It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Charlotte Jones Anderson is very busy. As people across the nation prep for Turkey Day—baking pies, cleaning their homes, traveling across congested highways—Anderson, the Dallas Cowboys’s executive vice president, is trying to tape a quick video to congratulate “Papa” John Schnatter on a banner year for his company. She had filmed one heartfelt appreciation the day before, but the staffer who taped it held the phone vertically rather than horizontally, so they’re at it again. Aesthetics are very important to Anderson. She is the Cowboys’ chief brand officer, after all.
She pauses for a moment in her blue blouse, leather pants, and heels as she tries to recall the entire minute-long monologue she had improvised a day earlier, then signals to her assistant to start, who records as Anderson smiles warmly, talking into the camera to Schnatter about how proud she and the entire Cowboys organization are to be associated with Papa John’s (the chain is the official pizza partner of the Dallas Cowboys). About 45 seconds in, her assistant stops her—Anderson’s blouse has an odd wrinkle that looks strange on camera—and they reset. Anderson smiles again, launches nearly verbatim right back into the message, and brings the performance to a succinct, elegant conclusion. She nails it.
Filming the congratulatory message was just one more thing for Anderson to juggle in a months-long preparation process for the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving halftime show, a highly choreographed performance that would include a set by country singer Eric Church and his band, the full array of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, and an army of local volunteers—most of whom are decked out in Cowboys gear that they’ve owned for years—that make up the “mosh pit” of fans panned over by the camera during the musical performance. Anderson has been producing the Thanksgiving halftime show since 1996, starting when she was just 29 years old and working every connection she had to bring her vision to life. And now, the nationally televised performance has become as much a part of the Thanksgiving tradition as the Cowboys game itself. But it’s taken a lot of work—much of it by Anderson—to get to this point.
Back in 1996, the Cowboys were certainly an institution—the moniker “America’s Team” dates back to the late seventies—but the organization didn’t make any lists of the world’s most valuable brands. When Anderson’s father, Jerry Jones, bought the team in 1989, he paid $140 million; in 27 years, his daughter has helped him shape that investment into a massive $4 billion titan, officially the most valuable franchise in international sports. Her connections in 1996 might have been meager, but these days, everybody who’s in business with the Cowboys or the NFL—and that is a lot of people—knows Anderson.
The whole Thanksgiving-eve afternoon is basically a whirlwind of activity for her. She greets collaborators (when Eric Church’s road manager shows up wearing a Tennessee Titans ball cap, she jokes with him, feigning offense over his sartorial decision). She manages her other day-to-day duties (when her father has a phone meeting, she sneaks away from the field to sit in on the call). She works to keep everyone cared for and happy (when the team’s kitchen staff pass out turkey dinners to people working on the production, she tracks me down to ask me if I’ve had enough to eat).
It becomes very clear very fast that no detail is too small for her. At one point during the day, Anderson was in a field-level suite, sitting at a MacBook, going over the final edit of a video explaining the Cowboys’s history with Salvation Army that would play before the game on the AT&T Stadium Jumbotron—and would air on televisions around the country. Dak Prescott appears on the screen to explain why he believes giving to the Red Kettle Drive is important, and then a graphic appears to herald the $2 billion that the Cowboys have helped raise for the Salvation Army over the organization’s twenty years of producing the halftime show. Anderson watches the graphic, then stops a production staffer—shouldn’t there be a dollar sign next to the words “2 billion”? “Two billion what?” she asks the staffer. The staffer says they can put a small dollar sign next to the two, and Anderson overrules him; she wants it big. (This is the Cowboys, after all.) Twenty minutes later, the dollar sign is huge, and Anderson, satisfied, is on to the next task.
It’s apparent that this isn’t exactly an ordinary day in the life of the most powerful woman in the Dallas Cowboys organization—maybe in the entire NFL—but then, when you have the sort of job Anderson holds, extraordinary becomes par for the course.
When Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, he didn’t have a clue how to run a football team. Anderson was a 23-year-old recent graduate from Stanford University, working her first job in the office of U.S. Representative Tommy F. Robinson (R-Arkansas), when she got a call from her father that he needed her help. The franchise he had just purchased was bleeding money. She had no intention of joining the family business when she entered college—the Jones’ were involved with petroleum engineering, and she didn’t want to be a landman or visit oil fields—but then Jerry bought the ’Boys, and suddenly the family business changed.
Stephen, Anderson’s brother, was a former college football player who was all-in from the moment the opportunity presented itself, but Anderson needed to be convinced. “I told [my dad], I don’t know how to run a football team. He said, ‘That’s okay, neither do I. We’re going to figure it out together, and we’ll make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Let’s just find a way to stop losing money,’” she recalls her father saying, “‘And whatever you do, don’t tarnish the Star.’”
This is an anecdote that Anderson has probably relayed a million times in her life, and it shows. I interviewed her three times over the course of this story, and like an artful storyteller repeating a well-worn creation myth, she would, at some point in each conversation, say the words “stop losing money, and whatever you do, don’t tarnish the Star” nearly verbatim.
The phrase clearly stuck with her, and she quickly figured out how to use the power of the Star. One of the top expenses for the Cowboys when Anderson came to the team was what she called “socks and jocks,” the money the team spent on washing uniforms during training camp. Anderson found a local laundromat in Austin, where the Cowboys held camp, and offered them a deal: You wash the uniforms, you get a sign on the practice field announcing that you’re the official laundry partner of the Dallas Cowboys. Problem solved, money saved.
In Anderson’s origin story, this is the bat crashing through the window of stately Wayne Manor. Her ability to forge numerous strategic partnerships has been a big reason why the Cowboys went from a $140 million investment to a franchise worth $4 billion, and she’s taken to cultivating those official partners like a gardener who plants one of everything the soil will take. Official pizza partner? Papa John’s. Official soft drink partner? Pepsi. Official truck partner? Ford. Official luxury car partner? Lincoln. Official luxury watch partner? Swiss manufacturer Hublot. A Hublot Dallas Cowboys King Power watch will set you back a cool $25,000, delivered in a box shaped like AT&T Stadium alongside a mini-helmet signed by a Cowboys player.
Anderson learned there was great potential in monetizing a Cowboys fan’s connection to the team, but she takes the two-way-street portion of the partnership seriously. “How do I help my partner deliver on their engagement with us to the best of my ability?” Anderson says. “We take that, and we live it, and we require others around us to do so, too.” Consider the new team headquarters, a mixed-use development project that Anderson designed in Frisco (named “The Star,” obviously); there’s space for several restaurants there, and all of them will be serving Pepsi products.
None of this is what Anderson studied to do, but the Jones family philosophy of figuring it out on the job has ultimately ended up shaping her whole life. That’s never more apparent than in a fan-favorite Anderson creation tale that goes right back to that Thanksgiving game halftime show. During rehearsals the day before Thanksgiving, everybody I talked to became really animated when recalling the story of how that event came together. A then-26-year-old Anderson had learned from the chairman of PepsiCo that the Salvation Army was his favorite non-profit (“Do you know which charity helps more children than any other?” she recalls him telling her). She was so moved by this, she decided to use her platform to help raise awareness and funds for the organization.
“I knew the one national game that we could count on every year was Thanksgiving, and I knew about the red kettles, and I thought that maybe we could start something that we could do year after year, and at least the 65,000 people in the stadium would know about what they do,” Anderson recalls. She went to her dad and told him she needed a favor: “I need you to get me a meeting with the president of NBC.” Jones laughed, but set up the meeting with then-NBC president Dick Ebersol.
Before the meeting, Anderson called in some different star power. She had become friends with Reba McEntire through the Cowboys’ Super Bowl years, so she went to Nashville to see if the country singer would be interested in helping with a halftime show centered around the organization. “[McEntire] said, ‘The Salvation Army used to serve my grandfather donuts on the frontline of the war—I’ll do whatever you want me to do.’” So Anderson and McEntire went into the studio. “We literally went into the studio and she cut a song,” Anderson recalls. “Troy Aikman was involved, Michael [Irvin] was involved, Emmitt [Smith] was involved—all our guys were in on that deal, and we actually wrote this song.” Equipped with the song and a boombox to play it on, Anderson went to 30 Rock with the pitch.
