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How Jerry Jones Became The NFL's Shadow Commissioner

How Jerry Jones Became The NFL's Shadow Commissioner
From Deadspin - November 14, 2017

The Super Bowl has changed since we were last in it, the late Dan Rooney told the Pittsburgh writer Jim OBrien in January 1996, in the run-up to Super Bowl 30. It has gotten a lot bigger. Theres 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 spectaclethat was the entire reason for it, just as its name suggestsbut its exponential progression into the orgy of excess we know today was, when Rooney talked to OBrien, still a recent development. Theswashbuckling oil and gas man that Rooney credited for the Super Bowls transition was also a fairly new member of the leagues ownership caste at that point; he had bought the Dallas Cowboys, the team that would go on to beat Rooneys Steelers in that particular Super Bowl, just seven years earlier. Rooney explained to OBrien what more Jerry Jones entailed:

Its more selling. Its 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.

Joness 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 leagues 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 Landrythe only head coach the Cowboys had ever knownJones 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. Its been More Jerry Jones ever since.

The power play Jones has engineered against commissioner Roger Goodell is of a piece with Joness aggressive, risk-taking approach to steering the leagues 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 leagues appeal at a time when the networks were losing money on the NFL. And in a direct echo of todays standoff over Goodells 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 af**kton of money.

Hes got that vision thing, ESPNs 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 thats 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 leagues 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 Saintsa 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 youre not moving forward, youll 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 Rozelles 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 Joness iron will. In 1992, CBS and NBC were losing money on NFL broadcasts. (True story.) The NFLs broadcast committeeled by Tagliabue and chairman Art Modellwas sympathetic to the networks plight, largely because the leagues 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 wasnt 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 developedbrand identity by bringing in potential viewers for the stations 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. Heres 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 youre 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 leagues next TV contract jumps from $900 million to $1.1 billion.

Joness 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 leagues 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 NFLs 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 trusts properties. It made all teams properties equal, which was good for the lesser brands in the league and less good for the NFLs most marketable franchises. Sharing revenuesespecially those gargantuan national television dealshad been the foundation of the leagues business model since the first days of Rozelles 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 Americas Teama bit of branding bestowed upon the Cowboys as far back as the 1970sand 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:

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