The Krafts Are the Worst Owners in the League
And that league is MLS. Bob and Jonathan Kraft might have the best reputations of any owners in American professional sports. So why don’t they seem to care about the New England Revolution?
Even current Revs—such as Boston native and veteran left back Chris Tierney, who has been trained in the delicate art of difficult-question avoidance—are candid when talking about the limitations of playing in Gillette. “It’s a football stadium, there’s no question about that,” he says. “And with the amount of fans we currently get in our games, I think sometimes the atmosphere gets lost.”
Does that kind of enthusiasm gap really end up hurting the team’s chances of attracting big-name players? Absolutely, longtime league observers say. “New England has fallen way down the line,” the MLS veteran says. “It’s just not a place veteran guys are looking to play.”
Martino agrees. “When I was getting towards the end of my career, and knew my time was numbered, L.A. wanted to trade me to the old K.C., and I basically said if that was my only option, I’m going to retire. And now New England has kind of turned into that team where you’d rather hang it up, as a player in your last years, than play at. And if you’re not getting the veterans, you’re sure as hell not getting any significant DPs.”
Designated Players, or “DP”s, are high-salaried players whose compensation is exempted from counting toward a team’s salary cap. They’re the types of stars who not only can create big buzz around the team, but also can make the difference during a playoff run. Unlike in most pro leagues, almost all MLS players are paid out of the league’s compensation fund, rather than by individual owners. For non-DP players, salaries last season ranged from $35,125 to $375,000, low by American pro-sports standards. The salary cap for each team was just under $3 million. In 2007, though, when the league wanted to sign international superstar David Beckham, who would cost well more than $3 million, MLS created a workaround: Each team would be allowed two designated players, and be free to pay them out of pocket however much they wanted (you can purchase a third, but let’s not confuse things more).
While other teams have splurged on multimillion-dollar contracts, the Krafts have so far kept their wallets firmly shut. In the 2013 season, the Revs spent the least in the league on DPs. The team had only one, Jerry Bengtson, from Honduras, and he made just $138,840. By comparison, English star Jermain Defoe, on Toronto FC, just signed for a reported $8 million a year. His team will pay him 58 times more this year than the Revs paid Bengtson. But even if the Krafts were willing to pay someone of Defoe’s caliber and fame that much money, their current situation makes it irrelevant. “Solid DPs would never go there,” says the MLS veteran.
Another ex-player with close ties to the organization sums it up: “The reputation of the Revolution is that they’re cheap.” He mentions a story of the team, a few years ago, having to make two connections on their flight to a game. It’s a little thing, but it sends a signal. “It’s stuff like that that gives you the rep among the players and the fans,” the ex-player says. “They don’t hold their breath that the Revs will ever get a legit DP. Not when you know you’re second on the totem pole within your own organization.”
So where exactly are the Krafts in all of this? According to the insiders I talked to, they are—perhaps unsurprisingly—hands-off. Though both Bob and Jonathan are listed as “investor-operators,” Bob has essentially passed the Revolution to Jonathan, and has very little public interaction with the team.
“I always thought that Bob gave [the Revolution] to Jonathan as his pet project,” says Harrington, the Midnight Riders president. “When we do events like a season-ticket welcome, usually Jonathan will show up, but not Bob.”
“You rarely ever hear from Bob,” confirms Steve Stoehr, who serves as the Revs beat writer for SB Nation Boston and edits SB’s official Revs blog, the Bent Musket.
One source with knowledge of the organization put it this way: “I think Jonathan Kraft is a soccer fan, but I don’t think Robert cares about the game. I think he cares about the people on the team, and he’s always been good at knowing who you are, and remembering things about your wife or your girlfriend. He’s always been a great people person, but do I think he likes soccer? I don’t think so.”
While Jonathan plays a role on MLS’s executive committee—working with the commissioner and select owners on strategic issues—the day-to-day running of the club comes down to president Brian Bilello and former Revs player and current general manager Michael Burns.
By all accounts, Bilello, a former MIT varsity soccer player and Revs season-ticket holder, is an extremely smart manager who has helped usher the team, kicking and screaming, into the digital age, first in his role as the Kraft Sports Group’s director of quality and operational control, then as the Revs’ COO, before finally being named president in 2011. “He was a really good choice for team president,” Stoehr says. “He was probably the only good choice.”
But Bilello is limited in what he can do—it is, after all, the Krafts’ money. It’s all the more frustrating because he’s put together an exciting young squad. When I talked to SI’s Wahl, he said the Revs were “one of the most entertaining teams in the league last year.” He then paused and added, “On the field.” But off the field, as Wahl alluded to, it might be time for a change. After being quick to say that the MLS wouldn’t exist today without the Krafts, he made a parallel that I heard over and over again during my research: comparing the Krafts with the Hunts in Kansas City, the Chiefs owners who used to also operate three MLS franchises—Dallas, K.C., and Columbus—before recently selling the latter two.
“You look at what had happened with the Hunts in K.C.—things only picked up there when they sold,” Wahl said. “If you look at Columbus, same thing. And they sold it to owners who want to win championships, and get upset publicly when they don’t, and have made smart decisions in repositioning the teams after years of mediocrity and bad times with the Hunts in charge.” He stopped to consider what he’d said, and went on. “I know it sounds harsh, but there’s a lot of truth in it, too. You don’t want an owner of your team who just wants to continue to exist. It’s hard to rally around that.”