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The Largest NFL Crowd Ever Was a Texas Showdown in Mexico
AP Photo/Ron Heflin

The Dallas Cowboys were everything in the 1990s. By 1995, they were a full-fledged dynasty and probably should’ve won more than three Super Bowls that decade. Emmitt Smith, the greatest running back of all time, was a force out of the backfield. Troy Aikman, the greatest Cowboys quarterback of all time, manned the offense. And Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin hauled in the passes.

It’s no surprise that America’s Team also had and still has the greatest fans in the world (no, really, a study proved that). Longtime owner Jerry Jones and coach Jimmy Johnson assembled an all-time team capable of beating everyone, everywhere.

In 1994, the Cowboys faithful proved their allegiance and helped set the National Football League‘s attendance record for a single NFL game in a preseason rivalry matchup against the Houston Oilers in Mexico City. The final head count for the largest crowd? 112,376.

The Cowboys unsurprisingly hold the regular season game attendance record as well, when 105,121 showed up to the new Cowboys Stadium to watch them take on the New York Giants in 2009.

AT&T Stadium, AKA Jerry World, isn’t even the biggest NFL stadium in terms of capacity — the Jets’ and Giants’ MetLife Stadium holds that distinction at 82,500– but its 80,000 official capacity can be expanded to more than 105,000 fans.

Here’s a list of the largest NFL single-game crowds in history, which was put together by the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

  • 112,376: Dallas Cowboys vs. Houston Oilers, Mexico City, Aug. 15 1994
  • 106,424: Dallas Cowboys vs. New England Patriots, Mexico City, Aug. 17, 1998
  • 105,840: Chicago Bears vs. College All-Stars, Soldier Field, Aug. 22, 1947
  • 105,121: Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants, Cowboys Stadium, Sept. 20, 2009
  • 104,629: Denver Broncos vs. Miami Dolphins, Mexico City, Aug. 4, 1997
  • 103,985: Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Los Angeles Rams, Super Bowl XIV (Rose Bowl), Jan 20 1980
  • 103,667: Washington Redskins vs. Miami Dolphins, Super Bowl XVII (Rose Bowl), Jan. 30, 1983
  • 103,467: San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals, Mexico City, Oct. 2, 2005
  • 103,438: Oakland Raiders vs. Minnesota Vikings, Super Bowl XI (Rose Bowl), Jan. 9, 1977
  • 102,368: San Francisco 49ers vs. Los Angeles Rams, L.A. Coliseum, Nov. 10, 1957

The highest attendance for a single American football game was set in 2016, when a whopping 156,990 record crowd was on hand for Tennessee and Virginia Tech’s matchup at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Texas Showdown in Mexico

The NFL had been regularly scheduling games outside of the United States since the 1950s and the first Mexican-based one took place in 1978, an exhibition between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles. Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and even Japan had all witnessed games as well.

None, however, generated the same type of buzz like the Cowboys-Oilers on August 15, 1994, in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium. The site was just a short flight from both teams’ training camps in Austin and San Antonio.

Mexico’s love of the Cowboys has everything to do with their kickers and punters over the years. In the 1960s, punter Danny Villanueva became the first Mexican American to play in the NFL. Then, kicker Effren Herrera came along in the 1970s and played for the 1978 Super Bowl championship team.

Kicker Rafael Septien in the 1980s also played a vital marketing role for the team south of the border. As Texas Monthly wrote, he filmed some 30 commercials in his home country during a time when Spanish TV began transmitting Cowboys games in Spanish.

America’s Team was so popular in the country that the Cowboys printed a separate Mexican version of their weekly newspaper.

The game itself was otherwise boring. Oilers’ Al De Greco kicked two field goals and the team won, 6-0. The Cowboys’ best chance at scoring came late in the game when Shelby Hill took a pass to the Oilers’ two-yard line but fumbled after being hit by Emanuel Martin.

The enormous crowd wasn’t deterred by a downpour prior to the game, making the attendance figure even more impressive. That fact did, however, keep Smith off the field because conditions were potentially unsafe.

Aikman didn’t even finish the second quarter and ended the game completing three of seven passes for 12 yards and an interception. He was replaced by backup Rodney Peete.

Still, the game was smashing success and paved the way to playing more games in Mexico. NFL teams played in the country six more times over the next 10 years before incumbent commissioner Roger Goodell halted that trend.

A Cowboys Return to Mexico?

The NFL rebooted the Mexico series in 2016 and has sent two teams to meet in there every year, although the Rams and Chiefs moved their 2018 matchup from Mexico City to Los Angeles due to field condition concerns.

NFL should probably try to get the Cowboys to go back to Mexico and work out a deal similar to the one that requires the Jacksonville Jaguars to play one home game in London through 2020.

Despite not having played in Mexico since 2001, America’s Team still holds a prominent fan base. However, sending the Los Angeles Chargers there to play the Kansas City Chiefs in 2019 might make more sense considering the Chargers brought in the least amount of fans to home games in 2018.

According to ESPN, the ‘Boys are still the most popular team in the country home to more than 129 million people. Dallas makes up 14 percent of the league’s Mexican fans, while the Steelers come in at 12 percent and Patriots at 7 percent.

The NBA may be a good international model for the NFL to follow. Not only has the basketball league been playing games outside of the U.S. for 40 years, but it’s opened 12 international offices across the world and broadcasts games to 200 different countries.

The Cowboys are fine where they’re at. In 2018, they averaged more than 90,000 per game. No other NFL team even reached 80,000.

Read more NFL coverage here.

Patrick has spent parts of the last four years covering University of Florida athletics and spent two seasons with Major League Baseball. He's a baseball junkie who spends his days defending Derek Jeter and the Miami Marlins. A recent Gator grad, Patrick currently resides in Gainesville, Florida.
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