As the sun sank beyond the horizon and temperatures plunged into the teens, die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan Ricky Williams naturally needed warmer gear to survive four hours of tailgating in AT&T Stadium’s Lot 15 along Randol Mill Road.
Williams, 32, arrived from his hometown of Oakland, Calif., last Sunday afternoon for that night’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Friends he was meeting from Arkansas had already done his shopping: a Dez Bryant game jersey, a Cowboys pullover, Cowboys scarf, Cowboys blanket and — why not? — a pair of white plastic Cowboys sunglasses with a blue star covering each lens. Smiling and oblivious to the chilled late-afternoon air, Williams had wrapped himself in about $300 worth of Cowboys merchandise, not that he had any inclination to add it all up.
“Real fans don’t add it up. They just put it on,” Williams said. “I’m not in it for the money, I’m in it for the support. We’re going to the Super Bowl and we’re going to win it. That’s all I know.”
Williams got hooked at age 8, when an uncle came bearing gifts of Cowboys garb to his birthday party. His first trip to see the Cowboys play in person, he said, took a lifetime of planning and years of saving. A pilgrimage that would span some 24 hours cost him about $1,800.
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It’s no accident that Williams made his dream trip come true during this unexpectedly joyful Cowboys season. Behind the super-rookie tandem of quarterback Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, Dallas is 12-2. The team clinched the NFC East division title, the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs following the New York Giants’ loss Thursday night. The Cowboys play their regular-season home finale Monday night against the Detroit Lions.
Fans were already flocking late night to stores to purchase NFC East Division Championship T-shirts. Divisional round playoff tickets go on sale Wednesday, with prices ranging from $115 to $560 per seat, according to the team. Face value prices will escalate considerably when tickets reach the secondary market on websites such as StubHub.
Cowboys fever is burning hot
The Cowboys are far and away the NFL’s best story of the 2016 season. They’re young and fun, and really good. They’ve blasted TV ratings when the league otherwise has seen a drastic decline. They’ve reinvigorated a legion of fans in Dallas-Fort Worth and coast-to-coast, sparking a dramatic increase in Cowboys merchandise sales, and a desire from fans to see their team perform in person, cost be damned.
And nothing about attending a Cowboys game comes cheaply. Even for — ahem — the cheap seats.
“We’ve got seven tickets together and two in standing-room-only. It was $1,600 for the seven tickets that are together and whatever he paid for his party passes, another $40 apiece,” said Uriah Harris of Austin, who organized a trip with two close friends and their kids ranging in age from 6 to 13. “Ours are in the top section, Row 24. We’re pretty high up. It’s way up there.”
Harris said there would surely be stops at the concession stands for food and drinks, and in all likelihood a stroll through the Cowboys Pro Shop for souvenirs. His budget, he said, was shot when he purchased the game tickets at $181 apiece, face value, and $225 once all fees and taxes were added.
“Oh, my goodness,” Harris said with a laugh when asked about his stretched wallet. “Well, it jumped over what I was hoping, but we’re living in the moment. But yes, we’re spending unfortunately more, but this is fine, that’s the deal.”
Guilty pleasure of a Cowboys game
Fans attending last Sunday’s game mostly had the same reaction when asked to reveal the cost of their tickets. First came the sheepish grin. Then an eye roll along the lines of “Heaven help me.” Admitting how much they shelled out didn’t seem like their proudest moment, but certainly it wasn’t one they weren’t complaining about either.
We know how much it’s going to be. So, if we have the funds we’ll come, and if we don’t we won’t come.
Armando Jasso, fan from Laredo
According to Team Marketing Report, the Cowboys have the sixth-highest average ticket price in the NFL in 2016 at $110.20, about $17 higher than the league average. Average cost for a premium seat at AT&T Stadium is $346.96, seventh-highest in the league.
Armando Jasso, a 55-year-old retired teacher and his wife, Sylvia, 52, drove up from Laredo with a stop in Austin to visit their son. Armando, wearing a No. 88 Bryant jersey, looked at his wife, wearing a No. 21 Elliott jersey, as he totaled in his head the cost of their two-day trip. Sylvia gritted her teeth through a friendly smile. Two tickets in the 400 level cost more than $300. Parking in Lot 10, where they started to tailgate at 11:30 in the morning, was $90. About 90 minutes before kickoff, they were sharing a bag of peanuts and each had a $9 beer. After the game they spent the night in a hotel in Fort Worth.
“A little bit over a thousand I would say,” Armando said. “We kind of expect what to pay. We know how much it’s going to be. So, if we have the funds we’ll come, and if we don’t we won’t come.”
Stacy Lee lives in Houston, but is a life-long Cowboys fan. She brought her friend John Gonzales. Asked how much she paid for tickets as they stood in line to enter one of the smaller pro shops off the concourse, she said somewhat shamefully: “I don’t want to tell you. Ask him.”