“We walk into Dick Ebersol’s office, he looks at dad, and he goes, ‘So why are you here?’ And dad looks at him and says, ‘Charlotte here had something she’d like to ask you,’” she recalls. “I started to talk about the Salvation Army, and how there are only two games on Thanksgiving, so there’s not a lot that you need to cover—so how about you air this? And he just looked at me and said, ‘No one has ever come into my office and asked me for free airtime before.’ And he just sat there. ‘Well, how ’bout it? This is great! It’s Thanksgiving, you need to have a warm heart.’ He looks at me and he goes, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll air your show under two conditions: One, you’ve got to go to the league and get an extension on halftime, like they do at the Super Bowl. And two, you’ve gotta produce a show that’s worthy of network television, or I’ll cut away and go to commercial.’” Anderson shook his hand, said “Yes, sir,” and walked out of the office with her father. “He grabbed my hand and he said, ‘Do you know what you just did?’ I said, ‘I got my first nationally-televised halftime show.’ He said, ‘No, you just got over $10 million worth of exposure for the Salvation Army. Now, do you know what you’re doing?’”
Anderson’s auto-didactic abilities have most recently taken the form of a literal monument to the organization she helped build: The Star, a $1.5 billion complex in Frisco that serves as the team’s headquarters and practice facility, as well as the stadium for Frisco ISD.
The project was a family affair—Jerry and Stephen oversaw most of the real estate development, while Anderson and her younger brother, Jerry Jr., approved the tenants. Anderson also designed the space. “I was probably the project manager in terms of there’s not anything out here that I didn’t have my signature on the back of,” she says. “I approved the color of the grass, the color of the stone, the mortar, all of that. [In the Omni Hotel] I can tell you where the comforter is, where the Star is on the comforter, what the lobby looks like, how many square feet in the ballrooms . . .”
Again, no detail too small. Anderson was the one that made sure that in the restaurant themed around Cowboys legends, it was exactly fifty yards from the Roger Staubach section to the Drew Pearson section—the length of the 1975 Hail Mary pass. She was the one who pressed Jason Garrett to give her a two-word summation of the most important thing for each player to think about every day so she could put it on the walls of the film room (“The Team. The Team. The Team.”). She was the one who decided that the wall near the locker room should be decorated with a shot of Jason Witten, running toward the end zone without his helmet on in a 2007 game against the Eagles, to symbolize the heart Cowboys players should have.
But before there was The Star, there was AT&T Stadium. It may be known as Jerryworld, and while ticket prices and determining the number of suites were her dad and her brother’s responsibilities, Anderson brought her own sensibilities to the design of the project. “When we built the stadium, we each started with a blank piece of paper of what we were going to put in it. The things that I valued, and that my mother valued, versus the things that the guys valued. We had a long list and they had a long list, and probably only 20 percent of them crossed over,” she says. Her dad and her brothers were, she says, more “tactical.” “I need this many people in the building, I need this many people here,” she laughs. “I want to see. I would like to go see the players. Where are they? Can they come through? I’m not going to go into the locker room, so can they come see me?” Now, fans can see players as they pass through the stadium on their way out to the field, an experience unique to AT&T Stadium. And if you’re not a football fan, Anderson and her family built in a reason to visit the stadium: they acquired a world-class contemporary art collection. (In October 2015, they added a $2.3 million sculpture by National Medal for the Arts recipient Ellsworth Kelly.) “If you’re visiting from Europe and you come to see the art, you might get curious about our game, too,” Anderson says.
