Twenty-five years ago last week, on a sun-drenched Sunday in Arizona, back when “America’s Team” was synonymous with success, the Dallas Cowboys waltzed into NFL history books. No team had won three Super Bowls in four years before. But no team was as ruthless or brash as Dallas. Emmitt Smith plunged into the end zone twice that evening, and rubber-stamped a dynasty. Troy Aikman lifted the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.
The Cowboys were, in so many ways, “America’s Team.” The nickname had been coined amid a run of 20 consecutive winning seasons from 1966-1985. A six-year rampage in the ‘90s, of 12 playoff victories and three titles, validated the moniker. And later that year, America confirmed its truth: Some 23% of NFL fans identified the Cowboys as their favorite team, according to the SSRS/Luker on Trends poll. No other club could claim even half that many admirers.
What those millions of Americans couldn’t know, however, was that Jan. 28, 1996, would be the final celebration for the span of an entire generation and counting; that Super Bowl XXX would give way to a quarter-century of pain. Since, the Cowboys have won zero divisional-round playoff games. They’ve spurned loaded rosters. They’ve flopped to varying degrees of failure.
Yet they remain the most valuable asset in global sport. They’ve retained their spot atop almost all popularity lists. Which begs two questions: Why? And how long can mediocrity and popularity coexist?
The origins of ‘America’s Team’
The Cowboys’ lucrative popularity wasn’t just built on dynastic success. It was built on a brand, and on Americana, even before it had the nickname to match. It was Roger Staubach, a Vietnam War veteran-cum-starting quarterback. And the cheerleaders, a first-of-their-kind cultural franchise. And the iconic logo, and “Cowboys,” the patriotism-evoking nickname itself. “Frankly,” says Joe Favorito, a longtime sports marketer, “if they were called the Swamp Dragons, I don't think it would be as big.”
To the NFL, this popularity equaled marketability. And the Cowboys, Favorito says, “became the darlings of NFL Films and NFL Media.” Thus began a self-perpetuating cycle that cultivated the Cowboys’ fan base in the 20th century, and helped cement it as failure-resistant in the 21st. The NFL and its partners, like any good sports promoter, played up their top asset.
In fact, “America’s Team” was an NFL Films creation. In January of 1979, Dallas ceded the Lombardi Trophy to the Pittsburgh Steelers. That offseason, NFL Films tasked Bob Ryan, one of its most talented employees, with producing the Cowboys’ season-in-review highlight show. But the shows weren’t documentaries; they were promotional. So the title, Ryan decided – with help from Cowboys PR – wouldn’t focus on Super Bowl heartbreak; it would focus on the team’s already-transcendent popularity.
“They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents’ and movie stars’,” Ryan’s script read. “They are the Dallas Cowboys, America’s Team.”
The slogan stuck, and spread, immediately and prolifically. Popularity begat more TV appearances and more media coverage, which begat more exposure, which begat even more popularity. Five Super Bowl titles in eight appearances between 1971 and 1996 certainly helped. By ‘96, a whopping 36.3% of teenage NFL fans identified as Cowboy supporters, per the Luker/SSRS poll – eight times as many as No. 3 on the list, the Green Bay Packers. From 1994-96, the Cowboys were the most popular team in 14 continental U.S. states, and among the two most popular in 40 of the 48 (plus D.C.).
And for reasons both artificial and organic, that extreme popularity persisted, even as success dried up.
Why Cowboys popularity persists
For three decades, Murray State University professor Daniel Wann has studied the psychology of sports fandom. When asked to explain the Cowboys’ endurance, his first take is simple. “People overvalue the impact of winning on maintaining fandom,” he says.
“You can't deny that fans want their teams to win,” he continues. “And you can't deny that winning teams are probably going to attract more fans. But once you're a diehard fan of a team, winning isn't a requirement for you to maintain your allegiance.”
In other words, the identities and social connections tied to the Cowboys’ 90s success have unsurprisingly persisted to this day. Memories of Super Bowls remain indelible. Per the SSRS/Luker poll, the Cowboys are most popular among fans aged 35-54 – the same fans who were impressionable kids and adolescents in the 90s. And indeed, research shows that most sports connections develop in pre-teen and teenage years.
Wann acknowledges, however, that winning has downstream effects. Kids of the 70s and 90s have since had their own children, and conveyed allegiances to the next generation. “Socialization from parents” is one of Wann’s “big three” determinants of team fandom. It’s one of a few reasons experts say that championship runs often kindle popularity for several decades to come.
