Jerry’s World — a conversation with Jerry Jones
It’s been nearly a quarter century since Jerry Jones, son of an insurance executive, bought the Dallas Cowboys, a team that was then bleeding $1 million a month and had only a single sponsorship in hand — to the club’s media guide. He famously promised upon buying the team in 1989 to get involved in all sides of the business, naming himself general manager. The decades since have not dulled that bravado nor diminished his certainty that an owner can also run team operations.
Abraham Madkour & Daniel Kaplan
discuss Jerry's World
“Using the visibility and the interest you have in NFL football today is what it is,” Jones said.
Trim and fit at 71, Jones oversees an empire that admittedly he had no inkling was possible upon leaving the oil and gas business full time to buy America’s team. The Cowboys are the only NFL franchise to run its own retail operation; there is the joint-venture concessions and hospitality business with the New York Yankees, Legends; a new training complex and surrounding development arising in Frisco, Texas; and, of course, the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium, so successful that it earns mid-five figures daily just on tours.
“There is no question my life’s ambition was to be involved and getting to do something similar to what I am doing right now,” he said. “I never dreamed it would not only be days of building a football team and competing and trying to win: ‘Beat the Eagles Sunday.’ I thought I was going to an island of coaching, or an island of sport, and removing myself from the mainstream of what I knew to be the most competitive place in the world, and that is in the middle of business competition. Trying to make a dollar: Now that is competitive. There are no rules, for the most part.”
Some might contend, of course, that Jones is partly responsible for turning sports into big business. His battles with the NFL in the 1990s were legendary, leading to lawsuits and changes in how teams and the league handle sponsorships. Thanks to Jones’ prodding, teams now sell sponsorships in a far greater number and range of categories. He is regularly at the forefront of important league business initiatives, whether it’s from his perch on top of the NFL Network committee or his role in labor.
When talks were in their late but still difficult stages in the collective-bargaining negotiations in the summer of 2011, Jones stood up, sources said, and pointing his hand at union management, asked whether the players would rather have him or them trying to increase revenue. The players, he argued, would have to take a smaller share of the pie in order to make the whole bigger. The trade-off for a lower percentage of revenue now would be a system that encouraged the league and its owners to further develop the business, work that in turn would bring more new dollars to the players.
“Percentages can be very misleading. You can have a smaller percentage and have a lot more dollars,” he says now, looking back at those negotiations, though not confirming the negotiating-room story told about him.
The result of those negotiations was a 10-year CBA that already has clearly enriched the owners but one where the jury is still out for the players. Benefits like pensions have risen under the labor pact, but the salary cap has barely moved under the new deal, and with its amount still being below the level of the last cap in the old CBA, some observers contend the owners got all they wanted.
Jones, seen at the time as a hard-line owner who wanted to crush the players in negotiations, dismisses that notion, gently. Sounding almost as if he is running the re-election campaign for NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith (who has 16 months left in his term), Jones credits the players for seeing the big picture and predicted the cap will rise by 2015, if not by next year.
“You can’t start with the premise it could have been more; it wasn’t going to be that way,” Jones said. “It was going to be less, because the other CBA was not equitable.”
Similarly, Jones has no interest in revisiting his role in the talks that led to the proposed settlement of the class-action concussion lawsuit brought by thousands of formers players. Plaintiffs lawyer Christopher Seeger, in describing the NFL talks, called Jones a “hard-ass” on a conference call announcing the deal in late August.
|The $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium, a giant among NFL venues, is just part of the Cowboys empire.
Seeger did not return queries seeking further comment.
Jones surely has no interest in putting himself out there as some bare-knuckle negotiator. Perhaps no owner in professional sports is as identified with his team, as the face of his team, as Jones. “Crass businessman” is not the image he wants out there. There is the “gentler Jerry” seen in Pepsi ads sharing an elevator with Giants fans; the “flashy Jerry” seen as himself on “Entourage.”
“He does it to keep the star [logo] and the brand top of mind,” said John Tatum, co-founder of Genesco Sports Enterprises, a Dallas-based sports marketing firm that has a number of corporate clients that work with the league and the Cowboys. “Jerry does a lot of little things to keep the brand top of mind.”
Jones squeezed in the Pepsi shoot in California between Hall of Fame ceremonies in Ohio and negotiating in Texas over the new Frisco playing facility, said Tatum, who also represents Pepsi. The Cowboys are moving in three years from their headquarters in Irving to that new $115 million facility in Frisco, another Dallas suburb.
And doing that work on all those “little things” shows. A Harris Poll out this month again showed the Cowboys as the No. 1 brand in the NFL, a consistent perch for the team and a poll that Jones would mention seven minutes into the interview.
Perhaps no owner more than Jones knows about risk, or what he terms “the tolerance for ambiguity.” When he bought the team, the FDIC held 12 percent of it because the team had been foreclosed upon.
He talks of the dark days of 2009: shovels 50 feet into the ground in Arlington, markets crashing, and still adding to the cost of the stadium. “It was a nervous time, a really nervous time,” he said.
The Cowboys are the only team to opt out of the NFL’s apparel structure, choosing to distribute its wares itself. “You take risk when you put millions of dollars of inventory on the docks out there in L.A.,” he said.
It’s perhaps why he is known to take shots at other owners he feels are not doing enough to pull their weight, once standing up in an owners meeting and offering to buy the naming rights for the Cincinnati Bengals’ stadium. The team’s owner, Mike Brown (coincidentally the only other owner to also carry his team’s general manager responsibilities) chooses to name the stadium after his father, Paul Brown, and not sell it.
|The Cowboys are the only team to opt out of the NFL’s apparel distribution structure.
Asked how he wished to be remembered in 50 years, Jones is ready with his answer. He starts by pointing out that his master’s thesis at the University of Arkansas — the school where he starred on the football team alongside future two-time Cowboys Super Bowl-winning coach Jimmy Johnson — was oral communication in football, underscoring his early desire to own a team. But it also led his father to famously tell a newspaper reporter that his son might never amount to anything, a story that often leads Jones to get teary-eyed, those who know him say.
After recounting the tale of his dad, and his road with the Cowboys, Jones gets to what he wants others to remember him for.
“It would be good to have as a legacy that I got to evolve and work in sports in its heyday of it becoming a significant business, as it is,” he said. “And at the same time, the game continued to evolve, and hopefully be one of the most successful franchises. The way I look at it is, I hope I had the skills that I could do both.”