Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Patriots owner Robert Kraft set the tone for their respective franchises.
They have nine Super Bowl championships — three for Jones and six for Kraft — between them.
Their teams are valued as the richest in the NFL by Forbes — the Cowboys at $6.5 billion, the Patriots at $5 billion.
And they are powerhouses when it comes to the NFL’s business — Jones known for his innovations in marketing, corporate sponsorships and stadium development; Kraft a major player in the league’s massive television deals and helping end the 2011 lockout, among other things.
In advance of their teams clashing on Sunday, both answered questions from ESPN.com about their connection with each other, their teams and how they view the NFL.
The requests to speak with Kraft and Jones were specific to their connection, and not anything relating to other league issues, such as Jon Gruden’s resignation as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.
You came into the league five years apart (Jones in 1989, Kraft in 1994). What was the relationship like in the beginning?
Jones: “At the Atlanta Super Bowl [XXVIII], I invited him [and] he sat in the box with me at that game. I was very optimistic. Bob had come in a succession of owners that had really been challenged and I knew that he had really stepped up. He paid an amount [$175 million] that exceeded what I had paid [$140 million] for the Cowboys. I was very optimistic and positive about the future of the NFL, and I was proud to see him come in and make that kind of commitment. I felt like we were in similar shoes. I saw a lot of similarities to when I got involved with the Cowboys and so I really wanted him to have the benefit of anything I had learned in my first four, five years in the NFL. And he’s got a great personality. He’s real easy to befriend and talk to. We both had a common ground in how we were motivated and how we looked at the future of the NFL and our franchise. So it was easy to have that relationship.”
Kraft: “Jerry was one of the first owners to welcome me to the NFL. He was gracious enough to invite me to sit with him in his suite at the Super Bowl that year in Atlanta when the Cowboys beat the Buffalo Bills. I was overwhelmed by the experience. I had been a 23-year season-ticket holder of the Patriots, and in that time, the Patriots had only hosted one playoff game, a game which we lost to the Houston Oilers in 1978. Just days after buying the Patriots, I was sitting in the owners suite at the Super Bowl with Jerry Jones and his guests. I had stardust in my eyes. It was a remarkable experience and certainly helped identify an organizational goal. Watching the Cowboys win that Super Bowl was an experience I wanted to share with all of New England.
“I was inheriting a team that was just a few years removed from 1-15 and 2-14 seasons. Jerry had a similar experience when he bought the Cowboys, going 1-15 his first year in the league. Yet, within five years, the Cowboys won back-to-back Super Bowls. I was facing a similar challenge of buying a franchise that had historically struggled. I wanted to turn the Patriots franchise around, and spending time with Jerry in my first few weeks as an owner in this league gave me reason to be optimistic that it could be done, and done quickly. I will always be grateful to Jerry for the way he treated me when I first came into the league. It meant a lot to me.”
How much do you communicate about league business?
Kraft: “When I bought the Patriots, I paid the highest price for a sports franchise at the time. When Jerry bought the Cowboys five years earlier, he introduced a new and aggressive way to market his team and maximize the revenue in his market. He shook the norm and changed the way NFL owners do business. The Patriots were last in the league in revenue when I bought the team. I was motivated to change that. And Jerry was blazing a trail for new owners like me to follow. I have always enjoyed talking with Jerry. He is passionate about his Cowboys and has great vision for building a brand. I have been on a number of league committees with him over the last three decades which have given us each ample opportunities to discuss league business and the future of the NFL.”
Jones: “We do a lot of communicating. We serve on committees together and through that we basically find ourselves mentally and actively working through league issues or league opportunities or league challenges. I might add to this that his son, Jon, and [Jones’ son] Stephen are uniquely acquainted and have a unique relationship. While they don’t necessarily approach it the same way, approach their contributions and activities with the franchise in the same way, they still enjoy the same — in my mind — stature with the team. That’s real productive and positive.”
Do you view each other as allies?
Jones: “We’re allies relative to the growth and future and challenges the league has. We’re more often than not aligned. You aren’t aligned on every issue, but certainly we are aligned on most issues in both visions of the team being in our families for generations to come. Now, it’s not a natural partnership to compete the way we compete, and that is there. And all the nuances that go with it — jealousies, competitiveness, all the things that you have when it’s your team and your city against the other guy’s team and the other guy’s city. Now that is alive and well with us. But to his credit, not mine, he has managed to work through the competitiveness and natural at-odds that you have; he’s managed to work through that and helped me get through it.”
Kraft: “The NFL is a funny business. Off the field, I view him as an ally. We are business partners who compete against each other in one of the most competitive industries in the world and we each have passionate fan bases. So, yes, as a business partner, he has been a great ally. He is one of the greatest salesmen I have ever known and has done a lot of great things with the revenue he has generated and reinvested in the Cowboys facilities and their brand. He is passionate about his team and that’s the kind of business partner you want. Someone who is invested in creating a brand in which we can all be proud to be associated.”
What do you appreciate the most about each other?
Kraft: “I love Jerry’s passion for the Cowboys and his overall enthusiasm in everything he does. Like I said before, he is simply one of the greatest salespeople God has put on this planet. There are times that I don’t even know what he is saying, yet he is so enthusiastic and speaks with such conviction that you end up believing whatever he is selling. He can be a real charmer and very persuasive in getting what he wants. They are characteristics that have worked very well for him and for the Cowboys his entire career.”
Jones: “Bob has unique communication skills. Very effective communication skills. He’s matter-of-fact. I had a guy tell me that at Columbia he was voted most likely to succeed. He’s very talented in that respect. And he is a very intense person with an engaging outer surface. That kind of combination is very effective.”
What are some similarities in how you operate?
Jones: “We love the game. At the end of it, we love football. And he does, too. I think that is the genesis. Secondly, we’re so passionate. We are very passionate and want to do everything we can for the Patriots, the Cowboys or the NFL. We understand that it’s the NFL that makes it possible for the Cowboys, for the Patriots, to be what they can be. Without the competition, without the other teams and the viability of the other teams, it couldn’t happen. And so he has an outstanding feel for this and makes decisions and tries to inform decisions accordingly.”
Kraft: “I am very fortunate to be able to involve my sons in my family businesses, including the Patriots. I get to see them and spend time with them every day. And they each have done tremendous work. I know Jerry feels the same way about the opportunities the Cowboys have presented him to involve Charlotte, Stephen and Jerry Jr. It is a real blessing that neither of us take for granted. It’s one more example of the things that Jerry and I have in common. Each of those examples help strengthen our relationship.”
What are your thoughts on NFL business and where it stands today?
Kraft: “The NFL is as strong as it has ever been and it continues to have a very bright future. The recent collective bargaining agreement provided us the foundation in which to negotiate long-term, record-breaking media agreements with traditional broadcasting rights as well as streaming opportunities that we know will grow our audiences, both nationally and internationally. That benefits everyone. Technology is allowing us to reach fans in new and creative ways that were never imagined before. It is an exciting time to be a part of the NFL and to explore the potential growth of the league.”
Jones: “Since I’ve been in the NFL with where we’re at, you could make a case that we’re in our finest hour. And that has to do with how, frankly, we have handled ourselves with COVID, and you can start right there since it’s front of mind. I think the interest in our game, it manifests itself in people that watch us on TV and digital and all the mediums there are out there today. When you look at years past and look at the stadiums we have, starting with the most recent ones in Los Angeles and Las Vegas; when I look at where we are with the quality of the athletes, the game itself; I haven’t been here with a better time than what we have right now.”