- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is a popularity contest, plain and simple.
It's not about victories and virtues. The subject of debate is which NFL team most captures the country's fascination.
That's the Dallas Cowboys. That is clear, judging by tangible measures of popularity such as television ratings and franchise values.
The point of playing the game is to win as many championships as possible. The Cowboys lost those bragging rights a couple years ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers claimed their sixth Super Bowl title. Cheeseheads can proudly point out that the Green Bay Packers own 12 titles, the majority of which came before the NFL's championship game was given a catchy name.
But the point of going to high school is to get an education, and it's not as if grade-point averages are the determining factor in selecting prom queens.
You could consider the Cowboys to be the NFL's prom queens. "America's Team" just sounds better.
The Cowboys' popularity probably spiked during their '90s dynasty. However, it's still going strong a decade and a half later despite only one playoff win in the last 14 seasons.
It's been a long time since the Cowboys lifted a Lombardi Trophy, but the "America's Team" crown still fits fine.
According to Forbes, the Cowboys are the nation's most valuable sports franchise. The magazine reported the franchise's value to be $1.65 billion, ranking behind only soccer institution Manchester United in the world.
According to an NFL release, the most-watched television program of the fall was the Cowboys' Thanksgiving Day loss to the New Orleans Saints, which had an audience of 31.9 million viewers. The Cowboys' Dec. 12 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles had the highest audience ever for a Sunday night game (25.73 million viewers). And those two games came with the Cowboys, who always get the maximum number of prime-time games allowed by league rules, well out of playoff contention.
The Harris Poll determined that the Cowboys were the most popular NFL team among American sports fans the past four years.
The Rooney family reportedly declined a version of the "America's Team" nickname when NFL Films wanted to give it to the Steelers in the 1970s. They were proud to be Pittsburgh's team.
The Cowboys wanted much more. They didn't ask for the nickname, but they certainly took advantage after NFL Films anointed them with the title for their 1978 team highlights video.
It was a perfect fit to Tex Schramm, the marketing genius who served as the Cowboys' president and general manager for the franchise's first three decades. He already had invested heavily in showcasing the Cowboys to the world, recognizing the promotional importance of a Thanksgiving Day game and coming up with such innovations as the creation of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. (The Steelers and Packers, who clearly don't make promotions such a high priority, still don't have cheerleaders.)
Jerry Jones placed just as much emphasis on marketing, if not more, when he took the baton from Schramm. (OK, Jerry ripped the baton out of Schramm's hands, but the Cowboys' colorful owner/general manager admits learning a lot from Schramm about the NFL promotions business.)
For instance, Jones preferred to focus on the positive while many were ripping franchise quarterback Tony Romo for taking a playoff bye-week Cabo vacation with then girlfriend Jessica Simpson. Jones noted at the time that Romo's relationship helped market the Cowboys to an audience that expanded far beyond football fans, even kidding that he might have taken the paparazzi photos of the getaway.
Jones made a commitment to excess when building Cowboys Stadium because he believed the buzz that could be created by the $1.2 billion building, which features a couple of 60-yard high-definition video screens, would create a marketing bang. He boasts about building a stadium that causes television announcers to be in awe. And he opens it for daily tours, occasionally even when the Cowboys are practicing.
Maximizing the marketing potential of practice isn't anything new for Jones. Just check out the Cowboys' annual summer carnivals that double as training camps, which get kicked off by a concert each year. The Cowboys split camp this season, a concept Jones is considering instituting on a regular basis, because the owner wanted exposure to the team's large fan bases in South Texas and Southern California.
Thousands of fans each day came to watch the Cowboys practice -- to borrow a line from Allen Iverson, "We talkin' about practice!" -- 1,500 miles away from home. Only with the Cowboys, "America's Team."
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.
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