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BTB Mailbag: Why Do The Cowboys Stay So Popular?

The Cowboys have been mired in mediocrity for almost two decades now, especially the last three years, yet they continue to be the most popular (and the most hated) team in the NFL. How exactly does that work?

Ronald Martinez

Rabblerousr solicited questions from our readers. One (lengthy) question, from Karl Williams, intrigued me: "How are the Cowboys able to remain such a media gold mine as we continue to an average team?  Please take into consideration that if there is a journeyman player that gets arrested, no matter how many teams he played for, he is referred to as the Ex-Dallas Cowboy.  Or, how the Cowboys have 4 of the Top 20 Games (they've only listed 16 so far) last season on  Or how the biggest news story going into the 2014 NFL Draft was what if Dallas selects Johnny Football.  And the stories about how Jerry had to be restrained from selecting Johnny Football."

This is not a simple question to answer. Like so many things, it is made up of several parts.

First, there is no question that the Dallas Cowboys are one of the franchises that have a certain aura or mystique about them. They are not unique in that aspect, but it is a short list. I'd say the Green Bay Packers, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders, and the Chicago Bears are the other teams that always seem to be relevant in the league, no matter what their record. The Packers are just so unique in being publicly owned, and so historic. The Bears just have the fact they are the football equivalent of the Cubs, with fans of a similar masochistic nature (although, unlike with the Cubs, there are living Bears fans who can remember an actual championship). The Raiders are the eternal bad boys of the league, and the Steelers just have built a strong fanbase over the years.

Dallas, of course, is the unquestioned glamour franchise of the league. It is more Hollywood than any of the LA teams ever were, more Broadway than the Jets and Giants combined. And it all started with the original ownership, management, and head coach.

Tex Schramm was the original GM, and he had two things going for him: An innovative approach to marketing and growing the brand of both the NFL and the Dallas Cowboys, and almost total power granted him by owner Clint Murchison, Jr. The second thing many people think about after the Cowboys are mentioned is the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (except for those who think about them first), and the Cheerleaders are far and away the most well-known such squad, as well as probably the most professionally run. Where most other teams use cheerleading/dance teams that are independent organizations, Schramm made the DCC an integral part of the organization, and used them to promote and enhance the image of the team, something that still goes on today.

But that is just one of the things Schramm brought to the league. He had a hand in instant replay, miking the refs, putting wind-direction flags on the goal posts, and others. One of the most visually noticeable things he did was add the extra stripes to the 20 and 50 yardlines. It seems a tiny thing, yet there was a time that feature made it clear you were watching a game from Texas Stadium, the home of the Cowboys. As Schramm's influence and ideas spread through the league, the league looked more and more to Dallas as a leader among the franchises. And the networks picked up on this.

Meanwhile, Tom Landry and Gil Brandt were turning the Cowboys into one of the most successive franchises of the late sixties and seventies. The bandwagon for the Cowboys was big and lots of people climbed on. Along the way, Landry put his personal stamp on the team, giving it a larger than life image to go with his own. The Cowboys became a truly national brand in the NFL when the only other team that was in the same category was Green Bay. And Dallas was on the upswing while the Packers were beginning to decline.

That lasted until the team began to run down in the late eighties. Just when Dallas began, for the first time since it started winning games in its first decade, flirting with irrelevancy, the team was purchased by Jerry Jones. And, no matter what you think of him, Jerry is one of the all time great marketing geniuses in professional sports.

Part of it is the vision for the brand he has. While the other 31 teams in the league have joined in a pooled revenue system for merchandising, Jerry has retained sole rights to the Cowboys and kept control of them. While some may snicker at some of his tie-ins, such as the in-stadium Victoria's Secret outlet, it is hard to argue with the success he has had.

Speaking of the stadium, AT&T Stadium is part and parcel of the Cowboys empire, and it still the ultimate showplace of the NFL. And NCAA football. And the NCAA Final Four. And boxing. And major music concerts and events. And, one day, full contact pay-per-view Jell-O wrestling, in all likelihood. The fact that for the first few years it was Dallas Cowboys Stadium did nothing to hurt the air of glamour around the team.

The tremendously savvy marketing of the team and its image was all deliberate, but there is a very unintentional aspect of things, and that is the unique and towering ego that is Jerry Jones himself. By making himself the general manager as well as the owner, he made himself far and away the most visible owner and GM in the league. Most casual NFL fans can probably not name more than a handful of owners - but they almost all know who Jerry Jones is. Ditto GMs. Jerry winds up spending more time in front of cameras and microphones than just about any other non-player involved in the league. And once he is there, his, shall we say, quaintly unique way of expressing himself makes for incredibly riveting watching and listening. It's like watching a car race: You always are wondering in the back of your head when the crash is coming, and how bad it is going to be.

Jerry Jones as a driving force was aided by the incredible success the team had under Jerry's first head coach, Jimmy Johnson. In the dying days of uncapped payrolls, the Cowboys were for a few years a true juggernaut in the league. That propelled Jerry even more into the forefront of the league, and he continues to be one of the most influential voices in the NFL, due in large part to how dominant the Cowboys are when it comes to TV ratings. And if there is anything the NFL holds sacred, it is TV ratings and the associated revenue.

There are a lot of reasons the Cowboys became so popular, but why does it continue? It is certainly more than just inertia. In essence, there has been a feedback loop created, quite unintentionally. The team is popular because it is watched by so many people, and so many people watch it because it is popular. One feeds back and forth with the other. This is a phenomenon that works in many ways, and may be more pronounced currently than at most times in history. The Cowboys are famous not only for being a football team, but for being famous. At least they built their reputation on actually doing something. Now, it is possible to become incredibly well-known and influential for no discernible reason at all (see: Kardashians). The Cowboys just came into the period when they are mediocre on the field with their fame already established, and through a combination of Jerry Jones' presence and the TMZ-type fascination that lingers for anyone who ever wears the Star, it just sustains itself. Tony Romo makes headlines from playing golf. People pay attention to him and the Cowboys. Tony Romo doesn't play golf, and makes even more headlines. "Dallas Cowboys" draws eyeballs and clicks, no matter where it is. So it keeps getting put in headlines and keyword searches by those who live and die by views and links. And the cycle continues.

It may not be logical. But it is most certainly real. How long will it last? At least as long as Jerry's direct involvement in the team. Beyond that, it is hard to say (Stephen Jones just comes across as too damn competent to be as riveting as his father).

Best thing to ensure the Cowboys stay atop the league in popularity and fascination: They need to go out and win some more Lombardis. Then it will not only continue, but it will be fully deserved.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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