Like many people, I finally decided to find out why the Detroit Lions get the privilege of playing football on Thanksgiving and came to understand that it was the Lions franchise, way back in 1934, that started the tradition. It's not so much an NFL tradition - it is a Lions tradition. Simple enough.
Or is it? Some remain perplexed - how can, or better yet, why should - the Lions, one of the league's woebegone franchises (how many teams can boast an 0-16 season?) manage to keep getting these games even though they're such a bad team? Shouldn't the NFL showcase good teams?
The answer is both yes and no - and the league has responded very well to both.
It is actually rather refreshing that tradition wins out over "the bottom line." This tradition is not about winning and losing, it's not about money, it's not even about whether the game itself will be a good football game or not. It's all about tradition. That's old school, kinda cool. Honouring the tradition could cost the league if the perception of product quality goes down with these bad Lions teams. The league's willingness to take that risk in honour of tradition is actually commendable.
At the same time, however, the NFL did not get to be the most successful ("richest") sports organization in North America by missing profit opportunity. What used to be one Thanksgiving Day game is now three. This makes sense for a number of reasons:
- first, it raises the chances that a good game will be on on Thanksgiving, regardless how the Lions are doing in any particular season, and this shores up the quality quotient and the talent showcase opportunity for the league;
- second, it is actually a better offer to viewers. At various times since 1932 there has been one game, or more, depending on the year or era. When there's only one game, if family are traveling or other plans conflict, it might be difficult to plan the family get-together around one game. With several games to choose from, now family gatherings can be sure to have football going on, either in the foreground or background, whenever the dinner finally gets on;
- third, it spreads the wealth. With the current three game format, each major TV network (ABC, CBS and NBC) can get a piece of the action - a brilliant move, since much of the league's wealth comes from its "TV deal". NFL continues to successfully position itself as an investment the networks cannot miss out on, and a three-game Thanksgiving Day format takes care of a lot of interests.
From Sunday afternoons to "the late game" on Sunday evening to Monday Night Football to Thanksgiving Day, no sports league has as many brands working for them:
- the NBA is trying to establish a Christmas Day game tradition; also, stats kept on its All-star game are the more legitimate of the leagues;
- MLB celebrates their All-Star game as the most relevant given its impact on the World Series;
- the NHL has started a well-received "Winter Classic" game, novel in that it's played outdoors; yet, calling it a "classic" is one thing - actually staging any classic games is quite another.
Interestingly enough, the NFL "Pro Bowl" is the most maligned "all star game" and may in fact be scrapped altogether. The primary problem is that the players, looking to avoid career-threatening injury, don't play the game at "real game speed." (which is a great topic for a future post).
Be that as it may, the Pro Bowl still remains a high-drawing all-star game, in terms of TV ratings (the highest drawing? Fact check!), of any other North American sports league's All-Star game, which just goes to show that the NFL, for all its issues, knows very well how to make money, thank you very much...while not yet losing the wherewithal to keep the Detroit Lions Thanksgiving tradition alive at the same time.