Evan Smith: The earliest instance I can find of your wanting a new home for the team is 1994. Here we are, fifteen years later, sitting in a suite overlooking the 50-yard line and this grand stadium. Did it turn out, in the end, the way you imagined it might back then?
Jerry Jones: It’s beyond the scope of what I imagined. I would have to say that, relative to where we were in ’94, we’re 200 percent more invested. I got caught up in it, and my family got caught up in it, and our organization got caught up in it. The more we saw other venues, the more we realized that if the Dallas Cowboys made this kind of commitment, the perception of that, regarding the franchise, would float all boats. I always said, “Don’t miss this opportunity. It doesn’t come to too many people. It doesn’t happen in too many lifetimes. Do it right.” Now, I didn’t anticipate that we would have a downturn in the economy, but it’s a credit to the Cowboys, to our stature, that in the times we’re in, we would be able to do this at the level we’ve done it.
ES: If there’s any evidence that you cut back because of the recession, I’m not seeing it.
JJ: When I bought the Cowboys, in 1989, it seemed like every bank in Dallas was going broke. Buildings downtown were half-empty and half-finished. It was a tough time. But you know, that’s why I got to buy the Dallas Cowboys. I’ve watched that downturn turn into an upturn, and I know that upturn helped impact where we are today with the team. What you’re seeing in the finish-out of this stadium is a real belief in the stability and the future of the National Football League. [Pro football is] the number-one-rated program in all of television, and the Cowboys are the number-one-rated brand in the NFL. So you’re right: I haven’t cut back. As a matter of fact, I’ve added. I’ve added because I can, and because this isn’t a dress rehearsal.
ES: This will be a billion-dollar expenditure by the time it’s over?
JJ: A billion two.
ES: Of which the City of Arlington provided $325 million?
JJ: Correct. The remainder came from four other sources. We have a plan in the NFL that allows other owners to waive their visiting team share of the “club seat premium” during the time you construct. Some came from that. Certainly a significant portion of it came from the owner source—from me. We did a ticket tax. And there was some debt. In December of last year, we had to step back into the credit market because the credit we had arranged became compromised, as did so much credit around the country. It says something tremendous about the Dallas Cowboys that at the height of sensitivity [in the banking sector], we were able to get a large line of credit, a total of $475 million. As it turns out, we’re only going to need about $350 million.
ES: In fairness, the banks knew where to find you if you didn’t make your payments.
JJ: I agree with you. But it was really about the recognition that the Cowboys are at the top of the sports world.
ES: How soon will you make back that $1.2 billion through ticket sales, suite sales, concessions, venue rentals, broadcast rights, and all the available sources of earned income?
JJ: You’d respect me more as a businessman if I knew. I don’t. That’s a product of the economy we’re in. But no one has ever tried to operate this kind of venue before. We have 3 million square feet of air-conditioned space. Texas Stadium had about 950,000 square feet, and it wasn’t enclosed. I know that in the new stadium, we’ll benefit from an uptick in revenues from traditional sources. We put 63,700 people in Texas Stadium. We’ll put close to 100,000 people in this stadium for our premium games. Do the math—that alone gives us a huge increase from tickets and concessions. There will also be tremendous appreciation over time in the price of seats and suites, and that will make us the highest-revenue team in sports. The verdict is out as to where we’ll be on expenses, but the bottom line is that having a place with this visibility for the Cowboys to play in was enough for me to spend the money.
ES: How dependent is the revenue picture on the success of the team? It would stand to reason that a 9-7 season would not be as much of a revenue producer as a 14-2 season.
JJ: The success of the team is very important in terms of our sources of revenue. Because of the fans we have and the makeup of the fan base, when the Cowboys have success, it’s like putting a match in a room filled with gasoline. It just explodes. When we don’t have success, we may flatten or dip, but not as much as teams that don’t have the tradition or don’t have the interest that we have. Having said that, the new stadium will improve our chances for success because it will create more revenue. The one thing I’m known for in the NFL after twenty years is, I will spend the money.
ES: If you make more, you can get better players.
JJ: We criticize a team like the New York Yankees because they do that, but it does help them compete.
ES: It would be hard not to want to have their record this year.
JJ: Exactly. Then again, in football, what you spend doesn’t necessarily equate to success. The first year I won the Super Bowl, I was next to last in the NFL in spending money. The thing that happens, though, is that when you win the Super Bowl, your players command more money.
ES: One of the things I notice is that you could have gotten away with less. Even if you say that the Cowboys fan experience demands more than what other teams provide, you went the extra mile on art and architecture and design. Most fans probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to those things had they not been here. You could have spent $700 million and had the most extraordinary venue around. Why spend $1.2 billion?
JJ: I can wave my arms and say it’s the wow factor, but only a fraction of Dallas Cowboys fans will ever physically come here. The investment we’ve made in many of those areas will create more interest in the venue and, by extension, in the team.
ES: You mentioned that it’s been twenty years since you bought the team. In that time, pro football has changed, the Cowboys have changed, you’ve changed. Tell me how.
JJ: I’m conforming more. Given that I’ve been in it as long as I have, I should know more and know better. They don’t give out how-to books when you come into the NFL to run a team. In the early years, with so many of the things that I was a proponent of, I didn’t have the time to have a bad time. I went ahead and instituted them, and that created push-back from the other owners, because by its nature the league is a socialized organization. Well, I’m states’ rights. What I wanted for the Dallas Cowboys, having to do with our ability to maximize revenues, didn’t align with what the league wanted, but I entered the NFL from a different vantage point. I paid more for the Cowboys in 1989 than anybody had ever paid for anything in sports prior to that time. So I was listening to different music than someone who had made the investment in his team twenty or thirty years earlier. Not only was I aggressive, I was quickly aggressive, because the meter was ticking.
