Sunday, February 10, 2013

Winning a City's Heart

I didn't grow up in Dallas, but my parents did, and we made about three or four trips to Dallas every year to visit my grandparents.

And I have lived here for the better part of the last 25 years so I feel I have a pretty good grasp of certain facts about this area.

Particularly sports allegiances.

And, even though I did not grow up here, there is one thing that I have always known about this area. I don't remember if anyone ever told me this. Maybe it's just been understood. Or implied.

Football reigns.

And, while it is hazardous to make generalizations about any state, I think that is true of Texas, not just the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. It is the eternal truth of Texas. Football is king.

That is why an article by Drew Davison in today's Fort Worth Star–Telegram has been provoking discussions everywhere you turn — TV, radio, internet.

According to Davison, "The Texas Rangers are more popular than the Dallas Cowboys," a conclusion that is based on the fact that, in a survey of Dallas–Fort Worth area adults, more respondents said they had watched the Rangers play, either in person or on TV, or listened to a radio broadcast in the last year than had watched or listened to the Cowboys.

It's the first time the Rangers have outperformed the Cowboys in the survey, Davison wrote, and it made the DFW area one of a handful of places in the country where the baseball team is more popular — by that yardstick — than the football team.

I would argue that a couple of factors are at work here, and they both really relate to the same thing — Sports fans around here love winners.

Consequently, the survey shows fans gravitating to the team that is winning. The Rangers, long the doormats of the American League West, have been in the playoffs the last three years. In 2010 and 2011, they advanced to the World Series. They lost both, but they took the 2011 Series to seven games and were on the brink of winning it all a couple of times.

I have seen more people wearing Rangers apparel in the last few years. More folks wear Rangers caps in public. Attendance at home games has been stunningly high.

I've seen this at work here before. A few years ago, when the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title, I noticed more Mavericks bumper stickers and window decals on cars and more people wearing Mavericks apparel. When the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, there was a similar explosion in hockey's local popularity.

Call it the bandwagon effect, and, typically, it has been a fleeting thing. Within a couple of years of winning their championships, the Stars and Mavericks had reverted to their usual form, and their fan bases were back to the diehards.

I'm not entirely sure that will happen with the Rangers. But I'll get back to that.

Because of that affection for winners, I'm inclined to wonder if some of the respondents to the survey — frustrated by the Cowboys (22–26 with zero playoff appearances in the last three years and 2–7 in the postseason since their last trip to the Super Bowl in January 1996) — simply told the survey takers that they didn't pay attention to the Cowboys even if they did.

There's been plenty of local anger directed at Cowboys owner Jerry Jones since he bought the team 25 years ago and unceremoniously dumped iconic coach Tom Landry. Telling the pollster that they didn't pay attention to the team would be one way to get back at him, I suppose.

Most fans forgave him for firing Landry when Jones' choice to succeed Landry, Jimmy Johnson, won two Super Bowls, but then Jones' now–legendary ego apparently interfered, and he and Johnson came to a parting of the ways. He brought in Barry Switzer to lead the team for a few seasons, and Switzer did manage to win a Super Bowl with, essentially, the team Johnson had pieced together, but he couldn't co–exist with Jones, either.

The Dallas coaching job has been a revolving door ever since. Big–name players have signed high–dollar contracts, but there has been little to show for the investment.

It's frustrating for football fans. Can they be blamed for not wanting to be affiliated with this squad?

Even more frustrating is the fact that, in spite of the franchise's instability, the organization continues to raise ticket prices.

How sweet it would be for football fans if enough people refused to pay the ticket prices that the organization had no choice but to lower them. Unfortunately, however, enough people are willing to pay the price.

The Rangers were once an area joke. There have always been serious baseball fans around here, just as there are serious basketball fans and serious hockey fans, but they remained mostly silent until their local team began to win.

Things really started to turn around in the late 1980s when the Rangers signed veteran pitcher Nolan Ryan, who came here for the final five years of his Hall of Fame career. Now he runs the team, and he's built a solid winner that should be a contender on a regular basis.

Sure, there have been some complaints in the offseason about personnel developments for the Rangers, but, as Davison writes, "it's nothing compared to the vitriol thrown daily at the Cowboys." Even after losing star Josh Hamilton, the Rangers' popularity seems to be undiminished.

As Davison points out, the Rangers have raised their ticket prices, too, and it remains to be seen what kind of impact that will have on attendance. But I get the sense that, thanks to three consecutive playoff appearances, the Rangers will be harder to dislodge from the top of this local popularity poll than the Stars or Mavericks.

They don't seem to be a flash in the pan. That's good news for the Rangers and their followers.

And, although they probably don't think so, that's good news for the Cowboys, too. Because this area is so predisposed to love football, it's been as if the Cowboys have been given a pass since winning three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

But that reservoir of goodwill has been used up as far as many fans are concerned. It's time to put up or shut up.

The Cowboys now must work to regain the area's sports fans' allegiance. It won't be handed to them.

From time to time, one still hears talk about big–name coaches or big–name players who are being courted by the Cowboys. We've been through this all before many times, and I really thought the lesson had been learned.

Winning teams tend to have a certain chemistry, not a collection of resumes.

That's what wins a city's heart.

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