Jerry Jones’ success in sports unlocked a slew of other promising ventures, including a return to the energy business, which could be his biggest financial victory yet.
On Thanksgiving Day, Jerry Jones has plenty to be grateful for. A quiet afternoon is not one of them, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few hours before his Dallas Cowboys kick off their 55th annual Turkey Day game, this time against their bitter rival New York Giants, Jones will arrive at a North Dallas airfield and climb into his luxury helicopter, emblazoned with his team’s iconic blue star. It’s only a 12-minute trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, but a necessary one. The traffic can be unbearable.
Sometimes he rides alone. Other times, guests tag along, like his family, friends, sponsors, a Medal of Honor recipient, or a Forbes reporter. The roar of the engine is deafening, yet Jones is eager to chat without the likes of a headset.
Once the chopper lands on a helipad just across from his team’s gleaming $2 billion stadium, a black SUV, accompanied by a police escort, will whisk Jones away into the underbelly of his modern-day coliseum, initiating his pre-game routine: a meeting with head coach Mike McCarthy, check-ins with players like star quarterback Dak Prescott and entertaining sponsors in his luxury suite.
“I call it execution time,” Jones says.
It’s a game day routine he’s honed over more than three decades, since he first bought America’s team in 1989 for $150 million. The Cowboys, which first made him a billionaire in 2004, are now worth a record $8 billion, more than any other sports franchise on the planet. One of the most transformative figures in sports, Jones has been revolutionizing how the NFL does business in everything from sponsorship and television to stadium design. “He is in a class of his own,” says Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm Sportscorp, who has worked with numerous NFL teams and owners.
“I had danced with the devil to buy the Cowboys and it was scary.”
Even though the Cowboys remain at the center of his universe, the team is just a part of Jones’ success story. During what he says is the “busiest that I’ve ever been,” Jones, who turned 80 in October, has been steadily diversifying. Just five years ago, the Cowboys accounted for 85% of his $5.2 billion net worth. He is now worth $14.8 billion, a 63% increase since last year, according to Forbes estimates. The gains came from a slew of businesses: the Cowboys are up 23% and his commercial real estate assets are up 17%. Meanwhile his natural gas holdings including a stake in publicly traded Comstock Resources and his private gas outfit Arkoma are now worth a combined $4.3 billion, a 115% increase from a year ago.
“The greatest wealth is in the gas,” says Jones, talking about its potential value. “It’s much bigger than the Cowboys.”
When Jones purchased the Cowboys in 1989, it was a fool’s bet. No NFL team had sold for a nine-figure sum back then and the organization was a mess, hemorrhaging $1 million each month. But Jones, who had unsuccessfully tried to buy the American Football League’s San Diego Charger 20 years earlier, was determined. The former co-captain and an offensive lineman on the University of Arkansas’ 1964 national championship football team, Jones had accumulated a fortune drilling for oil and gas. His company Arkoma, which he cofounded with business partner Mike McCoy, landed a $175 million score in 1986. (Forbes later estimated in 1990 that his net worth was more than $180 million.)
He was cash poor, though. The Arkoma deal was paid out in installments. So, to buy the Cowboys, Jones used what oil and gas earnings he had, offloaded other assets, like his interest in the Little Rock NBC affiliate, and borrowed the rest. The financial burden ravaged Jones, who says he barely slept and lived at the office, working to whittle down the losses. He later developed arrhythmia, which he attributed in part to the stress. It wasn’t until the First City of Houston Bank lent him $100 million a year later that he felt relief.
“I had danced with the devil to buy the Cowboys and it was scary,” Jones says. “When I [got the loan], I celebrated because I had all the money back home.”
It didn’t take long to turn things around. Jones pushed ticket sales, slashed expenses and cleaned house, firing legendary coach Tom Landry. The Cowboys turned cash flow positive in roughly three years, Jones says. But most importantly, he went hunting for new revenue streams. Jones initially wanted to buy a consumer brand to complement the team and entwine the two in the mold of the St. Louis Cardinals and Anheuser-Busch. The “Cartier Cowboys,” he jokes. Though after glimpsing the team’s marketing potential, he plotted a bolder course. Professional football, especially in Texas, demanded attention, and those eyeballs could be packaged and sold as an asset to prospective partners.
