No single individual, with the possible exception of the last two commissioners, has done more to create the current dominance of the NFL than Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. His vision of what the NFL could achieve was ahead of its time, with television contracts, marketing, branding, memorabilia, franchise values, the NFL Network, harmonious relations with agents and the use of the internet. His energy, creativity and willingness to challenge tradition are partly responsible for the NFL’s status as the nation’s favorite sport and the Cowboys’ status as the highest valued sports franchise in the world.
I first encountered Jerry as Troy Aikman and I visited Dallas in April 1989. At that time, I had the largest practice representing NFL football players and was soon to have clients Russell Maryland, Darryl Johnson, Darren Woodson, Jason Garrett and Wade Wilson as members of the Cowboys. Jerry had just purchased the Cowboys for $140 million and had summarily filed iconic coach Tom Landry as well as president Tex Schramm and scouting guru Gil Brandt. The fans were furious. Jerry then hired the charismatic Jimmy Johnson as coach.
Jerry and Jimmy wanted to assess whether to use the first pick in the draft on Troy. After meeting all day and evening with Troy, Jerry adjourned to the lobby of the airport Hyatt hotel with me, and we spent all night — until 6 in the morning — talking about the future of the Cowboys and the NFL.
It was immediately clear that Jerry understood the uniqueness of the Cowboys brand and how that could be used in sponsorships and in the creation of Cowboys-branded businesses. He had gone through a painstaking research process, reaching out to owners and executives throughout the league. He wanted to know which practices worked most effectively in franchise building. He understood that the television business had expanded, that new networks would employ “loss leader” bidding for the connection to football and that this would exponentially change league revenue. He saw the value of state-of-the-art stadiums and the potential ancillary revenue streams they could develop.
We also talked about the embryonic internet and how that would change the flow of information and commerce. Jerry understood “ambush marketing” and how the ownership of a stadium could forge relationships with corporations distinct from overall NFL marketing.
After Troy was signed by the Cowboys, we flew back to New York to attend the draft itself. Jones’s son Steven and daughter Charlotte hosted the flight. It was apparent that they were both whip smart and talented. They both showed poise and grace at a young age, and Jerry found a way to weave them into the Cowboys structure, along with Jerry Jr. He allowed them to grow and make their own mark.
Jerry (and he encourages everyone to call him Jerry) set about remaking the franchise. In 1993, 1994 and 1996, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Then Jerry fought for a more vigorous television strategy for the league. In 1975, each team in the NFL received $2 million; that amount had grown to $17 million by the time he purchased the Cowboys. The succeeding television contracts exploded.
Many other owners resisted Jerry’s efforts to market and brand in a more aggressive way. Once they saw the off-the-field largesse he was creating for the Cowboys, though, that establishment thinking changed. Today there is a specific carve-out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows Dallas to keep certain revenue without sharing..