The New England Patriots have racked up nearly every accomplishment imaginable in the Tom Brady era — 14 division titles, four Super Bowl wins, and a chance for a fifth championship in less than two weeks.
But one feat has remained outside the team’s reach: The Pats have never ranked as the most highly valued franchise in the league.
That honor, bestowed each year by Forbes magazine, belongs to the Dallas Cowboys, as it has annually since 2007.
Aided by big sponsorship deals and a glut of luxury seats in its massive stadium, Dallas drives more revenue than any other team in the league.
To be sure, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has done pretty well for himself. The Patriots have ranked second to Dallas in the annual ranking every year since 2012. Today the team is worth $3.4 billion.
But Dallas, by contrast, is valued by Forbes at $4.2 billion. The figure, released in September, stands out not just among NFL teams but across global sports, as the Cowboys outranked the European soccer teams who usually top the list of the most valuable teams in the world.
And the Cowboys haven’t even played in a Super Bowl since 1995.
“They haven’t been nearly as good as a lot of teams for a long time,” said Mike Ozanian, the assistant managing editor at Forbes who compiles the rankings. “A prospective owner is going to look at the amount of revenue they get.”
In other words, wins and losses don’t always translate to dollars and cents. And dollars and cents, Dallas gets. Forbes says the team had $700 million in revenue in 2015, nearly $200 million more than New England.
Every NFL team starts on decent footing in terms of revenue. The 32 teams evenly split the money from the NFL’s massive television deals and other league-wide revenue sources. In 2016, that worked out to somewhere near $225 million per team.
With all the revenue sharing, NFL teams have limited opportunities to pull ahead of the pack: squeezing money out of its stadium and striking up local sponsorships.
Dallas’s AT&T Stadium, which opened in 2009 and cost $1.2 billion, seats 100,000 people, compared to 67,000 at Gillette. The difference doesn’t show itself in ticket sales, as the league requires some ticket revenue to be shared. The Patriots even managed to collect $1 million more than Dallas in 2015 ticket revenue, according to Forbes.
But the disparity in stadium size shows itself in high-cost luxury suites. Dallas has packed its stadium with a lot more of them, and according to Ozanian, the Cowboys made nearly $70 million more in leasing those suites than the Patriots did in 2015.
The Dallas stadium has another financial advantage over Gillette Stadium: Its retractable roof and the Texas climate allow the team to hold non-NFL events throughout the year, creating more money for the team, said Emily Must, a sports management professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The Cowboys also boast an edge over the Patriots in sponsorship sales; Forbes pegged the difference at about $50 million last year. Partially, that’s because the population in the Dallas metro is larger than that of Boston. There’s not much Kraft can do about that.
“No matter how great the team or the business acumen of the people running the team, you can’t change your market,” Must said.
And then of course there’s the fact that as beloved as the Patriots are in New England, Texas is football country, Ozanian said.
The team is also the only one in the NFL to distribute its own merchandise, while the other 31 teams share revenue. That can mean big money in good years, yet it can set the Cowboys back a bit when their merchandise isn’t popular.
Kraft has strived to build some of his businesses around the Patriots, most famously with his commercial real estate kingdom, Patriot Place, surrounding the stadium. But that business is not counted in the Forbes ranking because it is independent of the actual football team, Ozanian said.
In the 15 years since Brady took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots have jumped from ninth place to second on the Forbes ranking.
But Ozanian said it’s overly simplistic to say the team’s successes are the result of all that winning. While winning teams can more easily sell sponsorships, on-field and financial success generally go hand-in-hand because both suggest a well-run organization. The Cowboys, after all, won three Super Bowls in the 1990s and made the playoffs this season.
“The aura translates into real economics,” Ozanian said. “The [Chicago] Bears, theoretically, they should be worth hundreds of millions of dollars more than they are. They’re in the third-biggest market, once upon a time there was a storied history, but it’s just been inept management.”
How about the Atlanta Falcons, the Patriots’ Super Bowl opponent? This will mark the team’s second Super Bowl appearance — and perhaps an opportunity to boost its value from $2.13 billion, 19th in the league.