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Cowboys’ New Palace in Dallas

ARLINGTON, Texas - After a quick inspection of the 9-foot-tall bronze statue of iconic coach Tom Landry that greets visitors outside the main entrance of the gleaming Cowboys Stadium, Jerry Jones bursts inside and rides an escalator to the concourse.

Suddenly, the hyper Dallas Cowboys owner does an about-face and hustles down an adjacent, inoperative escalator. He is greeted at street level by his daughter, Charlotte Anderson, the team's executive vice president of brand management.

"What's wrong?" Anderson asks, looking concerned.

"Nothing," Jones says. "But we've got to see this."

"Thought you were trying to get some exercise," Anderson deadpans.

Jones, 66, zips past Anderson and into an elevator lobby to marvel at one of the 14 pieces of commissioned art that accentuate the elegance of the $1.15 billion, 3-million-square-foot stadium that is the NFL's largest.

"This transcends football," Jones declares of the artwork and, well, the stadium itself.

The Cowboys will christen it in a nationally televised regular-season game against the New York Giants on Sunday evening. With more than 20,000 standing-room tickets sold in addition to 82,000-plus seats, they are hoping to break an NFL regular-season attendance record (102,368) set in 1957.

"This is on par to a Super Bowl week," Jones says. "You might get a chance to do another Super Bowl, but you'll never get another chance to open a stadium."

For more than two hours, Jones gives a private tour of a palace that raises the bar for future stadiums and provides a model for how the nation's most popular sports league might try to persuade fans to continue flocking to stadiums.

Along the way, Jones stops several times to confer with construction workers applying finishing touches. He gushes about the crushed granite countertops in one of the club lounges, selected by his wife, Gene. He brags about the 7 acres of plaza space outside the end-zone entrances, with its green space and fountains. "Oceanfront property," he proclaims.

He glows when admiring the frit treatment in the sloping glass walls, which change colors depending on the light.

"When it's cloudy outside, it looks silver," Jones explains. "On a clear day, it's blue. Those are our team colors. It doesn't get any better than that."

There is no disputing the lavishness of the stadium, designed by HKS Architects. It personifies the everything-is-bigger-in-Texas idea and the football-crazed culture. There are cutting-edge amenities - starting with the world's largest high-definition screens.

The $40 million video board, suspended 90 feet above the field with four screens, stretches nearly 60 yards and weighs 600 tons. It is seven stories, attached to the stadium's signature arches, which also house tracks for a translucent retractable roof.

There are also more than 3,000 LED monitors throughout the facility that display live action, historical footage, data or prices for concession items.

And not only does the ceiling open, a nod to the hole in the roof at Texas Stadium, where the Cowboys played from 1971 to 2008, but the 120-foot-high glass doors at the end-zone entrances are also retractable - adding to the open-air ambience.

"That place is off the charts," says Tony Dorsett, the Hall of Fame tailback who starred for the Cowboys from 1977 to 1987. "It has such a 'wow effect.' I'm a little jealous. I wish I had played in a place like that."

Such glitz is typical Jones.

"This stadium could've been built for $850 million," he says. "But we needed to deliver the mail."

Game day unlike any other

For Jones, whose franchise is arguably the most popular in the NFL despite not winning a playoff game since 1996, the challenge is to redefine the game-day experience. That is evident with the plazas and end-zone platform decks (which can be configured to add seats), where purchasers of the $29 standing-room "party passes" can watch.

And it is apparent with the video boards, which can depict players as 70-foot images.

"This is about making sure that you've got something here that you can't replicate in front of a TV set," Jones says. "A movie always feels better in a theater than watching on a home entertainment center. . . . We're trying to evolve to that with this stadium."

The NFL is watching, and not only to see if the center-hung video boards - positioned precisely for sightlines - are a competitive nuisance (Tennessee Titans punter A.J. Trapasso's kick hit the board in a preseason game). Although more than half of the league's $8 billion in revenue last year came from its national TV contracts, league officials express a need for balance in measuring the sport's popularity while competing for discretionary consumer dollars. The Cowboys, who have sold 97% of their tickets for this season, have the NFL's highest average ticket price ($159.65), according to the latest annual survey from Team Marketing Report.

"With the choices people have, it is imperative for that in-stadium experience to be really special," says Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. "Jerry Jones is responding to that need. New stadiums will be challenged to duplicate what he's done. He's a few years ahead of the curve."

Sports franchise consultant Marc Ganis, mindful of the Minnesota Vikings' efforts to build a new home and attempts in markets including San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, says there's no need to try to keep up.

"That stadium is in such a league of its own that trying to compete with it would waste a lot of money," says Ganis of Chicago-based Sportscorp. "Let it be, and then do what you can in your market."

Jones says he sold about $400 million in real estate holdings to help provide capital. Yet given the economy, he sees similarities to 1989, when he played a hunch and leveraged all of his personal wealth to purchase the Cowboys and Texas Stadium lease for a then-record $160 million. The Cowboys were losing $1 million a week and generating little revenue from the stadium or marketing deals. Now the Cowboys are the nation's most valuable sports franchise, worth $1.65 billion, according to Forbes.

Under Joens' ownership, the Cowboys have won three Super Bowls, but not since the 1995 season - four head coaches ago.

Jones was reminded of the concern he expressed earlier this decade, when the team was in the midst of three consecutive 5-11 seasons. He wondered whether the Cowboys could sustain their popularity over a prolonged dry spell without championships.

Jones acknowledges that the team's performance could economically undermine all that's envisioned with the stadium. Dallas was positioned for a playoff run late last season but lost three of its final four games.

Jones' training camp message to the team: "Just do your job. We've got too much on the line."

High expectations

They're off to a good start. Quarterback Tony Romo passed for a career-high 353 yards in a 34-21 victory at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. But in recent years, the Cowboys have faded down the stretch.

Says Dorsett: "You know how it is in Dallas. There are high expectations. They have a great owner, great city, great support and now a great stadium. Now we want to see the team become great."

Current players don't deny such pressure.

"In Texas, people breathe it," says Roy Williams, who replaced discarded all-pro Terrell Owens as the team's top wide receiver and attended Odessa Permian High School, immortalized in the book Friday Night Lights, and the University of Texas. "For man, woman and child here, it's all about football."

Perhaps the stadium will help provide something else. All-pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware says during the two preseason games he discovered by sitting on the bench and looking at the video board he could read the lips of opponents when cameras zoomed in for close-ups.

"It's a different game-day experience," Ware said. "It brings another level of seeing. I think we'll have a home-field advantage, because when all the other people come in to play, they'll be in awe. We're past that."

Jones chuckles when pondering whether teams will be distracted.

"If their minds are wandering, so be it," he says. "You can't come in here and not look at the board. Vendor, coach, player, fan. It's amazing, looking at Romo's eyes and he's 70 feet tall."

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