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?

By | Boston Magazine |
new england revolution bob kraft

Photo Illustration by Peter Horvath

Last October, ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown ran a fluffy segment about how New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s box at Gillette Stadium has become Boston’s “most exclusive club.” He invites “a gathering of the A-list” to each Pats home game, the piece gushed, mixing politicians, actors, media moguls, and musicians. Ozzy Osbourne marveled at the hot dogs. Steven Tyler speculated that the sauerbraten was flown in from Germany. Mark Wahlberg said the wine made it feel like France. “Bob,” Wahlberg said, “just does everything top-notch.”

A week later, the Krafts’ other team, the New England Revolution, faced off against the Columbus Crew in their final MLS home game of the year. At 26,548, the crowd was the best of the season, but the fans’ uneven distribution throughout the lower bowl of the 68,756-capacity stadium left big pockets of empty seats. A red tarp covered a large swath behind the first 20 rows in back of the southern goal. Across the field, the Revs’ biggest supporters’ group, the Midnight Riders, did their best to bring the ruckus, but at times Gillette was so quiet that you could clearly hear the players’ yells and the dull thud of boot on ball. And this was with a crowd 78 percent bigger than usual: The Revs averaged 14,844 fans per game last season, fourth worst in the 19-team league. New England beat Columbus 3–2, but during the game, the Krafts’ box hardly felt like an exclusive club. There were no celebrities, not even any lesser Wahlbergs. It was hardly—as Mark would have put it—“top-notch.”

Nearly 20 years after its launch, Major League Soccer is finally booming in America, reaching a point of unprecedented profitability, popularity, and expansion—at least it is in other places. But not in Boston. While the city’s population of hip young urbanites, immigrants, college students, and soccer-crazed kids would seem ideally suited to ride the MLS wave—especially considering our collective sports obsession—the Revolution toil in obscurity. What David Ortiz eats for lunch gets more buzz than Revs playoff games.

With another new season under way, it’s time to face an uncomfortable truth: The Kraft-led Revolution are widely regarded as one of the worst franchises in the league.

On top of poor attendance, the Revs are one of just three MLS teams without solid plans for an appropriately sized stadium of their own. They’ve also failed over the years to pay for any high-priced stars, earning a reputation as one of the cheaper franchises in the league. But it’s almost a moot point: Thanks to Gillette’s lifeless atmosphere, even megabucks couldn’t lure most veteran MLS and bigtime foreign players to dull Foxboro.

For those die-hard fans that do exist, it’s all the more a shame, since the Revolution are currently stocked with up-and-coming young players such as 19-year-old local wunderkind Diego Fagundez and skilled midfielders Lee Nguyên and Kelyn Rowe. Factor in other young Massachusetts-grown talents like Scott Caldwell, and the Revolution have one of the most dynamic, entertaining teams in the league. After years of cellar dwelling, the Revs posted a 14–11–9 record last season, sneaking into the playoffs. And they did it while playing with the kind of fun, fluid style you normally see in Europe. It’s a young team on the verge, but one that’s currently going to waste. Especially since management seems ill inclined to spend the money needed to help push the squad over the top.

In his yearly ambition rankings for MLS franchises, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, the top soccer writer in the country, regularly places the Revs at the bottom of the list. Last year, the only team he ranked worse was Chivas USA, which has since been sold. With the old Chivas owner gone, that leaves the Krafts. (Through the team’s publicists, both Bob and Jonathan Kraft declined repeated requests to comment for this story.)

Now, before I’m kidnapped by a riotous mob (led by my incensed Pats-fanatic mother) and burned in effigy, let me make a few things clear. First: Without Bob and Jonathan Kraft, who jointly hold the titles of investor-operators, there would be no professional soccer in America. They should rightly be considered among MLS’s founding fathers. And second, the Krafts have, obviously, been amazing owners of the Patriots. Not only has the team won three Super Bowls, but the Krafts saved them from moving to St. Louis, privately funded a new stadium (with no expensive personal seat licenses!), and, just three years ago, Bob swooped in to negotiate a truce with the NFL Players Association and save the league from a lockout. We know they can be fantastic owners when they apply themselves. That is what makes their indifference to the Revs so maddening. Why is it, exactly, that the Krafts, among the best owners in the NFL, are among the worst in MLS?

 

Major League Soccer was launched in 1996 with 10 founding teams: Columbus, DC, New England, New York/New Jersey, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Dallas, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and San Jose. Largely in response to the money-hemorrhaging disaster that was the North American Soccer League of the ’70s and ’80s, it used an unconventional ownership model. Unlike in most leagues, MLS teams are not independently owned. Instead, the league centrally owns them, with investor-operators (who are also shareholders in the league) running the different squads. Investor-operators can control more than one team, and they have: At one point Anschutz Entertainment Group owned six, and Hunt Sports Group owned three. The Krafts, for their measure, were the Revolutions’ founding investor-operators, and also briefly ran San Jose in 1999 and 2000, taking over the Earthquakes after a group headed up by MLS founder Alan Rothenberg pulled out.

