Tuesday, May 17, 2022 May 17, 2022
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Cover Story

Jerry Jones: The Grocer’s Son

The owner of the NFL’s most valuable franchise is just like his dad: a hard-charging businessman and marketing guru with a flair for the dramatic.
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Jerry Jones, who’s owner, president, and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, is photographed at AT&T Stadium. Stanton Stephens

TV revenue went through the roof with Jones quarterbacking the negotiations, and the Cowboys, winners of three Super Bowls in the 1990s, dominated the ratings. Even so, Jones says now that he greatly underestimated the Cowboys brand awareness that was already in place: “As TV lifted the NFL, Dallas had the cheerleaders and this black guy with six guns as a mascot [Crazy Ray]. … The networks call it the ‘Cowboys Factor.’ In almost every  [outside] market, we are the second-most popular team and always the most hated. Consequently, we get the highest number of viewers.”

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When Jones first bought the ‘Boys, he thought of the franchise as a loss leader, aiming only to break even with the team, at best, while luring other revenue sources to the Cowboys brand. “My goal,” he says, “was to make better economics, but not necessarily demand a profit. I thought, ‘You go out and get a retail product or service and build that association to the market—like, say Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. You might have the Dr Pepper Cowboys.’ ”

Well, at least we don’t have that. But neither have Cowboys fans had much to celebrate on the football field of late. During our nearly four-hour interview, Jones tries to introduce some kind of new math, straining to show that if the Cowboys had “one half game more per year, I think they would be sixth in the league in wins …”

Although the team is 56-44 in its last 100 games, the last two seasons, with their identical 8-8 records, have been his most frustrating as an owner, Jones says. That’s why he vowed to make the personnel at Valley Ranch “very uncomfortable,” and promised that “change will happen” after the last game of last season.

It did, and there was talk at the top of even bigger changes than new play-callers and getting more input from Jerry’s $108 million man, quarterback Tony Romo. Jones says he worries about the brand perhaps fading without more wins. He’s also frustrated that the team, even “with a healthy Romo,” has not won more games.

But he sees the franchise on the verge of reinvigorating the brand in 2013. Entering this season, the Cowboys are “like a room with an inch full of lighter fluid on the carpet,” he says. “One spark and that flame goes to the top and burns for a long time.”

Critics fault Jones for putting the branding before the winning, as he likes to keep the Cowboys name in the public eye year-round. Weeks after the 2013 draft was completed, for example, the marked-up whiteboard used for the Cowboys draft, including the “grades” of each player, was leaked to the media. Many franchises would be mortified to see their board publicized, thus jeopardizing the morale of players who might have ranked embarrassingly low on their board. Jones, however, failed to see “any negative impact” from the leak.

The criticism gained validity in July, when head coach Jason Garrett’s unfiltered opening remarks to the team became an internet sensation, thanks to Jerry aligning the Cowboys brand with the star power of Sports Illustrated writer Peter King and his new website. Asked about the streaming broadcast from the private locker room, Garrett allowed, “It certainly wasn’t my decision by itself …”

For the last few years, the Cowboys’ new stadium in Arlington—not the team itself—has attracted most of the attention. The organization recently announced that it had sold naming rights at the stadium to Dallas-based AT&T. Analysts put the value of the deal at around $18 million a year. Call it the Death Star or Jerry World, it’s one of the most impressive sporting venues in North America. Jones says Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas casino and hotel owner, told him to go whole hog in bringing the stadium to life.

No wonder, then, that the inspiration for the giant scoreboard came from Las Vegas shows starring Celine Dion and Cher.  Jones says he was ready to offer $25 million for the Pacquiao vs. Mayweather fight to expose his new stadium to the largest pay-per-view audience in history.

In a hyperbolic moment, Jones will tell you that he wants the stadium to “become more familiar than the White House.” From the color schemes to the cage-dancing girls, the stadium was built for television. “It was designed for Al Michaels and John Madden to describe this as a ‘palace for football’ to the millions who are watching,” he says.

The stadium has more than one purpose. Along with its retractable roof, huge high-definition TV screens over the field, and ground-to-ceiling glass doors, it also houses 10 clubs, 15 kitchens and six platforms for the 35 or so non-football events hosted there each year. Says Jones: “That does not include the catered parties we do for two or three thousand people at a time.” It does however include the George Strait concert, where more than 18,000 “Cowboyrita” drinks were served.

The 80,000 seating capacity and Jerry’s shilling of “party passes”—a nice phrase for standing room with a view—also benefit visiting NFL teams, who get 32 percent of the gate (but none of the suite revenue).

[inline_image id=”4″ align=”” crop=””]INSPIRATION AND ENERGY
Jerry Jones will turn 71 years old on October 13. That’s the same week he will unveil a new sculpture at the stadium by Sir Anish Kapoor, an Indian-born British artist who is best-known for his giant mirrored sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, called Cloud Gate.

Jones says that yes, there is a succession “plan and concept” in place, known to the family, should he no longer be running the Cowboys organization (see accompanying story). But he continues to possess “great inspiration and energy,” he hastens to add.

He truly loves the duties of general manager and says that, while others his age are playing golf, he will sneak away to watch game film on off-season Saturdays.

He’s passionate about the team, but becomes furious when critics accuse him of “meddling” with the Cowboys. “Meddling?!” Jones almost screams. “Heck, that is just the grocer checking the produce he is about to sell.”

Those around him—including recently fired defensive co-coordinator Rob Ryan— will tell you that Jones certainly has not mellowed. Jerry cannot just reach back in his pocket and simply wallet-whip the opposition, as he has in the past. The NFL salary cap prevents him from paying more than the next owner, and that keeps him constantly on the lookout for any kind of edge.

So, after more than six decades, just how much of that little 9-year-old boy in the bow tie are we looking at now?

“All of him,” Jones says without hesitating. “All of him.”