Lions Thanksgiving Game Tradition: History, Record, and Who They Play in 2023

Despite a poor record on Thanksgiving, the Detroit Lions have a long-running tradition of playing on the holiday. Why is that the case?

The Detroit Lions playing on Thanksgiving is an annual tradition. The Lions continue to play home games on the holiday in the first of three nationally televised games.

While Detroit hasn’t faired so well in Thanksgiving games recently, here is a look at why the Lions play on Thanksgiving, what their record is, and how they fare against their 2023 opponent.

Why Do the Lions Play on Thanksgiving?

The Lions started playing on Thanksgiving in 1934, but the history of games in Detroit on Thanksgiving can be traced even further back.

The tradition of Thanksgiving games in Detroit began in 1917 when the Detroit Herald lost 7-0 against the Canton Bulldogs.

As for Detroit, their Thanksgiving tradition began when George A. Richards bought the Portsmouth Spartans and moved them to Michigan to become the Lions. The franchise struggled to form an instant connection with fans and the move to playing games on Thanksgiving was a move to boost exposure and attendances.

That first Thanksgiving game for the Lions was a 19-16 loss to the Chicago Bears. Many fans saw the attempt to play on Thanksgiving as a gimmick, with other franchises having played on Thanksgiving already.

MORE: 2023 Thanksgiving Halftime Shows

Their 1934 opponents, the Bears, had already been playing on Thanksgiving dating back to their days as the Decatur Staleys in 1920. As they became the Chicago Bears in 1922, the franchise continued to play every year on Thanksgiving between 1920 and 1938. They played against the then-Chicago Cardinals on every Thanksgiving between 1922 and 1933.

What allowed the Lions to take control of the Thanksgiving tradition was a masterful decision by ownership.

Lions Owner Takes Control and Creates a Thanksgiving Tradition

The fact that the Lions could turn their attendance-boosting gimmick of playing on Thanksgiving into a tradition older than most Americans was due to their owner’s business smarts.

At the time, Richards owned the radio station WJR, a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network. He used this connection to negotiate a contract with NBC to air the Lions’ Thanksgiving games across the network.

MORE: Why Do the Cowboys and Lions Always Play on Thanksgiving?

Richards’ move placed the Lions in a powerful position. They were connected to a major broadcast network, and the original “gimmick” had also boosted attendance totals. The gamble would work, as Richards would sell out the Lions’ first Thanksgiving game — with 26,000 seats.

These two factors combined to mean the NFL was more than happy for the Lions to continue playing on Thanksgiving. After the conclusion of World War II, the Lions’ home Thanksgiving game became a staple of the league’s calendar.

What Is the Lions’ Thanksgiving Record?

The Lions played their first-ever Thanksgiving game in 1934 and have been ever-present on Turkey Day since 1945. The 2023 Thanksgiving game will be the 84th game on the holiday for Detroit. Thus, the team has played more Thanksgiving games than any other NFL squad.

Over that time, the Lions have a record on Thanksgiving of 37-44-2.

At the start of the annual tradition in 1945, Detroit lost its first five games. However, that was followed by six straight wins between 1950 and 1955.

Until the early 2000s, Detroit’s form was sporadic, with its strongest run coming between 1970 and 2000 when it went 19-12. But since the turn of the century, a gloomy change in fortunes has occurred in Detroit on Thanksgiving.

Since the year 2000, the Lions have gone 6-17 on Turkey Day. That run includes a nine-game losing streak between 2004 and 2012, with losses to the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and Houston Texans.

Detroit has lost six straight Thanksgiving games, with their last victory coming over the Minnesota Vikings in 2016.

Who Do the Lions Play on Thanksgiving in 2023?

The Lions will face the  Packers at Ford Field on Thanksgiving 2023.

Detroit against Green Bay is the most common Thanksgiving matchup, and the 2023 game will be the 22nd time the pair have met on Turkey Day.

The first ever Thanksgiving game between the Lions and Packers was in 1951 and continued for the next 12 seasons, with them meeting annually on Thanksgiving between 1951 and 1963.

The two teams didn’t meet again on the holiday until 1984, before playing again in 1986. Fast-forward to their next meeting, which was in 2001, and the game has been played more regularly.

The Lions and Packers have met six times since 2001. The Lions record set at 2-4 since then. The 2023 matchup will be the first time the fixture has been played on Thanksgiving in a decade, with their last Turkey Day game being played in 2013. Detroit won 40-10 over Green Bay.

The Lions boast a 12-8-1 record against the Packers in their Thanksgiving series.

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