How Jerry Jones Became The NFL's Shadow Commissioner

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“The Super Bowl has changed since we were last in it,” the late Dan Rooney told the Pittsburgh writer Jim O’Brien in January 1996, in the run-up to Super Bowl 30. “It has gotten a lot bigger. There’s more hype. To be quite honest with you, it is more Jerry Jones.”

It had been 16 years since the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team Rooney owned, reached the Super Bowl. The game had always been a mass-market spectacle—that was the entire reason for it, just as its name suggests—but its exponential progression into the orgy of excess we know today was, when Rooney talked to O’Brien, still a recent development. The swashbuckling oil and gas man that Rooney credited for the Super Bowl’s transition was also a fairly new member of the league’s ownership caste at that point; he had bought the Dallas Cowboys, the team that would go on to beat Rooney’s Steelers in that particular Super Bowl, just seven years earlier. Rooney explained to O’Brien what “more Jerry Jones” entailed:

“It’s more selling. It’s more NFL Properties buying [in] with Jerry on some of these things. I really believe the game is the important thing. That should be our principal purpose here, to play a great football game and do everything we can to make that the best it can be. Everything else should be secondary.”


Jones’s eagerness to market and commodify every available inch of the NFL experience may have rankled traditionalist owners like Rooney, who hailed from dynastic families tethered to the league’s founding era. But there would be no stopping Jones when it came to taking the NFL where he was determined to take it. From his very first day as owner, when he unceremoniously fired Tom Landry—the only head coach the Cowboys had ever known—Jones was marking his territory. He was going to do things his way. And was going to make damn certain the rest of the league would, too. It’s been More Jerry Jones ever since.

The power play Jones has engineered against commissioner Roger Goodell is of a piece with Jones’s aggressive, risk-taking approach to steering the league’s affairs. Jones, after all, once led a putsch to prevent the old guard from installing its hand-picked commissioner. He orchestrated a landmark television deal by gambling on the league’s appeal at a time when the networks were losing money on the NFL. And in a direct echo of today’s standoff over Goodell’s contract, Jones once sued the NFL into submission over his willingness to market and brand the Cowboys independent of league-wide sponsorship agreements. In hindsight, it should surprise no one that Jones pulled the strings to make the recent relocations of the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders a reality. Because the one constant when Jones takes the wheel is that the league makes a fuckton of money.


“He’s got that vision thing,” ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. told Dan Le Batard a couple of years back. “He always talks about growing the pie, as he puts it. And these owners, if nothing else, want to continue to make more money. And that’s all Jones thinks about.”

In March 1989, at the end of a decade of constant labor strife but substantial growth, Pete Rozelle retired after nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner. The league’s owners put together a six-member search committee tasked with finding a replacement. The group settled on one name: Jim Finks, who had served in the front offices of the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, and New Orleans Saints—a “pure football man,” as the more tenured owners described him.


Jones had just purchased the Cowboys for $140 million that February, at the relatively young age of 46. At his introductory press conference, he vowed to run the franchise “down to the jocks and socks.” A profile that summer in the New York Times noted that Jones was fond of telling civic groups, “Business is a contact sport. If you’re not moving forward, you’ll get run over.” New to the NFL, Jones set about advancing upfield right from the start, with the selection of the next commissioner. He worked with another relative newcomer to ownership circles, the Philadelphia Eagles’ Norman Braman, to organize an insurgency against Finks. That summer, a group of mostly newer owners known as the “Chicago 11” repeatedly abstained from a vote to approve Finks. “The inaction was viewed as a power play by the 11 owners, who balked at a system in which they feel left out,” the Times reported. It took seven months of debate, 12 ballots, and nearly 50 hours of meetings before the owners approved as Rozelle’s replacement a league attorney named Paul Tagliabue.

Tagliabue would later earn a reputation as a consensus-builder, but within a few years he too found himself getting blitzed by Jones’s iron will. In 1992, CBS and NBC were losing money on NFL broadcasts. (True story.) The NFL’s broadcast committee—led by Tagliabue and chairman Art Modell—was sympathetic to the networks’ plight, largely because the league’s establishment valued the longtime relationships between the NFL and its broadcast partners. Tagliabue and Modell were willing to offer the networks a substantial rebate (some reports said $238 million, others $308 million) and a two-year extension (at a reduced rate) on the deal that was set to expire at the end of the 1993 season. Jones wasn’t having it.


“Before we took a butt-kicking from the networks,” Jones told the Dallas Morning News in 2012, “I wanted to see more cards played.”

