The Dallas Cowboys haven’t won a Super Bowl in over 25 years. They’ve hardly even been in the conversation, notching only four playoff victories in that span.
Yet the Cowboys are the most-valuable NFL franchise, topping the New England Patriots, who have won six Super Bowls since Dallas last took home the Vince Lombardi trophy. Despite decades of mediocrity, the Cowboys are always in the headlines, thanks to a brand that’s almost universally recognized.
“They have that slogan that kind of sticks,” said former NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, who played for the Cowboys from 2006 to 2008. “They are America’s Team.”
Fans now have a reason to get excited about what’s happening on the gridiron. After an injury-riddled season last year that saw the team finish 6-10, the Cowboys are 5-1 in the new campaign, riding a five-game win streak and leading the NFC East division by three games.
America’s team is back.
“Love them, hate them – they are the biggest brand in the NFL,” said Scott Rosner, the director of Columbia University’s sports management program. “They are relevant no matter what side of the question you fall on – whether you’re on the love side or hate side.”
Heading into their bye weekend, the Cowboys are the hottest they’ve been since 2016, quarterback Dak Prescott’s rookie season. Through six games Prescott is among the league leaders in passing, living up to his four-year $160 million deal. Prescott’s last season was cut short after he suffered a compound fracture in his right ankle in week six against the New York Giants.
Prescott is getting plenty of assistance from the highest-paid NFL receiver, Amari Cooper, and the most expensive running back, Ezekiel Elliott. They make up the Cowboys’ new big three, spearheading an offense that’s second in rushing yards and fifth in passing.
The defense has also held up. Despite giving up the third-highest number of yards, the unit leads the NFL in interceptions with 11, including seven by cornerback Trevon Diggs.
Fans are downright giddy. The jerseys of Cooper and fellow wide receiver CeeDee Lamb are two of the top sellers across the league, according to the NFL Shop. The team leads the NFL in attendance, averaging 93,335 people at its three home games.
Forbes projects the Cowboys are worth $6.5 billion, the most valuable across all U.S. sports. Jerry Jones, who purchased the team more than 30 years ago, has seen his wealth swell to $10.6 billion, Forbes estimates.
“The Cowboys have not won since 1995,” said longtime Cowboys beat reporter Clarence Hill, who writes for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “Jerry bought the team in 1989, and they were in the tank. He would tell you the team was worth 50 cents on a dollar, even with the history. Since then, they’ve grown to the richest franchise and still haven’t won anything” since the ’95-’96 season, Hill said.
There are still 11 regular-season games left, and the ultimate determination of success won’t come until the playoffs. But Jones has fans believing that greatness lies ahead.
Here’s what former Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, who won three Super Bowls with the franchise in the 1990s, said on ESPN’s “First Take” earlier in the week:
“I want everybody out there, Cowboys Nation, I want you to know — Go get your Super Bowl tickets. Get them early. I’m trying to help you out right now.”
Becoming America’s Team
The last time the Cowboys made it to the big game was January 1996. They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-17. The big three consisted of quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and Irvin. The same trio led the Cowboys to Super Bowl wins in 1993 and 1994.
Since their last NFL title, the Cowboys are 213-193. The team is 0-10 in playoff elimination games and has shuffled through six head coaches. The last Super Bowl-winning coach was Barry Switzer, who left after the 1997 season.
Jones has faced hefty criticism from the fan base for the lackluster performance and for keeping such tight control of the team. He remains president and general manager. His son, Stephen, is chief operating officer and his “right-hand man,” according to the Cowboys website.
Still, Jones has kept the Cowboys relevant and highly profitable, a rarity in the sports industry, where few teams are able to to make money while consistently losing games.
It’s “because they’re America’s Team and the intentional marketing and power of the NFL,” said Hill of the Star-Telegram. “All that comes together.”
The America’s Team moniker dates back to 1978, when Tex Schramm, the franchise’s original president, coined it in a retrospective on the season. The Cowboys had a record-setting 20 straight winning seasons from 1966 to 1985, and won two of their five Super Bowl appearances during that stretch.
Quarterback Roger Staubach was a superstar, as was running back Tony Dorsett. Head coach Tom Landry, known for his trademark fedora and cool demeanor, established an elite offense.
“He was ahead of the NFL when it came to strategy,” said former linebacker Garry Cobb, who started his career with the Cowboys in 1979 and returned about a decade later.
Cobb, 64, recalled the days before he entered the league when the Cowboys ruled pro football.
“When I was little, the Cowboys were on TV more than anybody else nationally,” said Cobb. “They had a winning record every year. That’s the way they became popular.”
He then got to experience the fame as a player.
“When we went into a hotel, the building was mobbed,” he said. “It was unbelievable. The popularity was already there.”
Hill, who’s covered the team since 1996, said that atmosphere never really faded from the team.
“It’s always a circus,” Hill said. “And coming to the Cowboys as a player or a coach, you must understand that it comes with the dinner. You must be able to navigate that as well as play football.”
Terrell Owens relished in the drama, telling fans to “get your popcorn ready.”
“You notice it, and you feel it,” said Owens, who spent three of his 16 NFL seasons with the Cowboys. “You want to play to the standard that everybody there expects you to play at. It’s different when you’re playing in Dallas as opposed to a Cincinnati or Buffalo.”
Owens played for both teams after leaving the Cowboys.
