When Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys he gambled everything. The year was 1989 and, as Jones himself put it while on Adam Schefter’s podcast on ESPN, “The Cowboys, that I bought — this is not going to make many people respect me as a businessperson — but I bought the Cowboys and they were losing $1 million cash a month, $1 million a month.”
Jones would wake up every morning knowing he already paid nearly $100,000 on interest charges. The team itself cost him $140 million. That was 27 years ago.
Today, according to Forbes’ latest list of the most valuable sports teams in the world, which they just released, the Dallas Cowboys are valued at $4.2 billion. They are the most valuable team in sports, more than the New York Yankees or Real Madrid.
So how did America’s team go from losing a million a month to being the most valuable? Only Jerry Jones could make that transformation happen, and he changed not only his team, but the entire league.
First were the changes off the bat. He fired Tom Landry, the iconic Cowboys coach, and hired instead his former teammate at the University of Arkansas, Jimmy Johnson. At the time, Johnson was a college coach and had no experience coaching at the NFL level. By 1992, the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. They repeated in 1993 and in 1995 they won their third Super Bowl in four years.
Then came the TV rights. When it was time for a new contract with the networks, the league was considering a deal that would mean less revenue starting in 1994 and that could cost each owner $8.5 million per year. So Jones led a sort of coup against the other owners, and invited Fox Networks to the negotiating table.
With Jones’ guidance, the 1994 deal was worth $4.4 billion for four seasons, up from $1.4 billion in 1987. This past season the league earned about $7 billion for a single season from network partners.
But Jones wasn’t done, and he was slapped with lawsuits for his later moves. In 1995, Jerry Jones struck his own deals with Pepsi and Nike that were worth an estimated $40 million. He signed the deals with their then stadium, Texas Stadium instead of the club. They also had deals with AT&T, Dr Pepper and American Express.
The NFL had deals with Coca-Cola and Reebok, two companies who rival the Cowboys’ own agreements, and the league sued Joes for $300 million. Jones returned the favor, filing a countersuit for $750 million.
A year later both suits were dropped, but Jones emerged victorious.
Jones took a huge gamble. As he told Schefter, when he bought the team, even his father told him he’s not sure he can turn it into a success, but he better find a way. If he can’t find a way, he better find a way to make it at least look like a success, or else he’ll be known as a failure.
Needless to say, smokescreens or not, Jerry Jones pulled it off. The Cowboys are now worth $4.2 billion. Jones himself is worth $5.2 billion and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the beginning of August as a contributor (the title given to someone who contributed to the sport but was not a player or a coach).
But for football he has been way more than just a contributor.