“One-hundred-fifty a piece in the 300 level,” Gonzales said. “And $60 for parking.”
Jessica Byrd, 36, surprised her boyfriend and die-hard Cowboys fan Bill Blochowiak, 38, with tickets for Christmas. They both grew up in Dallas, but now live in Phoenix. They flew in for the game. She didn’t want Bill to know how much she coughed up for each of the lower-level tickets on a secondary market website so she wrote it down in a notebook: $600.
“That was actually a good price,” she offered out loud. “For most of them, they were a lot higher.”
They spent a good portion of time prior to the game sidling through the jam-packed Cowboys Pro Shop, closely examining endless racks of jerseys, T-shirts, sweaters, jackets and just about anything else you can pull, slip or slide on.
“Well,” said Bill, on the lookout for a Cowboys cap and a Troy Aikman game jersey, “I’m supposed to have a budget, but I end up going crazy.”
Dak, Zeke lead sales explosion
The Cowboys have seen a lot of that this fall. Team merchandise is sizzling-hot in sales. Four days before Christmas and the Cowboys Pro Shop in downtown Fort Worth had sold out of Elliott game jerseys, moving a full rack of about 20 the day before. Only four blue Prescott game jerseys remained. White ones were long gone.
Game jerseys retail for $100 for adult sizes.
“Spending habits are a little bit different this year. With Dak and Zeke’s performances we’ve seen jersey sales grow proportionally,” said Justin Renville, vice president of Legends Hospitality, which manages the Pro Shop at AT&T Stadium. “People are excited to show their support. I would say it’s definitely a unique year with the level of excitement and the team’s performance.”
150percent increase in the sale of Cowboys merchandise from 2015, according to Fanatics, the site that runs the official NFL shop.
Renville said customer traffic in the AT&T Stadium Pro Shop is always steady in any year, but purchasing habits have dramatically changed. The Cowboys don’t release specific sales figures, but the percentage increase in sales this year compared to last is eye-popping.
According to Cowboys senior vice president for public relations Rich Dalrymple, overall team merchandise sales are up 42 percent from 2015. Fanatics, the site that runs the official NFL shop, reports a 150 percent sales increase in Cowboys merchandise from 2015, according to spokesperson Amy Ellis.
Elliott and Prescott are leading the way. Had Tony Romo remained healthy, Prescott’s No. 4 jersey would never have even made it to production.
Now his is the fifth-highest-selling jersey in the entire NFL (it ranked No. 2 in October). Elliott, the No. 4 overall pick out of Ohio State, is No. 1 in sales and has been all season. According to Fanatics, Prescott has been the bestselling NFL player across the Fanatics platform during the holiday season. Renville said the Cowboys have had to act quickly to keep shops stocked with Prescott jerseys as his performance and popularity soared with each passing week.
NFLShop.com breaks down the top-selling jersey by state. Prescott and Elliott combined to take the top spot in 18 states (through October) with Elliott taking 11, including Texas, Nevada, Hawaii, South Dakota, Illinois, Ohio and, interestingly, Mississippi. As a four-year starter, Prescott lifted Mississippi State to national prominence. Prescott’s jersey is the top seller in Alaska and those Southeastern Conference states so familiar with his work: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and South Carolina.
Another sign of the Cowboys’ strong-as-ever America’s Team profile is its selling power in other major NFL markets. According to Fanatics, the Cowboys’ top sales markets outside of Dallas are New York and Philadelphia, both home to Cowboys division rivals — the Giants and the Eagles; in-state neighbor Houston, which has the Texans; and Los Angeles, which got the Rams back this season.
Memories make the cost worth it
Back at the AT&T Stadium Cowboys Pro Shop about 90 minutes before last Sunday’s game, Charlie Bombach of El Paso stood along a wall, scanning his phone in one hand and holding a game jersey in the other while waiting for 16-year-old son Josh to finish shopping.
The Cowboys play the Detroit Lions at 7:30 p.m. Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The game is televised on ESPN.
At last, Josh walked up with a game jersey and several T-shirts.
“My wife sends me and my son [to a Cowboys game] every year,” Bombach said. “We’ve got something for each family member.”
A quick scan of the merchandise totaled about $400, a fraction of the cost of the overall trip.
“We usually sit in the suite level. I want to say it was around $500 a piece,” Bombach said. “This trip cost about $2,000. We flew out here. Very expensive.”
But, as is the case with so many of the more than 93,000 in attendance last Sunday, money spent becomes irrelevant considering the “moments, memories, good memories,” Bombach said.
“It’s crazy, but we’re blessed to be able to spend this money,” Josh Bombach said. “I’m grateful that my dad lets me come out here with him every year. It’s awesome.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan