The King of Texas

In his biggest gamble yet, wildcat owner Jerry Jones is spending a billion dollars on a new stadium--a shrine to his Cowboys and a 100,000-seat symbol of his reign over the NFL's marquee franchise
July 15, 2007

His "tolerancefor ambiguity"--his phrase--is high enough to register somewhere betweenimpudence and daredevilry. Where else would you put it? When the big oilcompanies, who are hardly in the business of prudence, abandoned their dryholes in the late '60s, it was Jerry Jones who offered to lease their failures.He barely understood their caution anyway. Spending $14 million to drill, say,18,000 feet and then just walking away because of something called budget--wasthat any way to find oil or gas? "Unthinkable," he says. "That'sjust unthinkable."

Jones, anindependent operator and not answerable to anything like budget, kept drilling,and who knows how many times he embarrassed the big oil companies with hisfinds. A dry hole, after all, is simply a gusher without conviction. Jones,then as now, supplied all the conviction necessary. Maybe if he hadn't made 12strikes in his first 13 tries--drilling between dry holes in Oklahoma's RedFork Wells--he'd have had less of it. Then again, we're talking about a guywho, as a 23-year-old in 1966, nearly bought the San Diego Chargers from BarronHilton with money he didn't have. (Jones had arranged for a letter of creditfrom a labor union.) "You sure are young," Hilton told Jones, who wasborn with all the conviction he'd ever require.

But let's not makehim sound pathological, either, as if he lacked a mortal's ability to recognizeconsequence. He never actually drilled to the center of the earth for oil, andthe times he came close he sweated it. When he pledged his wealth and allreceivables to buy the floundering Dallas Cowboys--America's Team or not, thiswas a failing outfit in 1989--he needed two hands to steady a cup of coffee.Who wouldn't? In those days Dallas was the epicenter for one of the oilindustry's worst depressions. Oil, to the extent that anyone was bothering tolook for it, was $10 a barrel. Titans were being wiped out, banks closed,skyscrapers shuttered. Loans were being sold for a nickel on the dollar. Whydid the Cowboys, the one club for which Jones would revisit his childhood dreamof owning an NFL team, have to come up for sale when there was blood on thestreets?

Of course hishands shook. Even beyond the economic climate, the deal was punishing, asophisticated form of extortion, really. It was bad enough that he had to pay a$65 million for the Cowboys (quite literally America's Team, considering thefederal government owned 12% of the franchise after a lending bank failed). Theteam was not very good, and, after three losing seasons, home sellouts wereeven harder to come by than victories. But--here's the extortion part--he wasforced to absorb the $75 million leasing rights on Texas Stadium as well.(The total purchase price was a record for an NFL team.) In those days NFLstadiums were essentially rentals, some place you visited on Sundays. They hadno income or marketing worth to NFL owners.

He had to havethose Cowboys, though. He was no longer that 23-year-old "turnip" (ashe says) but a fairly wealthy businessman. He'd only recently celebrated astrike that would produce--understand, this was one well--$80 million towardhis interests. That was not the sort of fortune to be frittered away on ahobby, a college kid's whim. He'd moved beyond that fantasy. He was 46! Butthat April morning, on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, having decided to forgo afishing trip on account of too much tequila the night before, he rattled hisnewspaper open to see that the Cowboys were for sale. And he knew he might bein trouble. "The Cowboys were my devil," he says. It was the one team,the only franchise, that could tempt him at this point in his life. Oh, he wasin trouble, all right!

The deal done,Jones barely had time to count the empty suites, consider the previous season's3-13 record, bemoan the NFL's failure to negotiate improved TV contracts andget over the surprising fact that the Cowboys had lost $9.5 million onjust $41 million in revenues the year before, when the bills began to comein. They totaled $105,000 a day. "If you want to get motivated," Jonessuggests, "strap that on."

O.K., that wasthen, and now here's Jones in his splendid office at Valley Ranch in Irving,the three Super Bowl trophies always in his line of sight. He's fit and trim(down 60 pounds), a ball of energy at 64, impossibly charming, and when itcomes to enthusiasm, a carrier. Things turned out, more or less, even after hefired a legend, got sued by the NFL and kept hiring old Razorbacks to coach theCowboys. That pitiful team he bought is valued by Forbes at $1.2 billion(shades of Red Fork!), and he has turned that albatross of a stadium into hisbiggest revenue producer. But what's the fun of this business, really, if yourhands aren't shaking?

"Let's go seethe stadium," Jones says, and we're off in a black Town Car to 140 acres ofmud within sight of the Texas Rangers' Ballpark at Arlington. This is thelatest, possibly the greatest, edifice to be constructed for the people'sentertainment in this great land of ours, maybe the final frontier insports-related architecture. Glass panels 120 feet high will open at each endfor autumn breezes, a roof will retract at night to reveal that iconic holefamiliar to Texas Stadium (and close during the day to maintain a sensibletemperature), the glass skin will produce a shimmering effect. It's allconcrete and cranes for now, naming rights are still up for bid, and the placewon't be open for business until 2009, but it's undeniably a doozy. At the sitethe lead contractor explains how the four concrete buttresses that support thetwo quarter-mile steel arches running lengthwise are sunk as deep as 70 feet.Oh, and the Statue of Liberty would fit under the roof, the torch not evensingeing the trusses.

Jones, who did notanswer to budget here any more than he did in the Oklahoma oil fields, did notstint on anything, even when the original cost of $650 million balloonedto $1 billion. The city of Arlington's share was capped at$325 million, meaning that Jones pays for every add-on doodad--such as two60-yard-wide flat screens hanging over the field--out of his pocket, 100%."And I'm an adder-oner," he says.

It turns out Jonesis a bit of a stadium freak as well, going way back. Before playing Nebraska inthe 1965 Cotton Bowl, his Arkansas team stayed in Houston and got a tour of thenew Astrodome. "When we saw that thing--glistening--I couldn't standit," he says. "It sucked the air right out of you." Many yearslater (he won't say when because it embarrasses him to admit how old he was onhis first visit to New York City) Jones paid a cab driver to take him to YankeeStadium first thing. He got out, touched it and returned to business.

When it becameobvious to him that simply renovating 36-year-old Texas Stadium--"And bythe way," he says, "I didn't have to do even that"--wouldn't cutit, he plunged into the new venture with his usual gusto. There were trips toLondon's Wembley Stadium, New York's Bloomberg Tower, even Sydney's OperaHouse. He got the idea for his giant screens while watching a Celine Dion showat Caesars Palace. He was visually discombobulated by the screens behind her,redundant to the Canadian songbird's performance, but mesmerized all the same."You didn't know what you were seeing," he says, "but you knew itmust have been good."

Still, theCowboys' future home is going to be one of a kind, nothing like the"racetrack" concourses most owners have thrown up since Jones firstinspired stadium fever all those years ago when he started milking his buildingfor previously unheard-of revenue. Its glassine luminescence aside, the newstadium will be the biggest in the NFL. Jones talks dreamily of a"media" experience, meaning the place has to be as much aboutpresentation and sensation as football, but he also insists upon the aggressionof its sheer size. It can be configured as attendance warrants--normal capacitywill be about 80,000, up from 65,529 at Texas Stadium, but fully fitted it willbe able to seat more than 100,000 customers.

We meant to saypaying customers. Because the ability to boost attendance revenues is not soinsignificant. When this new facility is finished, it will likely be the mostlucrative stadium ever. Texas Stadium has only 15,000 square feet devoted toclub space; the new facility will have 15 times that. There will be 200 luxuryboxes, some of them at field level. Do you think some fans might pay a premiumto have a suite that basically has a patio right behind the team's bench?

The ability toamplify the Cowboys brand, to further exaggerate its already fearsome marketingopportunities, does not argue for parity. Corporate sponsorship in this newstadium is worth more than in, say, Carolina. The Cowboys will profitaccordingly without having to spend one more penny on football than thePanthers. So the NFL pretty much lines up small market versus big market,resentments flowing as a consequence. And thus Jones's bid to host the 2011Super Bowl was not a formality. In fact, the final vote, in May, passed by only17 for Dallas to 15 for Indianapolis, reflecting more of a grudge than economicsense. A Dallas Super Bowl, just because of the size of this monster, willreturn upwards of $20 million more to the NFL in ticket revenue alone than anIndy Super Bowl possibly could. Go figure.

But there's a kindof fairness at work here, giving Jones the last at bat. (Well, almost; the NewYork Giants and Jets have a smaller but pricier stadium in the works.)Remember, when he came into the league, stadium revenue was an afterthought.That he was able to squeeze some income out of Texas Stadium only speaks tothat hand-trembling urgency to pay his bills. He didn't begin selling stadiumsponsorships in 1995 to Nike and Pepsi simply to sandbag the NFL (whichbelieved it owned all sponsorship rights); he did it because he needed thedough. After the league conceded, owners no longer thought of their stadiums asrentals but as income streams. And as the owners began to gain control ofstadium revenues, the team itself became a kind of loss leader. Sure, there arethe national TV contracts, plus attendance and luxury-box income. But is thereany easier money than the $30 million-plus contract the Cowboys have withPepsi?

