Monday, April 7, 2014

Time to retire "America's Team" myth

I happened to be listening to NFL talk on ESPN the other day, the topic of discussion being the need for the so-called America’s Team—the Dallas Cowboys—to return to the form that made them so. Being “America’s Team” brings the burden of great responsibility, like winning games—more specifically playoff games. The Cowboys haven’t been doing much of that since 1996; in recent times it is mainly because its mediocre defense requires quarterback Tony Romo to be good at the game of dice, rolling winners to compensate for losers. But “luck” has a way of being fickle, and when Romo throws snake eyes, it naturally gets blown out of context. Thus while Dallas is a constant source of attention, there seems little justification for it, other than being a soap opera whose story line has long since grown stale.

One wonders how the Cowboys ever became “America’s Team.” They were on the losing end of two classic NFL championship games against Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. They continued the old league losing to streak to the upstart league in Super Bowl V. But the Cowboys’ owner, Tex Schramm, was a businessman, and to him—like Jerry Jones after him—sports was a business—a “big” business. This was recognized at the time; in the film North Dallas Forty, Nick Nolte’s aging football player confronts the owner about the “confusion” over whether football is a “game” of a “business.” 

Unlike Jerry, Tex didn’t invest in a garish pleasure palace that so dwarfed the requirements of a football stadium that fans seem an anonymous, faceless presence estranged from the play on the field—thus the complaint that the Cowboys have no “home field advantage” there. Schramm knew how to reach the male football fan without a home team and was uncertain on what bandwagon to jump on. 1972 saw the debut of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, in what was then titillatingly skimpy outfits. 

No one should underestimate the value of an eye-candy gimmick, and its entertainment value went beyond the sidelines. When I was kid growing up in Packer territory, posters of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were sold in book stores and magazine shops; it didn’t hurt sales that unlike what you saw on television broadcasts, ample bosom was on full display. By the end of the Seventies, other teams were copying this marketing scheme, but the Cowboys were there first, and even though they lost three times in five Super Bowls appearances, they reaped the benefit of that early effort at mass marketing.

But the cheerleaders are old news and wildly imitated (even by high school kids).  Ever since, the Cowboys’ reputation as America’s team is more “assumption” than it is reality. The media tells us it is so, and when people hear this so often, they just assume it is true and tell pollsters what they expect to hear. There are multiple polls available to suggest that the Cowboys are consistently near or at the top in “favorite” team lists, but they also show that polls can be manipulated. The current “hot” team often finds its way from the bottom to the top in no time. The Denver Broncos, for example, were in the middle of the pack just two years ago; but since Peyton Manning joined the team, they are suddenly “popular.” This suggests that fans often follow players rather than teams—much as the perception of Minnesota increased when Brett Favre joined the team in 2009; in the Seattle market, it seemed that Vikings’ games were scheduled on local television every week.

Are the Cowboys’ really America’s team? A January 2, 2014 Public Policy Poll revealed that 23% believe that the Cowboys should be called “America’s Team,” this was nearly double the number who said the Cowboys were their “favorite” team. But 60% didn’t believe that the Cowboys should be called “America’s team”; in fact, the Cowboys were the NFL’s most hated team, at 23%. This meant that nearly twice as many fans stated that the Cowboys were their least favorite team as those who claimed that they were their favorite team. Time to retire the myth?

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