The Lions Playing on Thanksgiving Debate… Tradition Matters

Read the opposing argument from Babe Ruthless.

It seems to me that changing traditions in a sport is traditionally met with outcry from fans. The owners usually concoct a scheme that will make them more money, the fans greet that scheme with derision (at best), and people are upset that a sport is abandoning its traditions in pursuit of the almighty dollar. From baseball discussing another expansion of its playoffs to NASCAR moving races away from its traditional venues in order to serve larger media markets, there are several examples of a sport breaking with its traditions for a few bucks. The NFL, with regard to its Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit, should not join that ignominious list.

In the last few years there has been discussion from various sports columnists and talk show hosts about relieving the Detroit Lions from the privilege of hosting their annual Thanksgiving Day football game. To put it bluntly, the Lions have been terrible over the past few years, and some sports personalities have been making a ruckus that they would like to see a more meaningful game take the place of Detroit’s annual turkey day tilt. I understand this argument and I would concede the point if I thought the Thanksgiving Day football viewing crowd was filled with hardcore NFL fans who sit in front of their TVs armed with the latest standings so they know the significance of the game they are watching.

Based on a non-scientific sample of people I know, nearly everyone spends some portion of Thanksgiving Day with some family. The football is on as background noise or intermission entertainment between the main course and pumpkin pie. Would a competitive game enhance viewership? Perhaps. You’re less likely to walk away from a game that’s 17-14 with ten minutes to play than you are a 44-10 drubbing with ten minutes to play. However, just because you’ve scheduled two possible playoff teams into the slot does not ensure a competitive contest. In fact, scheduling a competitive game between meaningful teams is not as easy as it looks.

For example, say the Lions had been removed from Thanksgiving Day play and the NFL schedule makers had to fill that early time slot with an NFC game with playoff implications. During this past off-season they might have sat down and said, “We’ll schedule Minnesota and San Diego into this slot.” Most fans would have nodded their heads and agreed that this was the quality game that some people have been clamoring for on Thanksgiving. Fast forward to this Thanksgiving and you would have been watching a 3-7 Vikings team play a 5-5 San Diego Chargers team. It would have met all the “quality game” criteria when the schedule was made, but it would have lacked much playoff significance by kickoff time.

I think fans are turned off when they see traditions of the game falling by the wayside just so there are a few more eyeballs on the advertisements. Given the fact that, according to some, the first owner of the Lions started the Thanksgiving Day football tradition, I think it would leave a bad taste in the mouths of the fans.

It is very difficult to judge the quality of a team during the off-season when the schedule is being made. Even if tradition is messed with, schedule makers are not guaranteeing any better product on the field. If the Lions are removed from the Thanksgiving Day game, I lose the annual opportunity to make fun of my dad when the Lions lose on national TV. And, really, isn’t making fun of your family what the holidays are all about?

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