Bob Kraft, whoowned the New England Patriots' stadium before he bought the team in 1994,understands Jones's innovation better than most of his peers. "I think he'spart of what's best about the NFL and its future," Kraft says. "Heknows how to sell the sizzle, he understands what the NFL experience is for afan, and he's always pushing the envelope for the most creative andfan-friendly things."

Kraft says the NFLhas almost become a cultural imperative. "Between 1 p.m. and8:15 p.m. on Sunday there are 120 million people watching games live,"he says. People like Jones understood the potential, creating businesstemplates that would turn stadiums into delivery systems for ad and marketingdollars. But Jones also was attuned to the long-term welfare of the league. Itwas he who resisted his colleagues' inclination to sign another flat contractwith the networks in 1994, inviting Fox into the negotiations. The league,guaranteed at least one outside bidder in every subsequent contractnegotiation--the "panting dog" effect, somebody called it--has beenawash in money ever since.

But Kraft saysJones has something else going for him: geography. "It's Texas," hesays. That means football, and that means big. And Kraft says Jones is clearlybuilding a stadium that will satisfy the requirements for both. This stadium,whatever it's called and at whatever price, could be the most efficientdelivery system for marketing opportunities yet. The Cowboys brand ensures aregional fan base, and if the stadium performs as expected in 2011, it's hardnot to imagine it joining the Super Bowl rotation and returning to nationalconsciousness every five or six years.

Of course, whenthe owner insists on things like frits and fins, cost be damned, nothing is asure thing. The NFL is the monster of the moment, its popularity allowing for atremendous margin of error. Yet this stadium, as costly as it is, must work for25 to 30 years to make business sense, and who knows what we'll findentertaining then. Anybody remember horse racing? Boxing? Could Jones, in hisdotage, reconfigure the stadium to accommodate cage matches for bloodthirstycrowds 20 years from now?

Jones actuallyseems to delight in the possibility of failure, however slim it really is. Ashe conducts a tour of his pile--"There," he points to some concrete atfield level, "is where the players will come onto the field. Through astadium club!"--you can enjoy a secondhand exhilaration. This is what it'slike to commit $1 billion! "I'm writing a one-million-dollar checkevery day," Jones says, aggrandizing his risk the way any gambler would,the way he always has, the tab just higher these days. "That will keep youreye on the ball." He couldn't seem any happier.

Jones is mindfulthat his critics might see a hillbilly pharaoh throwing up his pyramid. Heknows it's useless to deny a vanity at work, even if he can't quite acknowledgeit himself. "It's healthy," he says, "because it causes you to gothe extra mile." All those people out there, who can't quite think ofsomething to do on their own, will have a place to go and cheer togetherbecause a maniac owner went overboard with some blueprints. The pharaohs had towait for centuries, and an unanticipated travel industry, before theirmonuments had any real utility. You can buy a suite from Jones right now andwatch the Boys on a 60-yard big screen in just two years.

What Jones reallyfeels, he says, is responsibility. He says over and over, in a variety of ways,that he's never felt like the owner of the Cowboys but rather a caretaker. Thestadium is a little different because it's going to be hulking out there, areflection of his taste for decades. The financial overhang is minor incomparison; Jones is too sharp a businessman to get hurt here. (He was buyingscrap-metal futures before construction to hedge against price increases.) It'sreally about the Cowboys. That's where it started for him, and that's where itwill end.

From thebeginning, there have been rough patches. Jones earned widespread enmity, inTexas and beyond, by firing iconic coach Tom Landry upon purchasing theCowboys, replacing him with Jimmy Johnson, a former Arkansas teammate. ThoughJohnson won a Super Bowl in his fourth season and another one in his fifth, inthe end fared no better than Landry, in the sense that he left, too. Jones thenhired Barry Switzer, one of his Razorbacks coaches, and wrung a Super Bowl outof him, but the Cowboys have been in a state of decline since, not having won aplayoff game, let alone a championship, in more than 10 years. The great BillParcells got Jones within a botched snap of a playoff win last year, but . . .still. Parcells chose not to go through that again, and he's been replaced byWade Phillips, whose legend is lightweight in comparison. Jones, as you mightexpect, has gotten smacked around a bit since the Super Bowl years and in 2001was surprised to see his face on the cover of Texas Monthly with hornssprouting from his head.