Cowboys leverage state rights
Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said the network used the America’s Team slogan during its Cowboys telecasts. CBS, which had NFC rights until the early 1990s, constantly featured the Cowboys.
“We helped build that label,” Pilson said. “And it certainly stuck.”
The Cowboys won, but the business still lagged. The league made the big financial decisions, and team owners did little to engage directly with companies and sponsors.
Jones bought the Cowboys for roughly $150 million in 1989, the most ever paid for a team at that time. He warned right away that things would be different.
“I will be part of every decision,” the New York Times quoted Jones as saying in 1989. “I won’t leave anything to the football people.”
Schramm resigned, and Jones made himself the general manager. He hired a college coach, Jimmy Johnson, to replace Landry, the only person to coach the Cowboys in its first 29 years. Jones then took on the NFL’s 75-year business philosophy.
Most NFL teams weren’t profitable and the league controlled the way revenue was generated. Jones found loopholes in NFL deals that allowed him to disrupt the league’s pacts and make money for his team.
In 1995, the Cowboys parted ways with league partner Coca-Cola and signed a deal with Pepsi for “pouring rights” at their home stadium. That agreement was worth a reported $20 million over 10 years, and it undermined Coke’s NFL deal for $250 million.
The NFL sued Jones for $300 million in damages.
“Prior to that deal, you didn’t have teams engaging in real vigorous local business operations,” said Columbia’s Rosner “You were essentially selling tickets and ads but not what it is today. Jerry challenged the system.”
The sides ultimately settled in a manner that let Jones keep his sponsors. Other teams followed suit.
“He was showing them how to make money,” said Cobb. “Now all the teams do it – they have league sponsors and team sponsors.”
In both the 2019 and 2020 NFL seasons, the Cowboys attracted nearly $1 billion in revenue, according to Forbes. Pepsi still has pouring rights. AT&T owns naming rights to the stadium, a billion-dollar-plus building that opened in 2009 and is often referred to as Jerry World. And Ford owns rights to the team’s practice site.
Last September, Fanatics signed a 10-year deal to take over e-commerce for the Cowboys. Merchandise revenue is up 60% this season compared to last, and Fanatics told CNBC that the Cowboys lead all NFL teams in merchandise sales. That’s been the case for five of the previous eight years.
“All of the metrics around the Cowboys are higher than any other team,” Rosner said.
Getting help from the big markets
The Cowboys are also the beneficiary of a geographical quirk. They’re in the NFC East, a division with teams in the big markets of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
None are within 1,300 miles of Dallas.
“You have a team in Texas in the NFC East,” said Ed Schauder, who heads the sports law practice at Phillips Nizer in New York. “It makes no sense, but there are organic national rivalries.”
Playing twice a year against the Eagles, Giants, and Washington Football Team gives Jones outsized access to some of the top TV markets every NFL season. While Jones didn’t play a role in creating the divisional setup, he’s made sure to take advantage of it.
“He probably saw the marketing value of their regular opponents,” Pilson said.” I think he saw that every year, given the NFL structure, he has two games into New York and Philadelphia.”
Fox Sports, which now controls the NFC package, says Cowboys games account for nine of its 10 most-watched NFL contests since the partnership began in 1994. The biggest audience was on Thanksgiving in November 2016, when an average 35.1 million viewers tuned in for the Cowboys game against Washington.
This season’s opener, a Thursday night affair against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, attracted 24.4 million viewers on NBC Sports. It was the most-watched kickoff game since 2015. CBS said the Cowboys contest against Brady’s old team, the New England Patriots, averaged 23.2 million viewers last week, the most-watched national game for the network since 2015.
“If they’re in contention for the division and make the postseason, [the Cowboys will] gather a bigger audience,” said Pilson.
The Cowboys’ star players are cashing in on the exposure.
Prescott took a 20% stake in sports-theme bar and eatery Walk-Ons earlier this year, to go along with $10 million in off-field endorsements, third-highest among NFL players, according to Forbes. He trails only Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Brady ($31 million) and Patrick Mahomes ($22 million) of the Kansas City Chiefs.
“They benefit from that brand,” said Schauder. “Sponsors and endorsers look for players who get the most exposure.”
Then there’s reality TV. The Cowboys were showcased on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” an annual series that follows a team through training camp and the pre-season. Cowboys cheerleaders also have a show on Country Music Television.
“Another team doesn’t get that media deal,” Schauder said, referring to the cheerleaders’ show.
Are the Cowboys still America’s Team?
On the field, the Cowboys still have everything to prove.
During the team’s 25-year championship drought, Brady led the Patriots to nine Super Bowls and delivered seven championships, including for the Buccaneers last season. The Steelers have won two titles since facing the Cowboys in 1996. The Denver Broncos made four appearances and won three Super Bowls during that span.
The Patriots have appeared in a record 11 Super Bowls, followed by the Cowboys, Steelers and Broncos at eight.
Schauder, who admitted to being a converted Cowboys fan, says there’s still something unique about Dallas.
“It’s an iconic brand,” he said. “They’re still America’s Team because that’s how they were branded. “Other teams have tried to claim it, like the Steelers.”
Following this week’s bye, the Cowboys are back in action next week against the Minnesota Vikings on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. After that, they still have their annual showcase on Thanksgiving and two more night games in December.
Winning sure helps, but no matter what fans across the country tune into watch the Cowboys.
“At the end of the day, Dallas will still get more prime-time spots than any other team,” Schauder said.