today, NFL fans can expect three matchups on the holiday: one each featuring traditional mainstays the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys, and one randomly assigned game. The Cowboys have been a Thanksgiving fixture since 1966, when Tex Schramm, their legendary general manager, established the holiday tradition. But Schramm was some three decades behind the Lions’ first owner, George Richards, who scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game against the champion Chicago Bears in 1934 in an effort to boost attendance and draw attention to his struggling ball club. That contest was the first NFL game to be broadcast on national radio. Richards, a radio station owner himself, coordinated with NBC to run the game on almost 100 stations nationwide. It was a coup for Richards, whose team leapt onto the national stage, but it was just the beginning of the NFL’s campaign to dominate the airwaves. In the second half of the 20th century, shrewd positioning on radio and television would help the league eclipse college football and other professional sports in popularity in the United States.

And Then Came ‘Franksgiving’


The addition of NFL games cemented Thanksgiving football as an American institution in the interwar years. By this period, most collegiate programs had arranged their schedules to culminate on the holiday, usually in a much anticipated matchup against a traditional rival. This routine was upset at the tail end of the Great Depression during a somewhat forgotten period between 1939 and 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to reschedule the holiday. The move caused a mild national fracas known as “Franksgiving.” For the play-by-play, I’ll defer to the Aug. 28, 1939, issue of Time magazine:

“… Mrs. President Roosevelt … went to bat cleverly in her column to defend an act of her husband’s which had stirred the country to its grass roots: shifting Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November (the 30th) to the next-to-last. … Only since 1863 has Thanksgiving had a consistent year-to-year day, but football coaches were furious: 30 percent of them had games scheduled Nov. 30 which would now play to ordinary weekday crowds.”

With the adjustment, FDR was ostensibly attempting to boost national morale and holiday spending by extending the festive season. Historians argue that the economic impact of the action was negligible; the effect on morale was equally debatable. Along with the frustrated football coaches, critics of the president took the opportunity to link the holiday decision to his broader deficiencies. Time quoted Alf Landon, former Kansas governor and failed presidential challenger, describing the situation as “another illustration of the confusion which his impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken in working it out … instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” The greatest morale boost likely came in Colorado, Texas and Mississippi: While other states split the difference, observing either Roosevelt’s proposed date or the traditional fourth Thursday, those states chose to observe both.

War and Beyond


On the heels of the Franksgiving kerfuffle, the onset of World War II brought the most sustained challenge to Thanksgiving football, especially for the NFL, which abandoned holiday action through 1945. The collegiate level also saw a steep decline, mainly because wartime realities meant that most seasons were truncated, concluding well before Thanksgiving. As the draft shrank the pool of available players at all levels, wartime restrictions on large group air travel further held back the sport. Basketball, meanwhile, enjoyed a significant boost in popularity during the war, and not just because it replaced a diminished football offering. The sport’s smaller squads could get around the travel restrictions that kept football teams grounded. In addition, because men taller than about 2 meters (6.5 feet) didn’t fit military uniform and equipment standards, many elite basketball players remained at home while shorter football stars entered the service.

The end of the war brought the return of full-time football and of the Thanksgiving Day schedule. In the postwar decades, as the NFL’s presence grew across the country, professional football for the most part displaced college offerings from Thanksgiving Thursday, save the occasional marquee matchup. The shift has only been a boon for the well-stuffed fan. Most universities still will feature a major rivalry this weekend, meaning viewers can now enjoy leftovers alongside four days of glorious gridiron entertainment — which I’m pretty sure is what the Pilgrims were really searching for anyway.

Pandemic Accelerants: NCAA NIL Rights

More developments in one of the areas I suggested would be accelerated by the pandemic, as the NCAA has outlined their plan for granting athletes NIL rights. These are not the same as the federal and state level rules on the books or making their way through legislative processes. Why now? No surprise, as college sports have been financially brutalized and have come under fire for soldiering on with games despite all of the risks to athletes, coaches, and fans. It’s part of the classic NCAA playbook: claim that something is impossible and would destroy the fabric of the system– nay, American life– wait for the pressure to mount, then relent a bit while still maintaining control.

Great summary from Axios here and some key points to note:

Four ways to earn: Student athletes would be able to conduct private lessons or camps, endorse products, sell autographs and crowdfund for things like charities and family emergencies.

Restrictions: School logos must be absent from any of the above and athletes can’t endorse products that conflict with existing school sponsorships or NCAA legislation (i.e. banned substances, gambling).

Oversight: There will be a third-party platform for disclosure and approval of all NIL activities.

Pandemic Accelerants: Youth Sports In Danger

In what wasn’t a particularly bold prediction, I previously forecasted significant pandemic challenges for youth sport. This is not the type of thing that I’m happy to be right about, but some recent data confirms that there is reason for concern in this space. Excellent reporting from the New York Times.

From Front Office Sports, data from the always excellent Aspen Institute’s Project Play:

Some youth sports have returned to play, while others remain sidelined — showing the pandemic’s adverse effect on the future of the $19 billion industry. A new survey by the Aspen Institute has found 29% of parents reported their child is no longer interested in sports.

