The mass spectacle known as the Super Bowl — far and away the most watched telecast in the United States — is here again. In addition to providing high drama, the game is a monumental display of corporate power, with big brands rushing to pay millions for commercials, tech behemoths pinning their names to halftime shows and telecoms giants waiting in line to showcase the big event.
The center of power within the National Football League (NFL) is its cadre of billionaire owners, including some of the richest people in the world. Notably, the league has a close and enduring attachment to the fossil fuel industry, which has long been the core driver of the global climate crisis.
The NFL and its ownership class have been interlocked with oil and gas wealth for decades, and some of the league’s most iconic owners purchased their teams with fossil fuel money. But the polluting operations of these owners have not gone uncontested, especially from communities that have borne the brunt of their oil and gas profiteering.
Fossil Fuel Wealth and the Origins of the Super Bowl
One of the teams competing in the Super Bowl this year is the Kansas City Chiefs, a franchise that has so far refused to change its name, arrowhead logo and racist chants that Indigenous protesters have decried as cultural appropriation, stereotyping and racist mockery. (Under pressure from Indigenous activists, the team banned fans from wearing “warpaint” and fake headdresses, but Debra Utacia Krol reports that even those rules aren’t consistently enforced.)
The Chiefs’ current owner, Clark Hunt, comes from one of the most powerful oil dynasties in U.S. history. His grandfather was H.L. Hunt, who built a multibillion oil empire and became one of the wealthiest persons in the nation.
A 1964 New York Times story offered a sense of the Hunts’ vast fossil fuel empire, noting that “Hunt Oil produces oil and natural gas in 12 states — mainly Texas, Louisiana and North Dakota — and Canada” and “holds undeveloped acreage in 17 states” alongside “interests in several natural gasoline processing plants and crude oil pipelines.”
The Chiefs’ franchise, which began in 1960 as the Dallas Texans before moving to Kansas City and changed its name in 1963, was the creation of Lamar Hunt, son of H.L and father of Clark. Lamar used his family’s oil wealth — he “retain[ed] his interest in various family oil businesses,” said the New York Times — to help found the Chiefs.
The origins of the Super Bowl lay with Lamar Hunt. In the 1960s, there were two main professional football leagues: the National Football League and the American Football League (AFL). Hunt helped create the AFL in 1959 because the preexisting NFL denied him an expansion team in Dallas.
The two leagues eventually announced a merger in 1966, and it was Lamar Hunt who coined the “Super Bowl,” where the winners of the AFL and NFL (today’s AFC and NFC) would play each other. Today, the winner of the AFC who goes to the Super Bowl raises the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
Lamar Hunt died in 2006, when his son Clark was already the Chiefs’ chairman. The Hunt family remains one of the wealthiest in the U.S., worth $20.5 billion. The family still owns and oversees a range of oil and gas operations through Hunt Consolidated, one of the world’s largest privately owned fossil fuel companies.
Another key figure in the creation of the AFL was Bud Adams, who earned a fortune in the oil industry and chartered the Houston Oilers — whose logo was an oil derrick — in 1959. The team moved to Tennessee in 1997 and became today’s Titans.
Bud’s father, Boots Adams, served as president and chairman of Phillips Petroleum Company, and Bud raked in a fortune from fossil fuels through his company, Adams Resources & Energy, which he ran for over a half-century.
Until 2022, Strunk was listed as a 40.3 percent beneficial owner of Adams Energy, which has crude oil and other fossil fuel operations, through her stake in KSA Industries, the holding company of Bud Adams’s estate. In November 2022, Adams Energy repurchased KSA Industry’s outstanding shares. Strunk was also owner and president of the Little River Oil and Gas Company.
Fracking Billionaires, Pipeline Owners and Power Plant Tycoons
Beyond the Hunts and Adamses, the NFL is awash with other owners tied to the fossil fuel industry.
Terry Pegula, the billionaire owner of the Buffalo Bills, founded East Resources, a private oil and gas company, in 1983. The company grew into a fracking powerhouse, with its operations stretching across the Marcellus Shale region. According to one source, East Resources “had a middling record of complying with environmental regulations.”
In 2009, private equity giant KKR acquired a minority stake in East Resources, later boasting that the company became “one of the top drillers in the basin,” with over 1,000 wells. In 2010, Pegula sold most of East Resource’s assets to Shell for $4.7 billion. In 2014, he sold drilling rights on land in Ohio and West Virginia to American Energy Partners for $1.75 billion.
This helped Pegula scoop up the Buffalo Bills in 2014, outbidding Donald Trump (to whom he’d later donate). Despite Pegula’s vast wealth — he’s worth around $6.8 billion — he snagged a record $850 million in public subsidies to build a new $1.4 billion stadium.
