Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Countdown to Super Bowl XLVI – Robert Kraft, a true Patriot

In the simplest terms Robert Kraft is the best owner in professional sports today. Robert Kraft doesn’t have the profile of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, or the late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner or Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban but in the last decade the New England Patriots have become the example not only sports organizations should follow but most businesses might emulate if they want to enjoy the success both on and off the field the New England Patriots have experienced with Robert Kraft at the helm.

Robert Kraft announced his intention to bring New England a championship the day he bought the team in 1994. In the 17 years since, he has made good on that pledge, as the Patriots have won an unrivaled three Super Bowls, five conference championships and nine division titles.

Back in 1994, Kraft's talk of the Patriots winning championships was likely interpreted as delusions of grandeur from a man who had just invested an unprecedented amount of money to purchase a floundering franchise. In the four seasons immediately preceding Kraft's acquisition (1990-93), the Patriots compiled an NFL-worst 14-50 (.219) overall record, which included a 1-15 finish in 1990 and a 2-14 record in 1992. They were not only last in the standings; they were also last in attendance and in overall revenue.

It didn't take long for Kraft's vision to come into focus. His personal investment in the team restored the faith of Patriots fans and rejuvenated interest throughout New England. The year he bought the team, season ticket sales eclipsed 40,000 for the first time in franchise history. By the start of his first season, every game was sold out, a feat that had not been accomplished in the franchise's previous 34 seasons. The achievement ensured that local broadcast blackouts would be lifted and every Patriots game, home and away, would be televised throughout New England for the first time in team history.

That year, the Patriots won their final seven regular season games to qualify for the postseason, ending an eight year playoff drought. By his fifth anniversary as owner, the Patriots had already established themselves as perennial playoff contenders, qualifying for the postseason four times, twice as division champions. In 1996 they won the AFC Championship to represent the conference in Super Bowl XXXI against the Packers.

The transformation of the Patriots under Kraft's leadership constitutes one of the greatest long-term, worst-to first revivals in sports history. In 2005, Forbes magazine valued the Patriots franchise at one billion dollars. The Patriots were just the fourth sports franchise in history to eclipse that financial plateau. That year, Forbes also named the Patriots "The Best Team in Sports."

In their most recent NFL franchise valuation Forbes believes the Patriots are now valued at $1.40 billion, a 40 percent increase in six years.

In Kraft's first 18 seasons in the NFL (1994-2007), no other NFL team won more than the New England Patriots.

Few owners in the history of professional sports have experienced the level of success enjoyed by the Kraft family over the last decade. In that time, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls, four conference championships and a franchise-record six consecutive division titles. In 2003 and 2004, the Patriots compiled back-to-back 17-2 seasons highlighted by consecutive Super Bowl championships. The 34 total victories in a two-year span set an 85-year NFL record.

During that time, the Patriots also claimed pro football's consecutive-win records with the longest win streaks in the postseason (10), regular season (18) and with an overall 21-game win streak. Along the way, the Patriots also won 21 consecutive games at Gillette Stadium, the longest home win streak in franchise history.

Kraft's impact on the Patriots was immediate and since 1994, has played an integral role on many of the NFL's most prominent league committees. As a member of the broadcast committee, he played a principal role in negotiating the two most lucrative broadcasting contracts in the history of sports. He was also instrumental in putting together a deal that made New England- headquartered Reebok International, Ltd. the official and exclusive apparel manufacturer for the NFL, helping to create a new model for the sports license apparel industry.

Kraft began his business career with the Rand-Whitney Group, Inc. of Worcester, Mass., a company that converted paper into packaging for various industries. He later acquired the company. In 1972, he founded International Forest Products, a trader of paper commodities that now does business annually in more than 80 countries. Together, Rand-Whitney and International Forest Products comprise one of the largest privately-owned and fully integrated paper and packaging companies in the United States.

Kraft founded The Kraft Group to serve as the holding company for the family's varied business interests, which are concentrated in five specific areas: the distribution of forest products, paper and packaging manufacturing, sports and entertainment, real estate development and private equity investing.

From 2000 to 2002, The Kraft Group's real estate development team oversaw the on-time and on-budget construction of Gillette Stadium, a privately-financed $325 million state-of-the-art stadium that the Patriots and their fans are proud to call home. The financial commitment from Kraft provided a solid foundation on which to build for the first time in the franchise's nomadic history.

Moving from Foxboro Stadium into the majestic Gillette Stadium marked another worst-to-first transformation for the Krafts, who now operate New England 's premier entertainment venue. After opening Gillette Stadium, Kraft was recognized as the Sports Executive of the Year and Sports Industrialist of the Year by two national publications.

The construction of Gillette Stadium was the first project of The Kraft Group's development team. Their current project, known as Patriot Place, is a 1.3 million square foot mixed-use lifestyle center and entertainment complex. The first phase of the project was completed in 2007 and features New England's first outdoor superstore Bass Pro Shops, as well as other large retailers.

The next phase of the project included a lifestyle center that features a 14- screen Cinema de Lux movie theater, a state-of-the-art sports medicine and healthcare facility, a four-star hotel, a team pro shop and Patriots Hall of Fame as well as restaurants, retail shops and office space.

Throughout Kraft's professional career, many of his biggest risks have yielded the greatest rewards. That was true throughout his pursuit of Patriots ownership, beginning in 1985 when he first purchased an option on the land surrounding the old stadium. It was a large investment for an underdeveloped parcel of land, but proved to be an important first step in a long process toward owning the Patriots.