Jones, with Braman backing him again, whipped up enough votes to kill the Tagliabue-Modell proposal. Instead, the league agreed to give the networks just $28 million ($1 million per team) with no extension. And Tagliabue invited Jones to partake in the negotiations with the networks. But Jones already had two cards to play. First, at a meeting of the broadcast committee, Jones offered up what would be his pitch to the networks: When Jones was an investor in the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., the station paid a premium for I Love Lucy re-runs. The station lost money on the direct transaction, but the premise was that having I Love Lucy as a programming option developed brand identity by bringing in potential viewers for the station’s other offerings. Jones knew the NFL would provide the networks with a captive audience at which more stuff could be pitched.


The other card Jones had to play was his understanding that the fledgling Fox network was aiming to be a major player in the television firmament, on the same level as CBS, ABC, and NBC. Here’s the Dallas Morning News:

Jones hears media magnate Rupert Murdoch has interest but is reluctant because he feels he was used as a stalking horse in previous negotiations. He sets up a meeting with the founder of News Corporation and Fox.

“I assure you I will do everything I know to do to make sure you’re not a stalking horse,” Jones tells Murdoch. “If you do your best to give us the best deal, we will take it or I will holler so that everybody hears.”

Fox outbids CBS and the league’s next TV contract jumps from $900 million to $1.1 billion.


Jones’s maneuver set in motion a bidding process so competitive the networks have been tripping over themselves to shower money on the NFL ever since. Last year, the league’s broadcasting contracts with the networks generated $244 million per team, a tidy total of $7.8 billion.

In the early 1980s, before Jones bought the Cowboys, the NFL’s owners created a licensing arm called the NFL Trust. Essentially, as Forbes explained it, each team agreed to transfer its exclusive commercial rights over to NFL Trust, which then entered into an agreement with NFL Properties to license the trust’s properties. It made all teams’ properties equal, which was good for the lesser brands in the league and less good for the NFL’s most marketable franchises. Sharing revenues—especially those gargantuan national television deals—had been the foundation of the league’s business model since the first days of Rozelle’s stewardship in the early 1960s. It was a plan that put a backwater like Green Bay on the same plane as a big town like New York City. Jones wanted to keep more of the revenue that his team generated.


In 1993, after the league entered into exclusive agreements with soft-drink, credit card, and shoe companies, Jones balked. He owned “America’s Team”—a bit of branding bestowed upon the Cowboys as far back as the 1970s—and knew he could do better by venturing out on his own. After two years of talks toward a resolution, he told the league that he was opting out, and then entered into lucrative deals with rival soft-drink, credit card, and shoe companies. Jones was going for his, but he was also publicly calling bullshit on the league, which tried to claim NFL Properties was a charitable organization even though it was effectively functioning as a cartel. The league filed a $300 million lawsuit against Jones, and Jones countered by filing a $750 million antitrust suit against the league.

The Dallas Morning News described a subsequent meeting in Washington, D.C., that had been called by Tagliabue, but for which Tagliabue was late to arrive:

Once the commissioner arrives he refuses to look Jones in the eye as he addresses the group. He rips the Cowboys owner for his tactics and lack of respect for the league.

Jones explodes.

“I have come all the way from Dallas, Texas, to meet with you and all your ass had to do was walk across the street,” Jones says. “You have sued me. I haven’t sued you. I don’t even know if you’ve really read or any of these owners have read what you have sued me over.

“But let me tell you one damn thing. You’re going to read it and you’re going to hear more about it.’”

Jones slams his fist on the table so hard it sounds like a gunshot. Papers fly everywhere as he storms out of the room and heads for the elevator.

Denver’s Pat Bowlen and Carolina’s Jerry Richardson stop Jones before he leaves and get him to settle down. He returns to the meeting. Tagliabue and Jones are civil to each other.


Six weeks later, the league gave in and settled with Jones. The result? As Sally Jenkins recently put it for the Washington Post, Jones “had set a new template for team operations, merchandising, licensing and branding and everyone saw their revenues shoot up like geysers.” Jones’s secret is that he never kept his methods a secret. He willingly shared with other owners his approach for using anything and everything as a marketing opportunity; he turned Texas Stadium from a money loser into a cash register, then built Jerry World as the opulent exemplification of this philosophy. The Cowboys remain the only NFL team with its own apparel agreement, and Dallas was the first NFL team to actively market itself to women. There is no altruism in any of this; the only thing Jones cared about is that women spent money, too.

Jones has long understood the public’s ravenous appetite for NFL football, and so he has consistently found ways to prevent fans from looking away. If that meant bringing in big names—Jimmy Johnson, Charles Haley, Deion Sanders, Bill Parcells, Terrell Owens, even a loathsome character like Greg Hardy—so be it. As Jenkins noted, Jones was the first to realize he could make money off his team’s training camp. The NFL has since turned mundane offseason events like the scouting combine and the draft into feature extravaganzas. The league has built its own in-house media edifice, and before long every team did, too; today, the NFL’s news cycle never sleeps. Jones took some heat when the wider world realized there were cage dancers at Jerry World, but the true Jerry Jones touch is that the dancers’ only stage accoutrements were giant beer advertisements.


The NFL’s “Salute to Service” campaign, which coincides with Veterans Day and this past weekend featured coaches wearing league-branded camouflage on the sidelines, is couched as a fundraiser for causes that benefit U.S. military personnel and their families. But it’s just as easy to read the entire effort as the latest cynical rerun of Jones’s old I Love Lucy strategy: a branding exercise disguised as charity and patriotism. Jones wants you to know that he wants his players to stand for the national anthem out of respect for flag and country. Just remember why that’s so. If the league has indeed replaced organized religion as America’s great meeting place, the first and most fundamental tenets of the church of the modern NFL would be as follows: Anything to get your attention, and everything is for sale.


Jones’s father operated a family supermarket, and Jones told Sports Business Journal he learned his salesmanship from the way his old man reeled in customers by staging country music shows and amateur talent contests. Last summer, when Jones was about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he took part in a conference call in which he described a long-ago meeting with a TV executive. “He said you could hire every producer there is in Hollywood and couldn’t come up with all the soap operas that go on, on and off the field, that had to do with pro football,” Jones said. “He said it’s the greatest television that you could ever dream of.”

A few years ago, in Van Natta’s excellent, Johnnie Walker Blue-soaked profile, Jones revealed that he wants nothing more than to win the next Super Bowl. “The one thing he wants most is the only thing he can’t buy,” Van Natta wrote. But in that conference call last summer, a reporter asked Jones about his greatest point of pride as Cowboys owner. As Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer relayed it, Jones didn’t mention the three Super Bowls that his team has won under his stewardship, or any of the Cowboys’ myriad on-field traditions. Instead, he said: “The interest that our game enjoys. The depth of interest never, ever ceases to exceed my expectation. I’m proud that we have always and, as far as I know, will, we want our game being able to be viewed by a vast audience.”


In September, Forbes valued the Cowboys at $4 billion, more than any other sports franchise in the world.

It’s tempting to compare Jones and his willingness to buck the NFL’s status quo to Al Davis, the late Oakland Raiders owner who famously and frequently battled with the league’s power structure, both in the courtroom and outside it. But what distinguishes Jones is the effort he takes to win reluctant owners over to his point of view.


“Davis would consistently extend his middle finger to the league,” David Moore wrote in the Dallas Morning News. “Jones has taken a different approach. He extends his hand, pulls his opponents closer, forcibly argues for change and works to build consensus.” As Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank put it, per Sports Business Journal: “When he is committed to a path or road or direction that he feels is the correct one, Jerry is a dog with a bone. He will not let it loose until either he eats it or it kills him. People respect that with him.”

Jones brings a certain folksy charm to his dealings with other owners, and his tenacity can be endearing. So says Kansas City Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt:

“Jerry Jones is one of the greatest salesmen, ever, in any business. When he stands up in the room, I think a lot of us smile even before he begins speaking. We know what a great storyteller and orator he is. A lot of times his speeches go on for tens of minutes. But they are always entertaining and very persuasive.”


Jones last year held sway in lobbying other owners to back the relocation of the Rams, Chargers, and Raiders—moves he framed as being good for the league, but that will also benefit the catering and hospitality consultancy business of which he’s a co-founder. More recently, Jones may have finally overextended himself. At last month’s league meetings in New York, his pleas for the owners to do something about players protesting during the national anthem largely fell on deaf ears. Instead, the other owners defied him and chose to do nothing, with ESPN The Magazine reporting that some owners have grown tired of Jones’s attempts to strong-arm everything.

Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension this season is the latest in a long line of heavy-handed, robustly appealed disciplinary actions from the league, but it’s the first to directly affect one of Jones’s star players. He is not taking it lying down. Jones has again threatened litigation, and his attempt to hold up Goodell’s contract extension is easy to see as an attempt to get back at the commissioner. A series of leaks in recent days—Goodell’s supposed exorbitant contract demands on one hand, a possible push to punish Jones on the other—suggests that both sides are digging in for a fierce fight. It’s impossible to know how many owners will have Jones’s back this time: For one thing, they’ve got an NFL lifer like Goodell by the balls; for another, Goodell has been an effective human shield for the league’s incessant, self-induced PR headaches. “The NFL got everything it ever wanted,” Kevin Clark wrote last week for The Ringer, “and now it has to live with it.” No small thanks to Jerry Jones.