Money

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

Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys warms up before a game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on October 21, 2018.
Patrick McDermott | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

For many Americans, watching football on Thanksgiving is a time-honored tradition.

The first team to play on Thanksgiving Day were the Detroit Lions, who hosted their inaugural game in 1934 as a way to drum up increased interest in the franchise. Although the Lions lost, more than 26,000 fans packed the stadium and tickets to the game sold out.

Nowadays, fans can count on seeing the Dallas Cowboys take the field on Turkey Day. Thanks to the Lions' success, in the 1960's the National Football League decided it wanted to put on another Thanksgiving game — but the league had trouble getting a team to agree to play.

That's because playing an evening slot on Thanksgiving Day would interrupt dinner for a lot of families, so viewership wasn't guaranteed. Plus, in the age before Monday Night Football, weeknight games were a rarity. For most teams, the risk just didn't make sense.

However, Tex Shramm, the general manager for the Dallas Cowboys, saw the open slot as a tremendous opportunity to boost enthusiasm for his team.

The Cowboys were still relatively new, just in their seventh season in the NFL, and they were struggling under head coach Tom Landry. Schramm believed a Thanksgiving Day game would provide much-needed publicity.

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

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

Schramm's instincts, though, proved correct, and the 1966 game was a rousing success. The Cowboys shattered their previous attendance record with more than 80,000 fans showing up to watch. And they beat the Cleveland Browns, winning 26 to 14.

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

Another key decision Schramm made in 1966 helped raise the team's revenue for years to come. If the Cowboys volunteered to host a game on Thanksgiving, he argued, the league should guarantee that the team gets a home game on the holiday every year.

The NFL honored Schramm's deal, and the Cowboys have played on every Thanksgiving since 1966, except two, 1975 and 1977, when the league tried alternating years with the St. Louis Cardinals. 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. In the past year, the team brought in more money than any other franchise, totaling $840 million in revenue and $350 million in earnings.

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Quarterback Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys warms up before a game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField on October 21, 2018.
Patrick McDermott | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images
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