America’s Team: Cowboys Still Winning in T.V. Ratings

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  • The Cowboys haven’t reached the Super Bowl since winning it in 1996. But in 2019, they played in three of the five most-watched regular season games on TV.
  • National coverage since the 1970’s and a relentless Jerry Jones have made for an enduring brand.
Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl champions. But they’re not “America’s Team.” That distinction belongs today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future to the Dallas Cowboys.

By any business metric, the five-time Super Bowl champions reign supreme as the country’s favorite football team. They generate the biggest TV audiences, draw the highest attendance, and boast the world’s most valuable sports brand. 

On the field is a different story. The Cowboys have not appeared in the Big Game since 1996. They’ve been mediocre at best in recent decades, totaling only three playoff wins.

Still, a Cowboys appearance in a Super Bowl, after a quarter-century absence, would set a new record for the country’s most-watched TV show, predicted Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president for Fox Sports. The network carried this year’s Chiefs vs. 49ers championship game, which drew 102 million viewers.

The most-watched show ever was NBC’s telecast of the Patriots’ win over the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, which drew 114.4 million viewers. 

“The last Cowboys Super Bowl set a viewership record at the time. I suspect the next one, whenever it comes, will set a record as well,” Mulvihill said. “Almost 25 years since their last championship, they remain the NFL’s most powerful brand.”

If the NFL is the most valuable TV property, the Cowboys are still the most valuable team, despite their struggles on the field. Consider:

The middling 8-8 Cowboys missed the playoffs last season. But they played in the most-watched game of the 2019 regular season and 3 of the Top 5, losing them all.

CBS’ telecast of the Cowboys’ 26-15 loss to the Bills on Thanksgiving was the most-watched of the year, averaging 32.6 million viewers. Fox’s broadcast of the team’s 13-9 loss to the Patriots was the second-most-watched, averaging 29.9 million viewers.

To put those regular-season numbers in perspective, this year’s Oscars averaged 23.6 million viewers while the Grammys drew 18.7 million.  

The Raptors’ series-clinching win over the Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals averaged 26 million viewers across the U.S. and Canada. The Nationals’ defeat of the Astros in Game 7 of the World Series drew 23 million viewers.

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The Cowboys have not smelled a Lombardi trophy since winning Super XXX in 1996. So why are they still the biggest TV draw? Like the Yankees or Notre Dame, fans either love them – or love to hate them. Either way, they tune in. That’s the only thing that matters to networks and advertisers.

“While people love the Cowboys, or love to hate the Cowboys, it’s clear that people love to watch the Cowboys,” said NBC Sunday Night Football Executive Producer Fred Gaudelli. “The team has a tradition of exhilarating wins, crushing defeats, larger than life personalities, a showplace stadium, and everything in between. And then you add (owner) Jerry Jones – who always keeps the team relevant, regardless of record – and America is captivated.”

As Gaudelli noted, the Cowboys have been the “NFL premiere television team” since the days of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett and Tom Landry in the 1970s.

Even growing up in Eagles country of South Jersey, ex-NFL executive Mike Lombardi was surrounded by Cowboys fans. 

Back in the day, there were lots of spotty TV coverage areas across the U.S. that would only get one game, Lombardi said. As often as not, it featured the Cowboys. That built their national fan base.

“The Cowboys were always on the Thanksgiving game, they were always in the playoffs. They had visibility,” Lombardi said.

Finishing 8-8 frequently isn’t a death knell either, Lombardi added. Except for a few bad seasons, the Cowboys have not “fallen off the cliff” for long stretches like the Giants or Redskins, he noted. They’re usually in contention. That keeps them top of the mind- and in the top of the ratings.

NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated show in prime time a record nine straight years. The Cowboys have played a huge part.

The two most-watched SNF games this season featured the Cowboys, averaging 24.8 million and 23.6 million viewers respectively. Back in 2012, Dallas’ Week 17 “win and in” showdown with the Redskins was the most-watched SNF telecast, ever, with 30.3 million viewers. 

From 2010-2019, Cowboys games on SNF averaged over 20 million viewers a league-leading 30 times. The Pats rank a distant No. 2, with 20 games averaging more than 20 million viewers.

Want to know why TV executives fight over Cowboys games? Because quarterback Dak Prescott’s Cowboys gave CBS, NBC and Fox/NFL Network their most-watched games TV this season. 

Fox/NFL Network’s telecast of the team’s 31-24 loss to the Bears was the most-watched Thursday Night Football game at 18.2 million viewers. 

Four of ESPN’s Top 10 most-watched “Monday Night Football” games since 2006 have featured the Cowboys.

These numbers are no outlier, according to team spokesman Rich Dalrymple. The Cowboys also played in the most-watched regular-season games of the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons.

Four of the Top 10 most-watched games of 2018 featured the Cowboys (No. 1, 3, 8 and 10). Six of the Top 10 most-watched regular-season games of 2017 involved Dallas (No. 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 & 10).

There’s plenty of Cowboys haters who writhe in agony when they see the Silver and Blue on their screen again.

But there’s a method to this madness. The Cowboys are the closest thing to a sure thing for networks and advertisers paying billions to reach NFL viewers. 

“They guarantee ratings,” said Lee Berke, a sports business consultant who’s worked with over 50 pro franchises, including the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Could Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs, Lamar Jackson’s Ravens or Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers challenge the ‘Boys as the most popular TV team? Perhaps. But they’ll have to overcome the Cowboys’ five-decade head start.

Debate shows such as ESPN’s “First Take” and FS1’ s “Undisputed” treat “America’s Team” like LeBron James or Tim Tebow: an endless source of argument, debate, outrage. 

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith is the ultimate Cowboys troll on “First Take.” He wears a black cowboy hat, affects a broad Texas accent and huffs an unlit cigar while cackling over Dallas’ latest on-field disappointment.

What can go wrong with the Cowboys, will inevitably go wrong, argues Smith in a frequent TV refrain. “They’re an accident waiting to happen.”

Meanwhile, Skip Bayless of FS1’s “Undisputed” is the pom-pom waving Cowboys cheerleader. During one of the show’s Super Bowl week telecasts from Miami Beach, Bayless noted the many fans in the live audience wearing Cowboys jerseys.

“It’s starting to feel like the Cowboys are playing in this Super Bowl,” said Bayless. 

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Jones is the NFL’s most powerful owner. The league’s TV partners know how to keep him happy. 

As recently as the 2018 season, ex-Cowboys held three of the top four game analyst gigs: Tony Romo at CBS; Troy Aikman at Fox; and Jason Witten at ESPN. 

Romo is poised to become the richest sportscaster in history, with a new deal valued at $10 million to $14 million a year.

Love them or hate them, the Cowboys make more news losing than other teams do by winning, said former defensive end turned ESPN analyst Marcus Spears.

“There is an insatiable appetite for the Cowboys, whether they are doing good or bad. I think at some point America needs to admit that,” Spears said. “The Cowboys carry the narrative better than anybody in the NFL. They arguably have one of the Top 3 marketers in sports history in Jerry (Jones). America loves to be entertained. The Cowboys do it as well as any franchise in the world — on the field and off the field.”