This story appears in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated.For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
As lunch wraps up, the Cowboys Club, the social space and restaurant in the team’s Frisco, Texas-based headquarters, is humming along in comfortable silence. Transparent fireplaces in the entryway and near the bar flicker, highlighting the dark, hardwood floors. The pillows on the brown and silver custom-made furniture are all fluffed the same way, indented in the center. There’s an aroma of essential oils, and a spa soundtrack plays from ceiling speakers. Olaf Nicolai originals hang on the walls.
Professionals are finishing their meals or tapping on laptops across the long, rectangular dining and meeting space. They’ve paid a membership fee and survived a rigorous application process—candidates must reapply annually—for the right to be here. Not to mention the right to have access to the field below, where the most popular team in professional sports is holding a practice on this Wednesday afternoon.
There are no phone calls allowed in the Cowboys Club. No pictures. No Instagramming a selfie. Players can come in and mingle with members of the Dallas area elite without fear of getting tapped by an autograph seeker in a replica jersey. Some can even formulate and execute their own plans for life after football in the Club, or across the Italian marble foyer, where a handful of businesses keep office space, or even in the team’s war room, which high rollers rent out for their fantasy football drafts.
The Cowboys Club is just one artery of the Star, 510,000 square feet of glass and concrete that sits at the center of a newly developed shopping and entertainment space in Frisco. Depending on which side of the complex you’re looking at, the Star can appear to be the kind of place where you can attend a conference, watch high school football, discuss an investment portfolio or perhaps store gold bullion. It’s where the Cowboys practice, rehabilitate and game-plan, but it’s also a four-star hotel, a health and fitness center, an outdoor party and event venue, a youth sports field and an office space (Keurig and Dr. Pepper are moving in next door, right behind the practice field). The intent of its mastermind, team owner Jerry Jones, is simple if not explicitly stated: To create a self-propelling universe here in North Texas, a football Green Gables built around the Cowboys brand.
When the Star isn’t bustling it may seem like excess for the sake of excess, taking on almost an Orwellian dystopia vibe. But when the Cowboys are good—and two weeks into the 2019 season, it appears they are—it takes on a different meaning altogether. Star linebacker Jaylon Smith, who signed a six-year, $68.4 million contract extension last month, takes full advantage of the chance to mingle with business leaders and financial experts: “It’s about access man, it’s all about access. And the Cowboys have expedited that access.”
Starting in early spring, the Cowboys embarked on a spending spree, handing over $180 million in guaranteed money to players, most of whom were already under contract. That’s more than the Jones family paid for the entire franchise in 1989. Smith, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (five years, $105 million), right tackle La’El Collins (five years, $50 million) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (six years, $90 million) were all locked down before the season-opening win over the Giants. Still on the Joneses’ to-do list: wide receiver Amari Cooper, cornerback Byron Jones and, most notably, quarterback Dak Prescott.
In a league where the biggest contract at a position doesn’t necessarily go to the best player but the star who made his deal most recently, only two of the Cowboys re-signees (Lawrence and Elliott) topped the league in traditional measures that most use to gauge contracts. Elliott’s back-loaded deal comes with significant risk for a running back. Smith, meanwhile, leapt at the chance to cash in while he still had two years remaining on a particularly restrictive second-round rookie deal, but he did not reset the top of the linebacker market. Collins got a significant percentage of guaranteed money relative to others at his position (70%), but from a team perspective it’s a reasonable deal considering the inflated market for offensive linemen.