NFL CIRCLES WAGONS OVER COWBOYS DEALS;JERRY JONES' MOVES PROVOKE LEAGUE EXECS

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There's a showdown coming between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the National Football League.

The stakes are high, in the millions of dollars for both, and there are fears that the NFL could descend into marketing chaos.

League insiders and observers are growing increasingly critical of Mr. Jones' bold vision of what NFL marketing should be. That vision is one of independence, as shown by the his recent deals signing Nike, Pepsi-Cola Co. and, imminently, American Express Co., as sponsors of Texas Stadium, though not of the team itself.

In fact, many suspect Mr. Jones is baiting the NFL to sue him in hopes that a court or the teams themselves will either dissolve NFL Properties, the league's marketing company, or excuse the Cowboys from the trust agreement that keeps NFL Properties in place until 2003.

The NFL is angry with Mr. Jones for using these deals as bully pulpits to rail against NFL Properties. But what the league is investigating Mr. Jones for is his promise to "eventually" sell Nike the team's licensing rights.

Apex One used to own those rights, but Apex recently went belly up. The Cowboys took the field last week in uniforms that were logo-free. The coaches, however, wore black and white-Nike colors.

Mr. Jones believes the individual clubs should handle their own licensing deals and control marketing rights in certain lucrative sponsorship categories like beverages, credit cards and fast-food.

"The difference in opinion is a simple American business problem," said Robert Prazmark, president of 21 Marketing, Greenwich, Conn., which has been quietly advising Mr. Jones. NFL Properties is "interested in enhancing the NFL corporate brand. Jerry and the other clubs are interested in selling more product."

Mr. Jones and Cowboys marketing executives didn't return calls.

"The current structure is better for the long-term health of the league," said Rick Burton, a former sports marketing executive and now assistant director of the James H. Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Some teams will never be as big and as marketing-savvy as others. And a team's marketability fluctuates depending on performance. So the way things are now protects everyone."

While many team marketing executives applaud Mr. Jones' moxie as an entrepreneur, they also believe teams should stick together and share marketing revenue equally.

"National sponsors tell us the ability of the clubs to market themselves as a group is the primary reason the NFL is the most valuable and attractive property in sports," said NFL Properties President Sara Levinson in a statement.

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