ES: That must have gone over well.
JJ: I don’t like confrontation, although it’s alleged that I do. But I learned playing football that confrontation is necessary. You’d better get another sport if you don’t acknowledge and accept and willfully go after confrontation.
ES: The result is that people see you as somebody who shoots first and asks questions later.
JJ: I would refute completely the idea that I don’t contemplate and think and take advice. That’s not how I make decisions. I’ve been self-employed all my life, and one thing you learn real quickly is that you can’t blame anybody else. It’s the guy in the mirror that you gotta straighten out before you take your first step. You need to do it way before the crisis hits, rather than wringing your hands on the side of the bed after it’s on you. And if you’re not in new and unusual territory, you’re not out in front enough to make it work. That’s my method. It works well in the NFL.
ES: Tell me about your earliest success.
JJ: We were so fortunate to come into the league, have the number one pick, and have Troy Aikman be there.
ES: It makes things a lot easier when that’s the start.
JJ: We were also so fortunate that we had a player like Herschel Walker, who commanded three years’ worth of another team’s draft picks. Those picks are currency in the NFL. And so during the first three and four years that I was involved with the Cowboys, we had five times the amount of currency in draft-pick value that we’ve ever had since. It’s like going to Las Vegas. If you’ve got money in your pocket, you can be a better gambler. But when that money has to take care of home, you can’t be the gambler. We were able to be gamblers because of those early trades. They helped us have winning teams.
ES: Not just winning teams but three Super Bowl wins in the earliest years that you owned the Cowboys.
JJ: I recognize today that staying in the traditional model doesn’t get you to the Super Bowl. You’ve got to take some risks. Over the years, talented players have been key. Yet we’re in a system in which the more you win, the less shot you have at those talented players, because winning teams get to pick last. So you have to be a master of the talent pool. Here’s where I get a lot of criticism: When you’re at a disadvantage, you’ve got to do some unorthodox things to even it out. Sometimes you work in a rehab-type situation with a player. And you get the consequences—usually you don’t have success more often than you do. But because nobody can fire me, I can take those risks, whereas other personnel managers around the nation get sent home.
ES: Why aren’t more owners general managers?
JJ: More and more are active in those areas. Look, as owners, we know that it takes talent to win a Super Bowl. But our job is also to set expectations for our players—that’s the biggest thing we can do. I can’t set a bigger expectation than building a stadium like this. [My players] know I’ve got it all shoved out here, so they need to do their part. If they’re getting paid extraordinarily, they need to be doing extraordinarily well at their job. We owners need people we can count on. Sometimes some of the most dependable people are ones who had some tough times and had some down times and have gotten back up on their feet.
ES: Give me an example.
JJ: Michael Irvin.
ES: Despite all of his problems over the years, your relationship with him is strong.
JJ: Yes, it is. He was a young man then, and he’s a man now. I have all the feelings I ought to have for an individual I respect. He’s my friend, my son. I’m his mentor. At the end of the day, if he had been a dentist and I had gotten to know him, I would have had the same feelings about him.
ES: Does Michael Vick seem like such a person? Is Vick someone you looked at and said, “He might be salvageable”?
JJ: I don’t know him.
ES: You didn’t look seriously at signing him as a Cowboy?
JJ: I did not, because of where we are with our position players.
ES: Was Terrell Owens an example of someone you took a chance on but who didn’t work out the way that you wanted?
JJ: I had a good feeling about Terrell. We had a really great relationship. It’s unfortunate that it ended. It was portrayed as a chemistry thing, but the facts are that when you’re in my position, you have to make decisions about salary, about age. You have to make decisions about players who can stop the progress of other players. You can’t have it all.
ES: Honestly assess the 2009 team. Is it great? Pretty good? Cowboys fans understandably want to know if you’re going to make the Super Bowl, unlike last year.
JJ: We’ve got talent in the positions that count: playmaking, quarterbacking, pressure play on defense, coverage on defense. We cannot dismiss the role of injury in our season last year. This year we have a healthy team, and we should be able to play at a level where the expectations were for us then. That’s a big statement, because we were considered by many people to be Super Bowl contenders. People are frustrated that it didn’t happen. But the fact is, the Cowboys are one of the few teams that have a winning record for the last three years.
ES: If that’s the case, why is there the perception that the Cowboys haven’t been playing anything close to their best?
JJ: Because we haven’t been to a playoff game. There’s a double handful of teams in the NFL that have never won a Super Bowl. So I do feel good about our team. We’ve got a team that could represent us well in this new season.
ES: This is a big anniversary year for you: forty-five years since you played on Arkansas’ national championship team. Do you ever think to yourself, “This could have gone differently—I could have ended up playing for a team instead of owning one”?
JJ: Now that I’ve gotten to have as much involvement in sports as I’ve had, I don’t revisit the course I pursued. I do know this: College was where I got the passion for wanting to be involved in pro sports, with the Cowboys. All us kids were about the same. We all had our parents send us a little money from home. I was married when I was a junior to Gene, who I’m still married to. Sixteen of us who played on that national championship team were married. It was quite an experience. But so is my time with the Cowboys. I say this quite a bit, and I mean it: I own businesses and I own real estate—things like that—so I know what it means to own something, but I don’t, for one minute, think I own the Dallas Cowboys. You can’t own the Cowboys. You can’t own the University of Texas. The fans, the people who are passionate from generation to generation, are the real owners. My role is to carry the ball while I can.