It’s easy to caricaturize Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and lord knows he helps, with his “I’m a rich ’un” manner. But his fellow NFL owners respect him on matters of business, even as they resent his money-whipping and brags, so if he tells them Roger Goodell must go and the league needs a new commissioner, they at least will listen, even as they bicker.
If I’m an NFL owner, I know whom I ultimately side with in a choice between Jones and Goodell. I side with the owner who has multiplied my revenues exponentially with his vision and willingness to upset the cart when no one else had the nerve to, as opposed to the commissioner who has mangled every serious matter he has touched. NFL owners are essentially a bunch of buccaneers: They squabble like pirates as they split up treasure in a secret cove. Their tolerance of Goodell has depended purely on the idea that he has helped make them money. But Jones really has built and driven the modern NFL’s business, and if he has decided Goodell is a liability, then Goodell is in trouble. Because the interesting thing about Jones is that he tends to be right.
Set aside his bluster, his speechifying and huckstering and habit of taking five sentences to express an idea when one would suffice. The man is a damn genius when it comes to building something big. And he has sight, the long-distance recognition of the commercial waves coming across the water. If NFL owners don’t listen to him on this, they will rue it.
The NFL's business is beginning to show real underlying weakness and audience alienation, in no small part thanks to Goodell's alternately shortsighted and heavy-handed performance. Jones sees it. This is what moved him to hire David Boies in a quest to block Goodell's contract renewal, not a snit over Goodell's tyrannical suspension of Ezekiel Elliott. Oh, the Elliott thing doesn't help, but mainly it's just one more demonstration that the commissioner is a blockhead, who creates problems where there are none, out of insecurity and a need to prove he isn't just a lifetime intern.
Jones doesn’t take on the NFL over trivial matters. He takes on the league when he believes an important economic point is at stake. A dowdy old franchise that was losing $1 million a month when he bought it is now worth $4 billion, the most valuable team in the world, because Jones had the guts to take unpopular fiscal stands with his fellow owners that ultimately benefited them all.
When the league’s TV ratings were weak and the TV committee headed by Art Modell was prepared to give back $300 million just to secure a CBS contract extension, Jones fought it, insisting it was too early to renegotiate, and drew Rupert Murdoch’s Fox into the mix. One owner called him “a crazy wildcatter.” But Jones was right: The league went on to sign new contracts for $1 billion, which set a standard for hardline negotiations, that turned into the $7 billion in network deals of today.
In 1995, Jones acted like a crazy wildcatter again when he bucked the NFL’s centralized sponsor agreements with companies such as Coca-Cola. He believed teams would be better off on their own, and signed separate deals for the Cowboys with Pepsi, American Express and Nike. Was he right? He was: When the dust settled — after the league sued him for $300 million, and he countersued for $750 million — he had set a new template for team operations, merchandising, licensing and branding and everyone saw their revenues shoot up like geysers.
Jones seemed like a crazy wildcatter yet again when he built his marbled $1.2 billion palace with a giant scoreboard fit for Vegas and put so much of his own money in it. That too turned out to be the new template for multipurpose stadiums: parts game field, concert venue, shopping center and catering operation.
Jones is the guy who figured out to monetize and market training camp. He is the guy who realized how to sell NFL merchandise to women. He is the guy who first put a TV camera in the draft room, and the locker room, to make fans and sponsors feel like they were truly inside. He is the guy who invested early in DraftKings, and just the other day bought up an Egaming company.
So if Jones is acting like “a crazy wildcatter” again, and I’m an NFL owner, I go with him. I get past my irritation at how he can dominate a conversation and how he rules on so many league committees. I take a hard look at the fact that, thanks to his insights, the revenue waterline has risen so high, and floated higher salary caps and player salaries, too. I recognize that, through it all, Jones has never been a bully or a hothead, but rather has demonstrated an interesting generosity, his largesse matching his mouth. He has never refused to take risks, or guarded his concepts jealously, like some owners. He has shared his ideas with anyone in the league who would listen, because he believed growth was good for all, owners and players and league officials alike.
Jones now sees trouble, rather than opportunity. Concussions, market fragmentation, new media, plunging participation numbers in youth football, a generation of children who play on screens with their thumbs and forefingers rather than outside with their arms and legs, for whom keeping score is less and less important. These are new problems that need fresh eyes. Yet at the head of the league is a power-blinded commissioner who has never had a real job outside the league office on Park Avenue, and whose performance has been undeniably poor.
The owners have paid Goodell $200 million over the last 11 years. At least Jones did something to earn his money: He multiplied opportunities for every owner in the league. Goodell has multiplied nothing but his own salary, and the number of staffers who had to be hired to manage his disasters.
Jerry Jones may act like a cartoon sometimes, but he is no joke. Love him or hate him, he’s a serious visionary, and he sees a problem. He has earned some deference. If I’m an owner, I listen to him, and I side with him.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
Read more NFL coverage: