In 1979, Bob Ryan's job at NFL Films was to produce the Dallas Cowboys recap video from the previous season. But it wasn't any particular highlight that stood the test of time.
"They had such a disappointing loss in the Super Bowl [35-31 to the Steelers], I just needed to give it a hook, to try to find something to kind of nullify the loss," Ryan said. "And the thing that resonated most was how popular they were. They were always on the doubleheader games, they seemed to have fans all over. And their fans had jerseys and Cowboys hats and all these things before marketing team items was really a thing to do. So I said, let's call them 'America's Team.'"
Ryan said he forgot about it for a couple of months. But it came back. In the Cowboys' first home preseason game, the public address announcer introduced the team running out on the field as "America's Team."
"The Cowboys loved it," Ryan said. "It really fit them. They were just like Notre Dame. You could love them or hate them, but you had to watch them."
For the past 33 years, the nickname of America's Team has, for the most part, stuck, though the Cowboys don't seem to be embracing it as much as former general manager Tex Schramm did in the early years. They sell a Nike America's Team shirt in their online store, but they haven't trademarked the phrase and, in fact, don't like to talk about it.
"It has never been something the organization has ever promoted or called itself," team spokesman Rich Dalrymple said. "We don't beat our chests about it, and we don't view it as a contest with other professional sports teams."
The topic is certainly getting a bit more sensitive. The Cowboys haven't been to a Super Bowl in 16 seasons, the longest drought in team history. Over that time, they've won only two playoff games in seven appearances. They no longer have the league's best all-time winning percentage, which now belongs to the Chicago Bears.
But most of the data seems to show that the Cowboys still are America's Team, even though they aren't winning like they used to.
To start, both the ESPN Sports Poll and the Harris Poll, taken this year, affirm that the Cowboys are the most popular team in the NFL. The ESPN Sports Poll reflects that the Cowboys are the most popular team in all of pro sports among women, beating out the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Yankees.
The Cowboys are the only team that distributes its own merchandise, and sales on Fanatics.com, one of the largest online sports retailers, are up 33 percent compared with the first 10 weeks of last season. Overall, Cowboys sales are behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers this season.
Then there's the television ratings. The Cowboys have played in the No. 2, No. 5 and No. 8 highest rated NFL games this season. The Denver Broncos and the New York Giants also have three games in the top 10 highest rated, but only the Cowboys have done it without a winning record.
"Win or lose, they're a lightning rod," said Fox Sports vice chairman Ed Goren, who is stepping down this year. Goren helped the fledging Fox acquire the rights to NFC games toward the end of the Cowboys' 1990s dynasty.
That must-see thought was confirmed by a Public Policy Polling survey taken in December, which revealed that 22 percent of fans say the Cowboys are their least favorite team. The next most hated team? The Bears at 11 percent.
"You can argue if they deserve to be America's Team," said Ryan, the term's inventor. "But I think they always will be. Their play on the field suggests that they aren't deserving of the teams that [Tom] Landry had. They failed plenty of times. There was [Jimmy] Johnson and then [Barry] Switzer, and, frankly, they've been stumbling and bumbling for a lot of years."
Giving the Cowboys relevance is owner Jerry Jones, who seems to make news more than any other owner, from expressing his disappointment in the team to generating media buzz when his son-in-law was caught on television cleaning his glasses during a game.
"Not only did he build a stadium, he built the Taj Mahal," Goren said. "With the big television, the cheerleaders, the players running through a bar, an area where fans can see the postgame press conferences. I mean, it's a spectacle. Jerry puts on a show."
Jones built the stadium, but people also come. Through four home games, the Cowboys are averaging 87,016 fans per game, almost 7,000 more than the team with the second-highest attendance in the league, the New York Giants.
It's even more impressive when you consider that the Cowboys are one of only five teams whose average ticket costs more than $100. The cost for a family of four to attend a single Cowboys game is $634.78, the most in the league, according to Team Marketing Report, which publishes something called the Fan Cost Index.
And, in what might be the most amazing statistic supporting the Cowboys' importance in American society, people pay to see Cowboys Stadium when there isn't an event more than any other venue in perhaps the world. More than 500,000 people will pay $17 to $21 each for a tour of the stadium this year, the team says.
Said Goren: "The fact that we're still asking if the Cowboys are still America's Team when they've only won a couple playoff games in a decade and a half shows you how big they are."