by Mike Hayes - 11/21/2005
Football on Thanksgiving Day -- a tradition that began 85 years ago -- has become as much a part of the holiday as the pumpkin pie and where there's football there's an investment opportunity so it comes as no surprise that the holiday first celebrated by Pilgrims in 1621 has become one of the most popular betting days of the year.
This year's Thanksgiving football games feature the Lions, who with the exception of a six-year gap during World War II, have played on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1934, hosting the Falcons; and the Cowboys, who have played on all but two Turkey Days since 1966, playing host to the Broncos.
While the first Thanksgiving football games were actually played in 1920, most fans associate the Lions with the holiday and the tradition that began in 1934, the team's first year in Detroit after being purchased as the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans and moved to Detroit where it became known as the Lions.
According to the Pro-Football Hall of Fame, owner George Richards scheduled the inaugural Thanksgiving Day contest in 1934 in the hope of drawing some attention to his team in a city that was dominated by the Tigers.
The move worked, as the game between Richard's Lions and the World Champion Bears, proved to be a classic, as the Lions entered at 10-1 and the Bears at 11-0. The Bears prevailed 19-16 en-route to the NFL Western Division crown.
The game generated national attention because Richards and NBC radio set up a 94-station network to broadcast the game from coast-to coast.
Now, more than 20 million people will watch the Thanksgiving football games on TV and nearly 15 million more will be listening on Westwood One Radio Network, including more than 1 million men and women overseas and on ship at sea over the American Forces Radio Network. As a result, the holiday has become a betting extravaganza for casual and hardcore players alike with the four-team parlay involving the winner of both games and the point total in each contest, the bet of choice.
"Thanksgiving Day and the Lions and Cowboys playing are absolutely synonymous," said Jimmy Mason, spokesman for Nine Sportsbook. "We do a huge betting volume. I would most closely compare it to two Monday night games. We're guaranteed to take huge volume. There will be tons of four-team parlays and teasers as even the most casual of fans bet these games since they are on television and most Thanksgiving get-togethers have a basement or a TV room where the game will be on."
Mason said action on Thanksgiving Day games is bound to be lopsided but the books generally enjoy a profitable holiday because the public will most likely split in their selections. "Depending on how their seasons are going we either get all Cowboys action when they're good or when they stink everyone bets against them. Same thing with Detroit," Mason said. "Since there are two big decisions odds are we will win one and lose one and come out ahead for the day."
In spite of the heavy action you won't see much last minute line-movement on Thanksgiving football games because unlike Monday Night Football most of the bets are placed well in advance of kickoff. "Most players get their bets in early so as not to be asking grandma to be using her Internet," Mason said. "By game day 70 percent of the wagers are already in and we can manipulate the money pretty well."
The NBA and NCAA also attempt to capitalize on what is a captive audience on Thanksgiving Day but not nearly with the same success both in terms of viewers or wagers. "There's slightly more action but not much," Mason commented. "The fact of the matter is that the average bettor who is at Aunt Pearl's house for Thanksgiving Dinner can get away with watching the football games after dinner as it is culturally accepted and considered part of the Thanksgiving experience for most men."
As would be expected, the Thanksgiving football games have produced some memorable results, beginning with the very first game in 1920. In that game the Akron Pros, led by Fritz Pollard, the first African American quarterback in the NFL, defeated Jim Thorpe and the Canton Bulldogs 7-0.
>From 1960 to 1965 the Thanksgiving lineup featured the Lions game and a match-up involving the fledgling AFL and for a three-year period prior to the merger from 1967-69, Thanksgiving Day featured four games, two involving NFL teams and two from the AFL.
Some other notable Thanksgiving Day moments:
1929 -- Ernie Nevers scores six rushing touchdowns, an NFL record that still stands, as the Chicago Cardinals defeat the cross-town rival Bears 40-6.
1974 -- Down 16-3 in the third quarter against Washington, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach is injured and replaced by rookie Clint Longley who rallied the Boys to a 24-23 victory with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds remaining.
1976 -- O.J. Simpson rushes for 273 yards, at the time the most in NFL history, but the Bills fall to the Lions 27-14.
1980 -- The Bears overcome a 17-3 deficit to force overtime and win the game when Dave Williams returns the overtime kickoff for a touchdown.
1993 -- With 15 seconds remaining in a snowy Thanksgiving Day game against the Dolphins the Cowboys block what would be a game-winning field-goal attempt and appear to hang on to defeat the Fish. Leon Lett of the Cowboys however revived the dead ball by sliding into it at the 7 yard-line where Miami recovered with 3 ticks remaining allowing Pete Stoyanovich to kick a game-winning field goal.