Among the findings was a widening opportunity gap, with wealthier families finding ways to keep their children active in sports. Also contributing to the lack of interest is the inability to gather for games — whether at an arena or in a communal setting — which promotes fandom that sparks children to take up sports.

Sports participation was at an all-time high in 2019, with 45 million youth program participants. With video games rising in popularity and live sports still paused in many communities, that upward trend is at risk.

More data from Aspen:

  • 28.9% of parents reported their child is no longer interested in sports as a potential barrier to resume. 
  • 63.9% reported fear of illness in children — 59.3% in parents — as a barrier to resume sports.
  • 28% of parents reported they would willingly spend more money on sports when they return.
  • Children went from playing sports 13.6 hours per week pre-pandemic to 7.2 hours per week in September.

The Power of Sports and Memory

My three year-old son, Gus, recently began his foray into organized (well, somewhat organized) sports with a great tee-ball program called Little Rookies. Newsletter readers may recall that the very first thing he did upon taking the field was to drop his little shorts and pee on home plate. I wasn’t there for that priceless moment, but the story from my wife filled me with a blend of horror and pride. This week, my afternoon class has a big project, so I’ve given them the week off from class to work, which meant I was able to go and see the action for myself.

It was a blast: a gaggle of 3-5 year olds running around and occasionally doing something resembling sports. Bless the coaches, who have the patience of saints and I’m pretty sure keep a smile behind their masks throughout the session. The kids seemed to have a great time playing, but the handing out of post-play stickers was clearly their favorite part. I was most impressed with how well they’ve trained the kids to support each other; every hit and fielded ball is met with a chorus of cheers from the crew and I hope they’ll always be like that. (I know they won’t, things will get serious all too soon, no matter how hard we try.)

I had a great time, but I wasn’t expecting the wave of emotions that came at the end of practice, after loading Gus up in his mom’s car and making my way to my own. I closed the door and pretty much broke down. In part, it was what all parents must feel when the kids begin to grow up. I still remember holding him for the first time in the hospital, absolutely terrified; now he’s taking big cuts and giving high-fives to his buddies. This feeling, I may have expected. But I didn’t expect the torrent of memories from my own childhood spent on fields and courts. The wins and the losses, sure, but mostly my folks, always taking the time to show up and support, to learn the rules and traditions of the American youth sports world. Taking my first home run ball to my mother, sick and in bed at home. My dad inscribed the ball with the date and field; it now sits in my top desk drawer at work, something to hold and fiddle with in distracted moments. A few years later: playing soccer the weekend after she passed away, my absolute legend of a coach, George Inyang, putting his big arm around me and saying “you’re going to be ok maaaan.”

I called my dad from the car. Twenty minutes earlier I had been live-streaming Gus at bat, marveling at the technology to broadcast the experience to the other side of the planet. I think he knew the call was coming. We had a good talk and he brought me back to neutral, as he has always done. I headed to our old house to finish up a move. Fittingly, the last boxes out were the old trophies and the old family photos.

This morning, I woke up, feeling peace and tremendous gratitude. For Gus’s coaches. For my wife and son and our families. For those who have passed and those who have their life ahead of them. Even when the world is upside down, life can be so, so sweet.

Limited Attention: Gen Z Sports Fans

Following up on yesterday’s accelerant watch, some data to back up the declining interest in sports from Generation Z. Not necessarilly that surprising and it will be interesting to see if some of these new apps and platforms can improve the numbers. Data from the Morning Consult:

–53% of Gen Zers identify as sports fans, compared to 63% of all adults and 69% of millennials.

–Gen Zers are half as likely as millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch.

–Esports are more popular among Gen Z than MLB, NASCAR and the NHL, with 35% identifying as fans

Full report here.

Pandemic Accelerant Watch: Broadcast Tech and High School Sports

As I’ve previously written, I’m keeping an eye on industry trends that are being accelerated by market forces during the pandemic.

One firm to keep an eye on is Buzzer, “a notification-driven mobile platform for live sports personalized for fans and authenticated through existing subscriptions or micropayments.” In other words, the Buzzer app notifies you when something of interest is on–say a close NFL game in the final two minutes–and allows you to tune in, either via a subscription you already have or by making a “micropayment” for instant access. This isn’t a totally new concept; the NBA has played around with a model that allows you tune into to a portion of a game for a small price. But Buzzer is ambitious, linking platforms and leagues in a personalized experience. Founded earlier this year by Bo Han, Twitter’s former head of sports partnerships and rights, Buzzer has just completed a $4 million seed round. I see great potential with this model, especially with the industry’s ongoing struggle to cultivate the short attention span of Gen Z. More on the upstart firm via Axios.

In a similar vein (and with a similar name) is Overtime, a digital platform for high school sports programming. The business model is different, relying on paid contributors to record live action. The four-year-old company has a massive online following and deserves some credit in making young stars like Zion Williamson household names before their first college game. Investors have lined up, including firms such as Andreesen Horowitz and NBA stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. While I applaud their success, I have ethical misgivings over the business model, where the amateur talent they feature is compensated solely via “exposure.” And I’m also not too keen on the further professionalization of youth sports, but it seems that that train left the station some time ago. More on Overtime via the Huddle Up newsletter.