The other big reason, though, is less natural. Winning feeds the self-perpetuating cycle. Once in motion, it sustains itself. “Successful teams tend to get more TV time, and they get more press,” Wann explains. “So, if you're a young boy or girl, and you're just starting to learn about sports, you're watching ESPN with your parents – well, who's on?” The most common answer, for much of the past 25 years, has been the Cowboys.
The Cowboys’ penchant for drama also feeds the cycle. Jerry Jones has been a primary catalyst. Hate, experts say, can drive viewership as much as love.
But the cycle also exaggerates and exacerbates Cowboys drama. Controversies that for most franchises would be non-stories get blown up into front-page news when Dallas is involved.
“For example,” says Mike Lewis, an Emory University professor who studies sports fandom, “all teams have issues with paying players in the salary cap era. But because Jerry Jones is probably great for the ratings of the ESPNs and the other media outlets, the Cowboys story gets even better. Now it's not just bashing an anonymous front office because they're not paying the running back or the quarterback. Now they can put a name and a face to it that all the fans know. So the media coverage gets much more intense when Jerry Jones is playing hardball with Ezekiel Elliott or Dak Prescott.”
Says Favorito, the sports marketing veteran: “When you have heroes and villains, or teams that you love to hate, or teams that just can't seem to get over themselves … that generates clicks, that generates views, that generates sales.”
Says Wann, the Murray State professor: “Maybe Zeke hasn't won a championship, but he figured out a way to jump into the Salvation Army bucket, and then everybody talks about it for a month.”
So even as Dallas stopped dominating, the NFL and its broadcast partners kept promoting their most polarizing brand. From 2010-2020, a period in which the Cowboys were only a few games above .500, they made more prime-time TV appearances than any other franchise. They played more late-afternoon showcase games – kickoffs between 4:15 and 4:40 ET – than any other team as well, even those based on the West Coast. They continue to play every Thanksgiving. So every September through December, they continue to be the most visible brand in U.S. sports.
In 2020, however, the Cowboys had fewer than five prime-time dates for the first time since “Thursday Night Football’s” inception. It’s one of several hints that losing is taking its toll – and that the Cowboys’ grip on America is loosening.
The Cowboys’ fan base is fading
The Cowboys, by almost every metric, whether it be Lewis’ fan base rankings or the SSRS/Luker poll, remain the NFL’s most popular team. They remain the biggest driver of TV ratings. Countless secondary factors help explain their persistent supremacy. Among the others that experts cite:
Dallas’ division comprises four of the top six media markets in the country. Playing – and developing rivalries – in the NFC East gives a team with a very Texas aura access to those massive Northeast markets. That dynamic is unique in sports, and further feeds the visibility/popularity cycle.
Former Cowboy stars are scattered throughout NFL media. The No. 1 color commentator on CBS and Fox is a former Cowboy quarterback. Some of the TV personalities were appealing in part because they were Cowboys; now, their presence helps keep the franchise in the spotlight.
Geographic ties are another one of Wann’s “big three” determinants of fandom. The “America’s Team” moniker, Wann says, gave “pride in place” to millions of Americans who otherwise had no connection to an NFL team.
The Cowboys became particularly popular among Hispanic fans. The U.S. Hispanic population has doubled since the Cowboys’ mid-90s peak. This, says Chad Menefee, executive vice president of SSRS, could be an organic driver of fan base growth.
Whereas 23% of NFL fans tagged the Cowboys as their favorite team 25 years ago, only 8.2% did in the most recent SSRS/Luker poll.
Whereas the Cowboys were among the two most popular teams in 40 continental states back then, they crack the top two in only 17 now.
And the age breakdown is particularly notable: The Cowboys, who in 1996 were the top choice for 25% of fans in the coveted 18-34 demographic, have now been displaced by the New England Patriots as the favorite of those young adults.
Some of the trend, according to Menefee, the SSRS EVP, is the product of a transformed media landscape. In the 20th century, prime TV slots mattered immensely. Now, anybody can find anything, whether it’s force-fed to them by Fox or in the deep recesses of YouTube. The self-perpetuating cycle is still churning, but nowhere near as powerful as it used to be.
“The landscape is not set up for teams to be as popular as they were 20 years ago, or 50 years ago,” Menefee says. “The numbers for the Cowboys in the ’90s are probably not reachable today.”
The erosion, however, also suggests that the gap is closing. That “America’s Team” isn’t forever.
To be clear, the Cowboys’ popularity hasn’t disappeared. Even among fans aged 34 and under, the Cowboys have held atop the SSRS/Luker rankings in seven of the past 10 years. Every expert interviewed for this story expects them to remain one of the most popular and profitable franchises for decades to come.
But, Menefee says: “You can start to see it fading in the youngest people already.”
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