For nearly three decades, the Dallas Cowboys have seen themselves as an old Frank Sinatra song, resolutely doing things their way. Since their last championship was won way back in 1996, the team has been more down than up. They have at times had some very good regular-season records along with some real clunkers. On the other hand, the playoffs have been nothing but disappointment. Somehow though that has translated to the franchise becoming the most valuable in the NFL. It is only reasonable to think that hubris is a real issue for the owners. There is little time to invest in self-criticism and improvement when you have so much money to count.
The brand has seemed bulletproof. Whatever the outcome on the field, the Cowboys remain the biggest draw on television and sell tons of team merchandise. Now, however, there is the first hint that the long obsession of consumers with the glamour and glitz of the team is finally starting to unravel. As reported earlier, none of the top 10 selling NFL jerseys this year are for Dallas players. This is a change. Players like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have been staples, and Micah Parsons seemed poised to join them after his stellar rookie season. But unlike past years, fans seem to have given a collective shrug about Dallas.
This is just a small part of the revenue stream for the Jones family, but dollars talk. What it is saying is that people just don’t care about a team that talks big but cannot follow through with real success. It can’t be immediately determined if this is just a momentary stumble or not. The offseason has been decidedly unexciting for the Cowboys as they have disregarded free agency even more than normal. That may be all this is. But it may extend further. If it starts to impact the ratings for Cowboys games, that could finally be what gets the attention of Jerry and Stephen Jones.
The Jones family has had tremendous clout in the league ever since Jerry was instrumental in the broadcast negotiations that saw FOX supplanting CBS to carry the NFC teams. It was an unprecedented financial deal for the league, and subsequent contracts have just kept soaring higher and higher. One reason the NFL seems able to demand ever increasing payouts is that the league dominates traditional broadcast television. Last year, the 16 most watched broadcasts were NFL games, and accounted for a staggering 91 of the top 100. Dallas has been a major part of that, as the top two broadcasts and five of the top 10 were their games.
If the apathy about Cowboys merchandise should start to bleed over into whether viewers tune into their games, that clout could well start to erode. It is not a secret that the Joneses are resented by many other owners in the league. A big part of that is how they throw their weight around, often about things where the other owners don’t agree with them. The open hostility over Roger Goodell’s suspension of Ezekiel Elliott was one example, where Jerry was reportedly unable to get the other owners on board in his desire to remove Goodell as league commissioner. Given that Goodell is seen as a major factor in the way revenues have continued to increase as well as a desired buffer between the billionaire owners and outside criticism, it was a case of Jerry not reading the room. Frankly, that is one of his weaknesses. He expects others to follow him. After all, he owns the biggest deal in the NFL.
For long that has insulated him from the ire of the fans. But apathy is a far greater threat. If viewers are less eager to watch Dallas slogging to another desultory result for the season, the team could lose its dominant ratings status. The threat of not caring extends to those who watch the team hoping it loses as well. Negative fandom is just as important as positive, as long as it keeps people watching. Losing either or both would further threaten the Joneses’ power in the league. They need to avoid this, as well as figure out how to get those jerseys moving off the shelves. There is also a threat that fans could stop paying the exorbitant ticket prices to attend games at AT&T Stadium, which is a more direct impact on revenues.
There is only one sure way to dodge all that. That is winning. For too long the Cowboys have been somewhat immune to the usual effect of futility has on the value of and interest in teams. The jersey sales are the first indication that might be decreasing. It is just one data point, of course. But wise owners would not wait to see if the other things develop. They would focus on the sure way to head it off. That, of course, is winning football games. It should include a willingness to change the normal way of doing business, since that has not gotten them over the top in decades.
Unfortunately the attitude of the Joneses makes such self analysis all the more unlikely. They have become so diversified with other endeavors and partnerships that have little or nothing to do with football that their fortune is hardly threatened. What could take a real hit is their egos and reputations as the people who run the team. That is one reason this might finally get their attention.
However, as fans we should hope we never find out if things get that far. Winning, including long elusive playoff success, will cure things. It won’t fix the way the team is run and will probably just lead to more entrenchment. In a sense the team will have to win despite how they are run at the top.
Maybe that is not a bad thing. Most other NFL franchises are influenced much less by ownership. That is only logical when the owners do not claim the GM title and duties for themselves. We cannot reasonably hope that the Joneses will willingly surrender their influence. What we can wish for is the coaches and players overcoming it. It is not how it should be, but if it works, we can at least enjoy the results.
If it doesn’t, we will find out if we have just seen a harbinger or a blip.