But Pegula wasn’t done with fracking. He started a new fracking company, JKLM Energy, that garnered big fines for groundwater contamination and faced widespread opposition from residents in Coudersport, Pennsylvania and the Seneca Nation over its ties to a proposed fracking wastewater center.
Janice McNair, the billionaire owner of the Houston Texans, is the widow of Robert McNair, who made a fortune in fossil fuel power generation before he died in 2018. Robert founded Cogen Technologies, which became the largest privately held power producer in the U.S. In 1998, Robert sold three of his natural gas power plants to Enron for $1.1 billion, though he retained other plants. He used the proceeds to purchase the Texans for $700 million in 1999 as an expansion team.
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, worth $8.6 billion, is the son of James Haslam II, who founded the Pilot Company, “one of the leading suppliers of fuel” for trucks. Jimmy served as the company’s CEO and chairman for years. Panthers’ owner David Tepper holds hundreds of millions of dollars of fossil fuel stock in companies like Chesapeake Energy and Energy Transfer through his investment firm Appaloosa Management.
Steve Tisch and the Tisch Family are 50 percent co-owners of the New York Giants. Steve is the Giants’ chairman. He inherited his stake when his father, Bob Tisch, died in 2005. Bob Tisch cofounded the Loews Corporation, a holding company for a range of businesses, including oil and gas operations, that built the family a vast fortune.
Today, Loews Corporation is co-chaired by Steve’s brother Jonathan Tisch, who is also the treasurer of the Giants. One of Loews Corporation’s core holdings is Boardwalk Pipelines, which transports and stores fracked gas through almost 14,000 miles of pipelines across the U.S. that it owns and operates.
Taking on Jerry Jones and Comstock Resources
No current NFL owner is more notorious than Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and no owner rivals Jones in current ties to fossil fuels.
Jones, who is worth $13.6 billion, sold his natural gas company Arkoma Production for $175 million in the mid-1980s, which helped him buy the Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million. (Bum Bright, the owner who sold Jones the Cowboys, was also an oil and gas tycoon.) Since then, the franchise’s value has ballooned to $9 billion.
But Jones hardly ditched fossil fuels. In 2018, he invested $75 million in Comstock Resources, one of the nation’s largest fracking companies, giving him a 14 percent stake. By 2022, Jones’s stake in Comstock grew to 66 percent. He holds the right to designate five of the company’s nine board directors.
Jones’s ownership of Comstock makes him a central player in the nation’s fracking boom. Comstock’s production has skyrocketed since Jones became the majority shareholder. In 2022, it was the 11th top producer of natural gas in Texas. Today, it’s the 25th biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., with operations in Louisiana and Texas.
But Jones’s fossil fuel profiteering has not gone uncontested. In February 2021, Texas’s deregulated power grid was overwhelmed by freezing temperatures, leaving millions without heat and resulting in at least 246 deaths across 77 counties. The right blamed frozen wind turbines for the breakdown, but frozen natural gas infrastructure was the real problem.
The fossil fuel industry cashed in on soaring energy prices, including Jerry Jones and Comstock Resources. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” raved Comstock’s chief financial officer on an investor call. “Frankly, we were able to sell at super premium prices for a material amount of production.”
These comments outraged many Texans, who subsidized Jones’s new stadium for the Cowboys to the tune of $325 million. Climate organizers took notice and decided to challenge the swaggering billionaire.
Members of Sunrise Movement Dallas, the city’s affiliate of the national youth climate organization, staged a protest outside Comstock Resources’s headquarters in Frisco, Texas, to call attention to the company’s shameless profiteering.
“Billionaires like Jerry Jones were making a killing off of peoples’ suffering, and peoples’ bills were just skyrocketing,” said Kidus Girma, an organizer with Sunrise Movement Dallas. “We knew Jerry Jones made a lot of money off of the suffering of Texans, and we wanted to hold him accountable.”
More generally, Girma told Truthout, Sunrise Movement Dallas wanted to challenge the way the Texas energy system operates and “show everyday people that we don’t actually have to suffer through our energy systems’ shutting down.”
“It doesn’t have to be the case that your energy costs yo-yo depending on disasters created by the fossil fuel industry,” he said.
Girma believes enjoying sports and challenging the billionaire power behind franchises like the Cowboys are entirely compatible. “Sports are supposed to be for everybody, and something that we should continue to enjoy,” he said. “You can love the NFL and sports and also deeply criticize Jerry Jones for his actions.”
But, Girma says, “We should also be really aware of who’s making money off of your Sunday afternoon with your buddies.”