In 1988, he took another step by purchasing the stadium out of bankruptcy court. It was another large investment, this time to purchase an antiquated stadium that was eventually demolished. But, with a binding lease through 2001, the acquisition of the old stadium proved invaluable in his quest to own the team.

When his opportunity came in January of 1994, Kraft faced a difficult business dilemma. He had to decide between committing over $172 million of family resources to purchase the Patriots or accept a lucrative $75 million buyout offer to void the final years of the team's stadium lease and allow the team to move out of New England. On Jan. 21, 1994, Kraft passed on the buyout offer, choosing instead to make an 11th-hour bid to buy the team.

On Feb. 26, 1994, a day after Kraft earned league approval; season tickets for the 1994 season went on sale and Patriots fans showed their support for Kraft's decision in record numbers. By the end of the first business day, amidst a winter nor'easter, 5,958 season ticket orders were processed, shattering the previous single-day sales record of 979. The show of support validated Kraft's decision to buy the team and gave him the confidence to focus on another risky, long-term project: the construction of Gillette Stadium.

In 2000, Kraft took another risk when he surrendered a first-round draft choice to a division rival to acquire the services of Head Coach Bill Belichick from the New York Jets. The decision was heavily criticized at the time, but like so many of Kraft's decisions along the way, the risk was answered with great reward. Since then, the Patriots have recorded more wins and more championships than any other team in the NFL and Belichick became the first head coach in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four seasons.

For Kraft, a lifelong football fan, each decision represented a tremendous risk, but they were risks he was willing to take in pursuit of his goal of bringing New England a championship.

In 2001, the Patriots made their final season in Foxboro Stadium a memorable one. After a 1-3 start, the Patriots won 10 of their last 11 regular season games to claim another division title. In the final game at the 31-year-old stadium, the Patriots hosted the Oakland Raiders in a divisional playoff game under a heavy snowfall that created a heavenly ambience. The Patriots' 16-13 overtime victory over the Raiders is described by many as one of the most memorable games in NFL history. The victory propelled the Patriots through one of the greatest playoff runs in NFL history, as they advanced to score dramatic victories over two heavily favored opponents in championship games, including a 24-17 victory over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh and a 20-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams on the final play of Super Bowl XXXVI.

In 2002, the Kraft family enjoyed a memorable season opener when they celebrated the grand opening of Gillette Stadium with the unveiling of New England's first Super Bowl championship banner on Monday Night Football. That night, the Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-14, before the then largest home crowd in franchise history. Since the stadium’s opening, the Patriots are 36-9 at Gillette Stadium and have won 32 of their last 38 regular and postseason home games.

In 2003, the Kraft family enjoyed a historic 10th anniversary season that culminated with a second championship celebration just two seasons after winning the first title in team history. After suffering a season-opening loss, the Patriots rebounded to win 17 of their next 18 games and enjoyed a 15-game season-ending win streak. Only the 1972 undefeated Miami Dolphins enjoyed a longer single-season win streak.

In 2004, the Patriots became just the second team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in a four-year span and the seventh club to win consecutive Super Bowl championships.

In 2006, the Patriots extended their franchise record by winning their fourth consecutive division championship, but fell short of their quest of another conference title when they relinquished their lead to the Colts in the final minute of the AFC Championship game in Indianapolis.

The 2007 season….undefeated until their stunning Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots enjoyed successful regular seasons in 2008, 2009 and 2010 but failed in the playoffs. The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl, in large part because of the leadership Robert Kraft brings to the franchise. Kraft doesn’t micromanage the team; he lets Bill Belichick manage the complete day-to-day affairs of the football team. Kraft focuses his time on the business side of the Patriots and the evolution of Patriots Place – making money.

A native of Brookline , Mass. , Kraft attended local public schools before entering Columbia University on an academic scholarship. Upon graduation, he received a fellowship to attend Harvard Business School , where he earned a master's degree in business administration.

Kraft first became a fan of the Boston Patriots in their AFL days during the early 1960s. He attended games at each of the team's Boston venues: Boston University Field, Fenway Park, Boston College Alumni Stadium and Harvard Stadium. When the team moved to Foxborough in 1971, he invested in season tickets for his family. Kraft credits the memories and experiences shared with his family and other Patriots fans at Foxboro Stadium for his passionate pursuit of ownership of the franchise.

And when it comes to the image of his players an example Kraft set for the Patriots in 1996 stands as a testament to the man. Whenever a member of the Patriots is linked to off-field issues the media loves to recall how longtime Patriots owner Robert Kraft handled the Patriots selection of Christen Peter in the fifth round of the 1996 NFL draft.

Kraft took a stand against employing players with criminal records. In the fifth round of the 1996 NFL draft, the Patriots picked Nebraska defensive lineman Christian Peter, who had been arrested eight times, and convicted four times, during college for a variety of offenses, including the assault of a former Miss Nebraska and the rape of another woman. When Kraft’s wife, the late Myra Kraft alerted her husband of Peter’s past, Kraft cut the player before he was even offered a contract. "We concluded this behavior is incompatible with our organization's standards of acceptable conduct" said Kraft. While he received numerous letters of support from high school and college coaches, he was not praised by the NFL. Peter’s had a seven-year NFL career.

Robert Kraft – a championship owner going for Super Bowl number four Sunday in Indianapolis.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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