Money

How playing the slot no one wanted made the Dallas Cowboys the most profitable team in the NFL

Alfred Morris #46 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium on November 19, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.
Ronald Martinez | Getty Images
Alfred Morris #46 of the Dallas Cowboys runs the ball in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles at AT&T Stadium on November 19, 2017 in Arlington, Texas.

On Thanksgiving, you can count on two things: Turkey and football.

And every year, a team that's virtually guaranteed to take the field is the Dallas Cowboys, who played their first Thanksgiving Day game in 1966. The Detroit Lions were the first team to play on the holiday, hosting their inaugural game in 1934 as a way to drum up increased interest in the team. Although the Lions lost, the game sold out with more than 26,000 fans packing into the stadium.

Thanks to the Lions' success, in the 1960's the National Football League decided it wanted to put on another Turkey Day game but had trouble getting a team to agree to play, as it would be a huge risk for anyone who signed on. Weeknight games were still rare and an evening slot on Thanksgiving would interrupt a lot of families' dinners. Most teams shied away.

But Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm recognized this would be a prime marketing opportunity for his team.

A portrait of Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm in 1981. Tex Schramm was the Cowboys president and general manager from 1960 to 1989.
J. Kamin-Oncea | Getty Images
A portrait of Dallas Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm in 1981. Tex Schramm was the Cowboys president and general manager from 1960 to 1989.

The Cowboys were still relatively new, just in their seventh season in the NFL, and Schramm believed a Thanksgiving Day game would provide much-needed publicity for the young team, which was struggling under head coach Tom Landry at the time, Mental Floss reports.

Even the NFL doubted if the Cowboys could generate ticket sales. It guaranteed a minimum gate revenue if the team agreed to play.

In the end, Schramm's intuition paid off. More than 80,000 fans showed, shattering the team's previous attendance record. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns, winning 26 to 14.

From that point, the Cowboys' popularity continued to grow, earning them the nickname "America's Team," which Schramm later helped popularize.

They've played on every Thanksgiving since 1966, except two, 1975 and 1977, when the NFL tried alternating years with the St. Louis Cardinals. But after two harrowing losses for the Cards, Thanksgiving play returned permanently to the Cowboys.

Today, Dallas is the most valuable team in the NFL, worth $4.8 billion. They earned $350 million in profits last season and generate more than $150 million annually from sponsors, according to Forbes.

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