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They’re the NFL’s only winless team this season. They’re one of four teams never to reach the Super Bowl. The last time they won a playoff game, “Roseanne” was America’s most-watched sitcom and Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” topped the pop charts.
The Detroit Lions have been so inept for so long that it begs the question: Why does the NFL insist on force-feeding them to a national audience each Thanksgiving instead of replacing them with a bigger draw? Why can’t the league find a more compelling matchup to kick off Thursday’s holiday tripleheader than the wretched Lions hosting the nearly as woeful Chicago Bears?
TV executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports universally insisted that the NFL actually has good reason for not breaking with tradition. Watching football is now so ingrained in the culture of Thanksgiving that the NFL’s annual holiday tripleheader generates massive viewership no matter the quality of the matchups.
“You don't want to take a great matchup and put it in the Lions’ slot because there's no reason to,” said Jay Rosenstein, a former vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “You’re not going to do much bigger numbers on Thanksgiving with a better matchup. The audience that is going to watch football is already there.”
To verify Rosenstein’s point, look no further than last Thanksgiving. None of the four teams who played (the scheduled third game, Pittsburgh-Baltimore, was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak with the Ravens) had winning records, yet the Washington Football Team’s throttling of Dallas was 2020’s most-watched regular season NFL game and Houston’s victory over Detroit produced the fourth-most viewers.
The ratings tell a similar story in previous seasons. No fewer than 24.7 million viewers watched the Lions play on any Thanksgiving from 2016-2019. That game drew the fourth-most viewers of any regular season contest in three of those four years. It produced the second-largest regular season audience in 2018, when playoff-bound Chicago rallied in the fourth quarter to edge Detroit by a touchdown.
While sports media experts acknowledge that a marquee game might produce marginally higher ratings than the Lions in that Thanksgiving time slot, they argue the downside outweighs the modest payoff. Not only would viewership for the Lions game fall off a cliff were it on a different day, the NFL would also be wasting a high-profile game that instead could do big numbers on a typical Sunday or Monday night.
“If you’re the NFL, why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to use a Lions game that would otherwise get distributed to 10 percent of the country on a Sunday afternoon?” said Jon Lewis, who has analyzed sports viewership numbers since 2006 at Sports Media Watch. “Why would you pass up the chance for a matchup like that to get 24 million viewers and rank among the most-watched games of the season?
“The NFL knows there are certain days that are going to get a great number no matter what. You don’t have to use your best matchup on opening night. You don’t have to use your best matchup on Thanksgiving. And you don’t have to use your best matchup on Christmas. Those are days when you want to put a good game on — and certainly the NFL would prefer if the Lions were good — but you can put pretty much anything on in those windows and do really well.”
Why are the Lions on Thanksgiving in the first place?
The Lions owe their status as a Thanksgiving staple to a former team owner’s marketing savvy.
In 1934, radio executive George Albert Richards purchased the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, moved the team to the Motor City and renamed them the Detroit Lions. Frustrated that his fledgling team hadn’t received enough attention from fans or local newspapers, Richards hatched the idea to host the reigning NFL champion Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving in order to drum up interest.
A season-high crowd of 25,000 poured into University of Detroit stadium to watch the 10-1 Lions and 11-0 Bears battle for first place in the NFL’s Western Division. Richards also negotiated with NBC Radio to have 94 stations carry the game and announcers Graham McNamee and Don Wilson behind the microphone.
Though the Bears rallied for a 19-16 victory en route to an undefeated regular season, the Lions had launched the tradition of Thanksgiving football in Detroit. The Lions have since hosted a Thanksgiving game every year, except from 1939-1944 when World War II interrupted.
The Cowboys began playing on Thanksgiving in 1966 when a then-franchise record 80,259 fans watched the team beat the Browns at the Cotton Bowl. In 2006, the NFL capitalized on surging viewership on Thanksgiving, adding a third prime-time game featuring different teams each year.
While NBC annually has the prime-time Thanksgiving matchup, Fox and CBS alternate who airs the Lions or Cowboys games. Executives from both networks rank potential matchups after the release of the schedule and send the NFL their highest-priority requests.
With the Dallas game, the networks’ strategies often diverged.
In Rosenstein’s era, CBS “would never ask for a great AFC team” to pit against the Cowboys. He felt the always-relevant Cowboys would draw eyeballs on Thanksgiving regardless and there was no need to burn Cowboys-Steelers, for example “because that game is perfectly situated to do well some other day.”
Patrick Crakes, an ex-FoxSports senior executive turned media consultant, told Yahoo Sports that his former network typically took the opposite approach. Recognizing that deep-pocketed advertisers were eager to spend with the Christmas shopping season approaching, Fox would request the most appealing matchup for the Cowboys in order to maximize its ratings in that time slot.
“Thanksgiving has emerged as an opportunity to do a big number, particularly in the afternoon window with Dallas,” Crakes said. “At Fox, we began to look at that as a place to put one of those top-five matchups, as we had it ranked.”
Historically, Fox and CBS have taken a similar approach with the long-struggling Lions. They’ve sought to dress up the game by pitting the Lions against a playoff-caliber division rival or a high-profile, intra-conference opponent. The Bears and Packers have been the Lions’ most frequent Thanksgiving adversaries. Three of the four times the New England Patriots have visited Detroit since 2000, those games have been on Thanksgiving.
Crakes said “there has been some noodling around” with banishing the Lions from Thanksgiving, but for the most part that idea “has never gotten out of the gate.”
“Maybe we can do better with someone else,” Crakes said, “but it’s not like the numbers in that early window are weak. It’s working. So I would not expect the Lions to be moving anytime soon.
“Besides,” Crakes added with a laugh, “as soon as you do it, the Lions will win the Super Bowl.”
In other words, count on the Lions remaining a Thanksgiving staple for many years to come, whether they’re a playoff contender or, more likely, not.
“Detroit means Thanksgiving,” Rosenstein said. “It’s become ingrained.”
For better or worse.