No One Pulls the NFL's Strings Like Its Greatest Puppet Master, Jerry Jones

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMarch 31, 2017

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05:  Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stands on the field prior to Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It's possible we're seeing, right at this very moment, the evolution of Jerry Jones from great NFL owner to the most powerful man in all of sports. And he's doing it in the bossiest, most badass way possible.

Jones has used a hospitality and marketing company he partially owns, called Legends, to essentially better the way three teams—the Raiders, Chargers and Rams—make profits.

Jones, of course, doesn't run any of those franchises, but he's masterfully maneuvered himself into position to have a say in how they manage some of their revenue streams. It's like a next-door neighbor managing a chunk of your household's finances because the neighbor thinks they can do it better than you.

Partially owned by Jones along with the Steinbrenner family and other companies, Legends will sell the suites and sponsorships for the Raiders' new Las Vegas stadium, and is already selling them for the Rams and Chargers' stadiums. Legends also was a big reason the 49ers sold out the suites and sponsorship deals for Levi's Stadium. Al Guido, who is the president of the 49ers, is a former executive in Jones' Legends company.

Jones, in some ways, has pulled the NFL's version of a Jedi mind trick. Other teams are using him to run big parts of their business, and he, in turn, has gained a significant influence on the finances of those teams, according to league officials familiar with the matter. 

The story of what Jones is doing comes down to one simple fact: In sports, as in life, financial power equates to real power, and Jones is accumulating both in ways we have rarely, if ever, seen before.

One league official calls him the "big-hat bossman," which is only partly a joke. More bluntly, an NFL owner calls him "the most influential owner in all of sports."

It wasn't always this way. As one longtime official with an outside marketing firm and who has worked extensively with the NFL, says, "Jerry was once vastly underestimated but is now both feared and respected."

Indeed, in league circles he wasn't always seen as a brilliant man. When Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, he was ripped for firing Tom Landry and mocked for hiring Jimmy Johnson as his head coach. Owners, privately, used to say he was clueless about running and building a football team.

Jones was lambasted by many for his decision to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson as the Cowboys coach in 1989.
Jones was lambasted by many for his decision to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson as the Cowboys coach in 1989.Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

He was even publicly criticized as greedy and dangerous to the league. In 2000, Wellington Mara, the father of current Giants co-owner John Mara, was asked if he felt Washington owner Dan Snyder was a young Jones. Wellington replied: "Please don't say that," before later adding, 'Let's hope he doesn't become an older Jerry Jones. That would be unfortunate. But I think he's headed in that direction."

The elder Mara was wary of Jones even earlier. In November 1996, after a Giants win over the Cowboys, Wellington was asked if he was happy that his team beat Jones' Cowboys. "It's nice to see arrogance humbled," replied Mara. "I enjoyed it very much."

That was Jones then. Now, Jones is a symbol of power, influence, deal-making, respect.

This is not to say Jones hasn't been successful for some time. He built the Disney World of football stadiums, just got into the Hall of Fame and has been one of the biggest pioneers in how to make money the sport has ever seen.

But the flurry of franchise relocations that have taken place over the last few years illustrated that Jones may be at the peak of his power.

League officials tell me that Jones has long desired to see a change of control within the Raiders and once tried to get the late Al Davis to sell a chunk of the team. The sale never occurred.

As the possibility of a potential Raiders move arose, Jones went to work, as the Mercury News' Tim Kawakami first reported. Jones' influence on the deal was even more thorough than many knew, league officials explained.

Jones, over a period of months, swayed several owners who were against the Oakland move to Vegas, two league officials told me. The argument Jones made to those owners was a simple one: A move to Las Vegas means more money for all the owners. Ownership in the end voted 31-1 in favor of relocation, with Miami's Stephen Ross being the lone dissenter.

Years after trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Al Davis to sell the Raiders, Jones now will help the Raiders sell suites in their new Las Vegas stadium.
Years after trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Al Davis to sell the Raiders, Jones now will help the Raiders sell suites in their new Las Vegas stadium.ERIC GAY/Associated Press/Associated Press

No owner, however, will benefit more from the Raiders' move than Jones.

By selling the marketing and stadium products for the Raiders through Legends, Jones will do what he believes they and the other teams weren't capable of: making money.

Several league officials estimate Legends might already be worth in the $150 million range or more. It could be worth double that, or beyond, within the next four to five years, these officials estimate. It's possible the company could soon generate more revenue than some NFL teams.

Jones isn't alone in wielding influence around the NFL, but he is unique in how open he is about everything he does. Other owners prefer to remain in the shadows. But with Jones, there's no slinking around. He is up front about who he is and what he wants.

Jones has long been a powerful force in the NFL, but through his role over these last few weeks and years, we may be watching Jones, quite possibly, become the most powerful man in all of sports.

      

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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