Jones signed independent stadium sponsorship deals with American Express, Nike, Dr Pepper and Pepsi, irking the NFL’s licensing arm in the process on the grounds that these partnerships violated league-wide sponsorship agreements. The league sued for $300 million in 1995 and Jones countered for $750 million in an antitrust suit a month later. He won—the Cowboys and the NFL settled in December 1996—without a monetary award, and teams gained more control of their marketing rights than ever.
Similarly, he recognized the value of TV, where the Cowboys were already a staple on national Thanksgiving broadcasts. In 1993, then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was pushing for the league to take a pay cut on its broadcast rights in order to extend its deal with CBS and NBC. Jones disagreed, arguing there were intangible benefits to NFL broadcasts even if advertising revenues weren’t making the networks whole. He rallied a group of owners to his cause and then brought Rupert Murdoch and FOX into the fold, which eventually acquired a share of the rights at a higher price–a figure that has skyrocketed over the last three decades. In March, the NFL re-upped its media rights package for $113 billion over 11 seasons.
“You can call it a seminal moment in the league’s history,” Sportscorp’s Ganis says. “But that was one of his greatest contributions to the league.”
It was that kind of bold thinking that led him to build the NFL’s first billion-dollar venue. Opened in 2009, AT&T Stadium is a spectacle, featuring 80,000 seats (it can expand to 100,000), a retractable roof and the largest high-definition, center-hung video board in the entire league (160 feet by 72 feet long and 53 feet by 30 feet wide). At least six billion-dollar NFL venues have opened in the 13 years since its debut. “This stadium isn’t built necessarily for the people that are there, it’s built so that Al Michaels and John Madden could talk about it and describe the details of the stadium to 25 or 30 million people,” Jones said recently, talking about the renowned announcers (Madden died in late 2021). “It’s built for television.”
While the stadium is a fantasy created for the TV screen, Jones later built a wonderland for Texans and tourists to experience the Cowboys’ culture up close. In 2013, a Dallas-based broker named Rex Glendenning floated to Jones the idea of moving the team headquarters from Irving to a 91-acre tract in Frisco, where Jones already owned a 550-acre patch that he’d converted into 850 houses. The city’s Community Development Corporation had bought back the land as a distressed asset and, Glendenning says, hoped to lure Warren Buffett’s Nebraska Furniture Mart as a potential buyer. Buffett ultimately passed.
Jones loved the idea, and so did the city of Frisco. He spent $15.6 million to purchase 59 acres while the city kept ownership over the other 32 and provided $150 million in economic incentives. Glendenning recalls they finished the deal in under 30 days, which is “almost unheard of [and] may have been a record.”
The Star, which opened in 2016, now includes the Cowboys’ headquarters, a 17-story luxury apartment tower, the Omni Frisco Hotel, a 300,000 square-foot sports medicine center, Dr. Pepper’s corporate headquarters and two dozen shops and restaurants including a Nike store and several Cowboys-themed eateries. It also boasts the Ford Center, which is used for indoor practices, high school football games and other events like the Country Music Awards next year.
The empire doesn’t end there. Jones has a plethora of other real estate assets and cash-producing businesses. Many are based in North Texas, but there are outliers: car dealerships in Brazil, a commercial shopping center in Missouri and pizza franchises spread across the country. In 2008, Jones joined forces with the late-New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to form an event management and concessions business called Legends Hospitality. Earlier this year, private equity firm Sixth Street bought a majority stake that valued the company at $1.35 billion.
“Jerry understands how cross branding and his ownership of the Cowboys is an additional stepping stone or leverage in making his real estate deals even that much better by virtue of people wanting the Cowboy brand on their projects or land,” Glendenning says. “It certainly makes my job easier as a broker, too.”
“The greatest wealth is in the gas. It’s much bigger than the Cowboys.”
Inside Cowboys headquarters, Jones’ office overlooks the practice fields. The shelves are adorned with magazine covers, awards and pictures of Jones with powerful figures, like former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Tucked away in one of the corners is the title to the Cowboys, which was famously taken home by famed executive Tex Schramm when he left the organization; he later sent it back.