During this first iteration, known in U.S. soccer circles as MLS 1.0, the league believed the audience it needed to attract was soccer-playing kids and their parents. “At the start, it was all, ‘Bring out the kid, get two hot dogs and a cotton candy, and let’s sit down and watch this soccer ball!’” says former MLS and U.S. men’s national team midfielder Kyle Martino, who is now the lead soccer analyst for NBC. Greg Lalas, a former New England Revolution defender and former color commentator for the team, agrees: “In the early years we weren’t sure who we were. Are we just running around for soccer moms?”

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Revolution fans try, but their supporters’ groups pale in comparison to other teams’. / Photograph by Alan LaValley

Aside from the issue of whom exactly they were targeting, the league had another problem: where they played. All 10 teams were playing in football stadiums, with vast expanses of seats that made the modest attendance numbers feel even smaller.

To combat that problem, MLS 2.0 arrived in the mid-aughts: As the league expanded, between 2003 and 2008, six teams constructed new soccer-specific stadiums. But in solving the stadium problem, the teams created a new challenge. In order to get cheap land on which to build the stadiums, they tended to look outside their city limits to suburban areas, plunking down their bowls in such marquee rest stops as Frisco, Texas; Commerce City, Colorado; and Harrison, New Jersey. While fans in those cities could now enjoy an intimate soccer-viewing experience, it was hardly convenient. “It should’ve been a huge step forward,” Martino says. “But, for the most part, because of where they were located, it was more like one step forward, two steps back.”

On the third try, MLS 3.0, the league finally got it right. Expansion teams like the Seattle Sounders (2009) and the Portland Timbers (2011) exploded onto the scene with wildly passionate supporters’ groups and sold-out, raucous stadiums within city limits; Sporting Kansas City and Houston added their own city-based stadiums in 2011 and 2012. And MLS had finally found its growing fan base: urban hipsters. Turns out, if you’re trying to fill a supporters’ group, your perfect candidates are city-dwelling, unmarried 18-to-35-year-olds with disposable incomes, eclectic sensibilities, and a penchant for creating clever banners.

Having this solid supporters’ group is particularly crucial because, more than most, soccer is a sport that feeds off its crowd. Unlike other, TV-commercial-friendly American sports, the games last for two 45-minute halves with no breaks or timeouts, and supporters’ groups spend that entire time on their feet, singing songs and coordinated chants that celebrate their team, poking fun at opposing players, and calling the ref a bastard. They set the tone for the whole stadium, and really the whole fan base. In MLS, the most famous of all these groups is likely Portland’s Timbers Army. On game days, some 5,000 Army faithful fill eight sections, or roughly one quarter of the 19,000 seats at Providence Park.

Now compare that to the Revs’ largest supporters’ group, the Midnight Riders: Their numbers, according to group president Fran Harrington, fluctuate between 300 and 400.

In one section.

In a stadium that seats almost 69,000 people.

Harrington says sometimes people get upset that the Midnight Riders don’t create the ridiculously elaborate tifo displays of groups like the Timbers Army. “They’re like, ‘Why aren’t you doing that?’” he says. “Oh, I dunno, [maybe it’s because] we can’t even fill our supporters’ section?” He lets out a long sigh. “We got to walk before we can run.”

The drive from Boston to Foxboro is about 40 minutes, if you’re extremely lucky, and even under the best circumstances it’s a royal pain. One of the elements keeping the Revs’ numbers down, Harrington says, is the utter lack of public transportation to the stadium. There’s no T, no bus, nada. “There are no options,” Harrington says. “There’s a commuter-rail stop, but it only operates during Patriots games.” For Harrington, who, like many young urban professionals, doesn’t have a car, securing passage is crucial: “If you can’t get a ride, the closest thing you can do is go to Walpole, and take a $50 cab from there. Or sometimes I’ll take a Zipcar, but that’s kind of expensive, too.”

Even if public transportation were available, Harrington admits it would only be a temporary salve. “I don’t think the organization can move forward a whole lot without getting out of Gillette,” he says. But for now, the Revs’ number one fan can’t even get to the games.