Like with The Star complex and the halftime show, building a world-class sports stadium was another project she had no experience in until she and her family took it on. “It’s crazy,” she says. “I don’t think I had any training in anything that I’ve done. I’ve always had an insecurity because I didn’t have the training in X or the training in Y to do this. Are we just winging this? But when it’s yours to lose, you take on that responsibility far differently than if you’re working for someone else. You don’t have the same vested interest. The learning process of it has taught me not to be afraid of what you don’t know, and to trust your gut instinct at the end of the day.”
All of this is the product of hard work and, more than that, of someone who rises to challenges. Anderson is a serious presence. She’s one of the most important women in the most important sport in American life. But the NFL is also at a crossroads. Between concussions, domestic violence, a divided cultural climate, and parents who are scared to let their kids play the game, things are changing—and Anderson is in a unique position to shape that change.
Negative news about the NFL has become more and more regular in recent years. There have been domestic violence allegations and incidents involving high-profile players, including current Cowboys superstars Ezekiel Elliott, who is under investigation by the NFL for an alleged incident, though no charges have been brought, and Dez Bryant, who was arrested in 2012 for an alleged incident involving a family member. There are also the concussions, which have led to a billion dollar settlement for former players (and a number of suicides, including among former stars like Dave Duerson and Junior Seau). For some parents, the question of culture has made them hesitant to let their kids play.
Anderson has three children, two of them boys. Shy, the oldest, is a junior at the University of Arkansas, and played football in high school. (“He didn’t quite have the Dez Bryant level of talent to continue,” Anderson admits.) In 2014, Anderson moved her youngest, Paxton, to Highland Park High School for their football program, where he plays wide receiver on “an unbelievable little team,” according to his mom.
“I know about the physicality of it, and I know about the benefits of building young men into future leaders of tomorrow. That’s why I let my kids play,” Anderson says. “There’s an inherent risk in everything we do, but in our sport, with the physical nature of it, there’s an inherent risk of injury—but weighing all of that, I choose to want my kids to play. They want to play, and I certainly endorse, and support, and encourage. These are individual, personal decisions for parents to make for their own kids.”
And for some kids and their families, proximity to the Cowboys could play a part in those decisions. The Star isn’t just the team’s practice facility or a tourist destination for fans who want to sleep in a hotel with Cowboys-branded sheets—it’s also the stadium for Frisco ISD’s high school athletics, a first-of-its-kind partnership that Anderson is very proud of. Through one set of doors, the Cowboys enter the stadium, and through the opposite set of doors the young players in Frisco ISD walk into that same stadium. It’s easy to imagine being a teenager at Frisco ISD with big football dreams, and then realizing that your field is also Dak Prescott’s field. And if you need a little extra inspiration, the high school side of the facility is decorated with images of Cowboys stars as they looked in high school, so you can compare your own height, weight, and stats to Tony Romo’s at the same age.
But being a de facto representative of parents who are weighing the decision of whether to allow their kids to play football isn’t Anderson’s only role when it comes to dealing with football culture. She started her career in politics. She’s keen on talking about the power of football, as both a business force and a platform, to affect change, whether with the Salvation Army or in developing coaches who can help coach boys into better men. But when I asked her about the SB6 “bathroom bill” introduced in early January by Dan Patrick—patterned after a similar bill in North Carolina that led Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and the NBA All-Star Game to all cancel events planned for stadiums in that state—she demurred. She said things like, “I think the role of sports is to not be political,” and “we need to be a venue that accommodates,” and “our experience is a safe environment that everyone can enjoy.”
Yet politics and business often overlap. For Jones, whose responsibility to fill a stadium on the better part of the year the Cowboys aren’t using it, something like SB6 could theoretically threaten her bottom line. When pressed, she told me that, if a hypothetical Bruce Springsteen concert was canceled, “If we can create a setting in which you can walk in and have a great experience, and someone else can say the same thing, then we’ve already solved the problem. The conversation to Bruce Springsteen is that our constituents that attend don’t have a problem, so maybe the problem is yours.”