He sits at a glass-top table in the middle of the room, wearing a navy-blue suit with a Cowboys star pinned on the lapel. Jones is excited, talking about something that has nothing to do with football or The Star. He holds up a multi-colored diagram on a white sheet of paper.
“I’m not going to let you take too close a look at that, OK?” he says. “But that’s enough gas to take care of Germany.”
While his earliest successes decades ago were in the energy business, Jones for years had turned his focus elsewhere. “I was just puttering along with very modest activity in oil and gas,” he recalls. Then came Comstock Resources, an embattled public natural gas company he took control of in April 2018. Jones swapped $620 million in oil producing properties in exchange for a majority stake in the NYSE-listed company.
The asset infusion gave Comstock breathing room to refinance $1.2 billion in debt and an additional revenue stream from the newly acquired land. Just over a year later, Jones put another $475 million in to help Comstock complete the $2.2 billion acquisition of Dallas-based Covey Park Energy, which made it the largest natural gas producer in the Haynesville region of East Texas and West Louisiana. Today, his 66% of the company is worth $3.3 billion.
“When you kind of peel back the onion, what was he trying to do? He basically came out and said he doesn’t believe gas prices are sustainable at the $2 and change level, and that they were going to go up over time,” says MKM Partners energy analyst Leo Mariani. “And he was wrong for the first few years of his bet, but now he’s been very much right in the last 12 to 16 months as prices have really gone up a lot.”
Since Jones became the majority shareholder, Comstock’s production has ballooned 350%, partly because natural gas prices boomed to a peak of $9 per million BTU (the highest since 2008). Debt has shrunk and the company plans to reinstate shareholder dividends later this year for the first time since 2014. “I had a very comfortable feeling that I wouldn’t lose significantly,” Jones says. “Even though I made a big bet, I felt very comfortable that I was in control.”
Comstock has another advantage. Operating in the Haynesville region gives direct access to exporting through the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2015, U.S. natural gas exports nearly quadrupled to 6.7 trillion cubic feet per year in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, while total usage in the U.S. was more than 30 trillion cubic feet. Even if prices fell back to $4 per million BTU, as futures markets indicate they might, Jones isn’t worried, saying he can take Comstock private if he wants.
He’s not stopping there. Using the cash flow from the Cowboys and his other operating businesses, he’s already added some 15,000 acres to his privately held natural gas outfit Arkoma, increasing the number of wells it has by 35% to 60 in the past year. Altogether, across Comstock and Arkoma, Jones says he has up to 40 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserve. It’s a staggering figure (roughly equivalent to what the entire U.S. would consume in a year), but one to “take with a grain of salt,” Mariani says, because it accounts for gas that is still in the ground. Jones explains that the Securities and Exchange Commission will let you count up to five years of production on a balance sheet if you have the capital to drill, though he adds that the massive 40 trillion cubic feet figure exceeds that timeline.
Regardless, natural gas should help serve as a bridge away from fossil fuels, which should help bolster demand for years to come. “The opportunity for natural gas use around the world to grow is tremendous over the next few decades,” says Mariani. But some critics of shale gas fracking worry that it too will have a negative impact on the environment, specifically the damage to underground water supplies.
For Jones, it’s all house money at this point. The Cowboys alone turned an operating profit of $466 million last year. He’s got plenty of toys as well, including three planes, the aforementioned helicopter and a yacht named “Eugenia,” after his wife. Newly an octogenarian, he’s pushing ahead. There’s no hint of a succession plan, other than his boasting about how qualified each of his three kids are to handle the reins of not just the Cowboys, but his whole empire. All three are currently executives with the team: Stephen, the eldest, is chief operating officer and Jerry’s right-hand man, Charlotte oversees the organization’s brand and Jerry Jr. runs sales and marketing.
“I have spent a life under financial pressure, self-inflicted a bunch of it,” Jones says. “This is the best I felt financially, and so it makes these challenges and the future a lot of fun.”
Note: Forbes revised its estimate of Jones’ fortune for this story from $16 billion credited to him on the 2022 Forbes 400. The revised estimate reflects a more conservative approach to the assets than the one used for the September ranking.