The middlingfailures since those triumphs have left him open to even more criticism,especially as he intends to stay as hands-on as ever. When the owner is goingto coaches' meetings, watching tape of practices when he might otherwise beattending to the fortunes of the nearly 2,000 wells he still has interests in,and pacing up and down the sideline during games, he can be characterized as ameddler. "Jerry's a polarizing figure here," says former quarterbackBabe Laufenberg, who played for the Cowboys when Jones bought the team in 1989and now chronicles them for the CBS affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth and on radiobroadcasts. "He's obviously out front. I don't know if there's a morevisible owner in the league. I mean, he has his own [TV] show."

As owner--andgeneral manager--Jones doesn't feel the need to step back. (Although he made abig show of turning over the reins when Parcells came on board, we'll see whathe does with someone less headstrong.) He says things like, "I didn't haveto build a new stadium; I was happy just coaching football." Jerry, did youjust say "coaching?" Caught, he says, "I was just beingplayful." But why would he step back? He's given the fans three SuperBowls. Sometimes, he says, when the criticism becomes too much, he'll snap,"I'm sorry I can't win you one every year."

The reason he's ameddler, of course, is that he really thinks he can win one every year. Gone isthe arrogance from those early seasons when he said any one of 500 coachescould win Super Bowls with the players he assembled ("Whiskey talking,"he said later). But it hasn't been replaced with the humility you'd expect froman owner whose stadium might get into a Super Bowl before his team. You know,no such thing as a dry hole. Tony Romo could be the real deal after all, and,well, the Boys are back in business, right? His enthusiasm is unreal.

If Jones ischarging into an uncertain future, as we all are but with smaller stakes, he atleast has the comfort of a place in Dallas history. In February, Michael Irvin,an artifact of those glory years, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.Irvin dumbfounded Jones by asking the owner to present him at the Aug. 4induction ceremony. It makes you wonder about the loneliness of these men atthe top when Jones says, "I can count on one hand the times I've been thathappy." So, in a back-at-you kind of way, Jones threw a party for Irvin,renting the Ghost Bar high atop the W Hotel in downtown Dallas and invitinganybody with any possible link to Cowboys greatness for a night of drinks andsnacks. While four cheerleaders danced go-go style and TV screens replayedgames from the '90s, alums pressed through the crowd, clacking longnecks withformer teammates. Troy Aikman hugged Daryl Johnston, who hugged EmmittSmith--all remnants of that first, innocent flush of glory. Irvin, predictablylate, caused a flash-popping frenzy, even in this crowd. Not many people, youhave to admit, can share what they could. Jones just glowed.

If you were drivento catch some air in this ceremonial melee, you might have escaped to thebalcony, which, 33 floors above Texas, had a vertiginous view of newskyscrapers--not shuttered ones--and about a million square miles of twinklingsprawl, as far as the eye could see. Who knows how many people (most of themfans probably) each light in the distance represents? It is Texas. But afterenough drinks and snacks it made you think. You wonder if Jones, however securein his ambitions, could bear to endure this dark vista, to see suchresponsibility spread before him, to see all those people wanting to beentertained, demanding satisfaction.

Well, this isn'tfor everybody, is it?

EXTRA

Money Men
Michael Silver ranks the NFL owners, from one to 32.
ONLY AT SI.COM

"I didn't have to build a new stadium," Jonessays. "I was happy just coaching football." Jerry, did you say"coaching?"

With Arlington's share capped, Jones pays for everyadd-on doodad out of his own pocket, 100%. And, he says, "I'm anadder-oner."

He's given the fans three Super Bowls. Sometimes, whenthe criticism becomes too much, he'll snap, "I'm sorry I can't win you oneevery year."

"I'm writing a one-million-dollar check everyday," he says, aggrandizing his risk like any gambler would. "That willkeep your eye on the ball."

PHOTOPhotograph by Darren CarrollIF YOUBUILD IT
Though Jones's new football temple won't be open for business until the 2009season, he has already landed Super Bowl XLV in 2011.
PHOTOJAMES D. SMITH/ICON SMIDEEP INTHE HEART
The hands-on Jones has often dropped down from the owner's box for a close-upview of his Boys in action.
PHOTOCOURTESY DALLAS COWBOYS (3)NEWSENSATIONS
From its players' walkthrough to its sheer massiveness, the venue is meant tooffer a new kind of fan experience.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVERTURNOVER
With Landry (far left) long gone, Jones's coaching lineup has included Johnson,Switzer, Parcells and now Phillips.
PHOTOCHARLES KRUPA/AP[See CaptionAbove.] PHOTOPHIL HUBER[See CaptionAbove.] PHOTODONNA MCWILLIAM/AP[See CaptionAbove.] PHOTOJAMES D. SMITH/WIREIMAGE.COM[See Caption Above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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