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When it became obvious to him that simply renovating 36-year-old Texas Stadium--"And by the way," he says, "I didn't have to do even that"--wouldn't cut it, he plunged into the new venture with his usual gusto. There were trips to London's Wembley Stadium, New York's Bloomberg Tower, even Sydney's Opera House. He got the idea for his giant screens while watching a Celine Dion show at Caesars Palace. He was visually discombobulated by the screens behind her, redundant to the Canadian songbird's performance, but mesmerized all the same. "You didn't know what you were seeing," he says, "but you knew it must have been good."
Still, the Cowboys' future home is going to be one of a kind, nothing like the "racetrack" concourses most owners have thrown up since Jones first inspired stadium fever all those years ago when he started milking his building for previously unheard-of revenue. Its glassine luminescence aside, the new stadium will be the biggest in the NFL. Jones talks dreamily of a "media" experience, meaning the place has to be as much about presentation and sensation as football, but he also insists upon the aggression of its sheer size. It can be configured as attendance warrants--normal capacity will be about 80,000, up from 65,529 at Texas Stadium, but fully fitted it will be able to seat more than 100,000 customers.
We meant to say paying customers. Because the ability to boost attendance revenues is not so insignificant. When this new facility is finished, it will likely be the most lucrative stadium ever. Texas Stadium has only 15,000 square feet devoted to club space; the new facility will have 15 times that. There will be 200 luxury boxes, some of them at field level. Do you think some fans might pay a premium to have a suite that basically has a patio right behind the team's bench?
The ability to amplify the Cowboys brand, to further exaggerate its already fearsome marketing opportunities, does not argue for parity. Corporate sponsorship in this new stadium is worth more than in, say, Carolina. The Cowboys will profit accordingly without having to spend one more penny on football than the Panthers. So the NFL pretty much lines up small market versus big market, resentments flowing as a consequence. And thus Jones's bid to host the 2011 Super Bowl was not a formality. In fact, the final vote, in May, passed by only 17 for Dallas to 15 for Indianapolis, reflecting more of a grudge than economic sense. A Dallas Super Bowl, just because of the size of this monster, will return upwards of $20 million more to the NFL in ticket revenue alone than an Indy Super Bowl possibly could. Go figure.
But there's a kind of fairness at work here, giving Jones the last at bat. (Well, almost; the New York Giants and Jets have a smaller but pricier stadium in the works.) Remember, when he came into the league, stadium revenue was an afterthought. That he was able to squeeze some income out of Texas Stadium only speaks to that hand-trembling urgency to pay his bills. He didn't begin selling stadium sponsorships in 1995 to Nike and Pepsi simply to sandbag the NFL (which believed it owned all sponsorship rights); he did it because he needed the dough. After the league conceded, owners no longer thought of their stadiums as rentals but as income streams. And as the owners began to gain control of stadium revenues, the team itself became a kind of loss leader. Sure, there are the national TV contracts, plus attendance and luxury-box income. But is there any easier money than the $30�million-plus contract the Cowboys have with Pepsi?
Bob Kraft, who owned the New England Patriots' stadium before he bought the team in 1994, understands Jones's innovation better than most of his peers. "I think he's part of what's best about the NFL and its future," Kraft says. "He knows how to sell the sizzle, he understands what the NFL experience is for a fan, and he's always pushing the envelope for the most creative and fan-friendly things."
Kraft says the NFL has almost become a cultural imperative. "Between 1�p.m. and 8:15�p.m. on Sunday there are 120 million people watching games live," he says. People like Jones understood the potential, creating business templates that would turn stadiums into delivery systems for ad and marketing dollars. But Jones also was attuned to the long-term welfare of the league. It was he who resisted his colleagues' inclination to sign another flat contract with the networks in 1994, inviting Fox into the negotiations. The league, guaranteed at least one outside bidder in every subsequent contract negotiation--the "panting dog" effect, somebody called it--has been awash in money ever since.
But Kraft says Jones has something else going for him: geography. "It's Texas," he says. That means football, and that means big. And Kraft says Jones is clearly building a stadium that will satisfy the requirements for both. This stadium, whatever it's called and at whatever price, could be the most efficient delivery system for marketing opportunities yet. The Cowboys brand ensures a regional fan base, and if the stadium performs as expected in 2011, it's hard not to imagine it joining the Super Bowl rotation and returning to national consciousness every five or six years.
Of course, when the owner insists on things like frits and fins, cost be damned, nothing is a sure thing. The NFL is the monster of the moment, its popularity allowing for a tremendous margin of error. Yet this stadium, as costly as it is, must work for 25 to 30 years to make business sense, and who knows what we'll find entertaining then. Anybody remember horse racing? Boxing? Could Jones, in his dotage, reconfigure the stadium to accommodate cage matches for bloodthirsty crowds 20 years from now?
Jones actually seems to delight in the possibility of failure, however slim it really is. As he conducts a tour of his pile--"There," he points to some concrete at field level, "is where the players will come onto the field. Through a stadium club!"--you can enjoy a secondhand exhilaration. This is what it's like to commit $1�billion! "I'm writing a one-million-dollar check every day," Jones says, aggrandizing his risk the way any gambler would, the way he always has, the tab just higher these days. "That will keep your eye on the ball." He couldn't seem any happier.