On Thanksgiving Day, Anderson is in the family’s suite at AT&T Stadium. It’s behind a security checkpoint on a premium level of the stadium called the Owner’s Club, where the aesthetic is kind of luxury spaceship. In the bathrooms, behind the glass of the mirrors, there are televisions so you can watch yourself watch Dez Bryant make a big play while you wash your hands. The holiday feast is gourmet, with silent servers bringing refills and clearing plates of the fans who paid for access to that level of the stadium. Inside the suite itself, Anderson and her brothers munch on popcorn with members of the Salvation Army’s board, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his family, and former Cowboys star Michael Irvin.
Before the Cowboys’ game against Washington kicks off, Anderson’s eyes are focused on one of the televisions in the room, watching the Detroit game. After the success of the halftime show she launched in 1996, the NFL decided to introduce a similar program for the Thanksgiving afternoon game, which the Lions play each year. Unlike the Cowboys’ show, the league office produces that event, and Anderson likes to scope out the competition. She’s got Eric Church and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. What do they have?
“It’s always interesting to see what’s going on,” she says. “I can’t help but want to watch. In this league, everything’s a competition.”
The performance, by pop singer Andy Grammer, is less than inspired. (After the show, Sports Illustrated would declare it “forgettable” and call Grammer a “hair model.”) Charlotte Jones Anderson one, NFL zero.
It’s a busy day for her, but less busy than the one that preceded it: all of the pre-production and rehearsal work is done, so her top priority at this point is making sure that everyone does their job, and that she gets to enjoy at least part of the day with her family. Anderson doesn’t seem like she takes many days off, but this one feels earned. While we chat, her dad walks by, and when he realizes that his daughter is doing an interview with Texas Monthly, he takes a few minutes to explain what she brings to the organization.
“I think I’m actually misunderstood about being my-way-or-the-highway. It’s not that way,” he says. “It really is if I know someone’s done their homework, then they do influence me, and can turn me on about it. If they’ve done their homework.”
“There’s a high expectation of a lot of homework,” Anderson says, laughing. Around her dad, she’s a little more deferential, a little less Executive Vice President. That’s one of the interesting things about the dynamic at the Cowboys organization: They’re a family, which means that almost the entire leadership team has known each other since they were in diapers. The Cowboys have allowed Anderson to grow into a person with an incredible set of professional skills, but also, she’s someone who’s working the same job she had right out of college, that she got because her dad offered it to her. So is working for the Dallas Cowboys the last job she’ll ever have?
Anderson seems contemplative when I put it to her, like she can’t really imagine doing anything else, but also reflective about the fact that her life has taken her to some unexpected places.
“That is such a good question, considering I didn’t know that this was going to be my first job. It’s hard to…” she trails off for a moment. “As I sit here and… What the game itself has been able to bring and fulfill—not just for me personally, or my family, but what we’ve been able to do with it and influence off the field has been far greater than I have ever imagined. It’s more than a game. When I first came to work for the Cowboys, I thought I was a producer at heart. I produced fashion shows and things like that on a little scale. Then all of a sudden, I had Thanksgiving halftime and I was producing nationally televised shows. I get a real thrill with live entertainment. It’s changed the way I thought about my job in the beginning to what I see the possibilities for now.”
So she’ll probably be with the Cowboys, so long as she gets to keep doing new things. She has ideas about what they might be—she loves the idea of convincing a major awards show to do their event at AT&T Stadium, “to go big and go live in front of 60,000 people instead of 2,000.” When I ask her what’s next, she’s immediately on-brand (“Go win a Super Bowl!”), but ultimately, the answer is even more specific than that: Can she keep building the Cowboys, and the facilities that the Cowboys are associated with, into something that’s always getting bigger and better?
“With the stadium, you’ve got to fill it, and not just ten games a year—it costs a lot to turn the lights on at the stadium. Once you figure that formula out, then we end up at The Star, and have to figure out how we’re going to make that work,” she says. “We’ve got to bring people out to The Star. We’ve got to fill the restaurants. We’ve got to make them successful so everything else will be successful. That’s the charge. That’s what’s next.”