 

In talking to both former and current players in the league, it became clear that fans aren’t the only ones less than satisfied with their experience at Gillette. Most players hate artificial turf fields, especially ones designed for NFL teams, which prefer faster, harder playing surfaces. The Revs are one of just four MLS teams not playing on natural grass. One still-active MLS veteran told me that turf “takes a year off your career, at least.” And no one likes to feel like a second-class citizen in their own stadium—an emotion that may be unavoidable in a venue where there is a sign below the scoreboard that reads “HOME OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS” in giant silver letters. “It’s just a different feeling walking into an NFL stadium,” says the veteran, “where there’s no real permanent signage for the team, you see the football lines and feel the hard turf, and you can hear echoes of emptiness.”

Ask around about the vibe at Gillette, and other players will concur. “Personally I was always excited because I knew I’d have family and friends there,” says Roger Levesque, a former Seattle Sounder who grew up in Maine. “But in terms of atmosphere, it wasn’t a game you particularly got amped for. I’d compare it to when we were a USL team in Seattle, playing at Century Field, where the fans were just on one side of the field. Just kind of uneven.” In other words, a minor-league experience.

“I remember being there at the MLS Cup during my rookie season, and it was huge, and packed, and incredible,” Martino says. But now, he says, “You can literally hear people’s individual cell-phone conversations. It’s sad.”

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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.”

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Under the Krafts, the Revs feel stuck. Outside of PR pressure and the occasional exasperated fan Twitter or blog rant, what exactly would motivate them to seriously consider paying heaps of money to move the team to a new downtown stadium? They already own the stadium they’re in, and all the revenue streams associated with it. Plus, hosting the team in Foxboro allows at least 17 more opportunities per year to drive thousands of people to their stadium-side shopping center, Patriot Place.

Since it doesn’t appear that they want to pay for their own new stadium, the Revs’ prospects seem limited. The Krafts built their golden reputation in large part by funding Gillette Stadium’s construction mostly on their own, which makes it difficult to imagine them enduring the PR wreck of asking the public to build them a soccer stadium. Besides, the idea of giving billionaires tax breaks for stadiums has never been popular in Massachusetts. Bob has become a prominent backer of the Boston 2024 Olympic movement, and floated the idea of converting a new Olympic Stadium into something Revs-appropriate after the games. Aside from being a total pipe dream (and perhaps even a stall tactic), the Olympic gambit also seems like a side door into getting help paying for the stadium. And even if Boston does somehow wind up with the Olympics, it would mean a new Revolution stadium is still 10 years away.

As Wahl alluded, there are rumblings across the league that if the Krafts aren’t serious about the Revolution’s future, maybe another wealthy soccer-loving Bostonian should get a shot. And considering that three groups in Boston already have serious ownership stakes in major European clubs (John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group with Liverpool FC, hedge fund magnate Jim Pallotta with AS Roma, and Chestnut Hill Ventures chairman and CEO John Berylson with Millwall FC), it seems possible that there would be some willing buyers if the option opened up. Kyle Martino puts it best: “The Krafts have been very important for MLS, but it is getting to the point where if they’re not willing to see the bigger picture, it’s like, give someone a crack at reviving this team.”

 

There are often rumors that the Revs are looking to build a stadium somewhere north of Boston, where scads of yuppies and immigrants—the perfect soccer demographic!—live densely packed side by side. But that idea shares a lot of parallels with another long-promised project in the area, the Green Line extension to Somerville. It’s been on the planning board for so long that we’ll only believe it when the trains finally start running.

As far back as 2007, Mayor Joseph Curtatone acknowledged that there were discussions about building a stadium in the Inner Belt area of Somerville. That talk has since moved to Assembly Square, where an Orange Line stop is due to open this year. But as it stands now, it remains just that: talk.

Revere has also often been bandied about as a potential site, and its mayor, Dan Rizzo, even floated the idea in 2012 of building a stadium at the Wonderland Greyhound Park site, as part of the potential Suffolk Downs casino windfall. While the Suffolk Downs project has been through serious transformations since then, the stadium idea has gone nowhere, and when I contacted the mayor’s office, I was told there was no new news to report.

Of course, if the Revs could just close one of these damn deals for a soccer-specific stadium around the city, then these rumblings about selling the club would die. And no one knows that more than Revolution president Brian Bilello. When I spoke to Bilello, I asked him what everyone wants to know: Was there any new progress to report on the stadium?

“We’ve made progress on a number of sites,” Bilello said, failing to give specifics. “Some of those we’re no longer looking at, but a number of them we still are engaged on and trying to work some issues through. What I can say is we’re extremely committed to getting the project done. We think it’s critical to not only the Revolution but for the sport of soccer in this region to take this next-level jump. We all believe in it, but we also believe it needs to be in this urban region of Boston.”

When I asked specifically about Somerville and Revere, Bilello pivoted, saying there are many sites that haven’t been named publicly in the mix, and that, if they were to announce something, the Revolution would wait until the city announced the project first. Perhaps sensing my frustration, he leveled with me: “It’s absolutely understandable the frustration that our fans have. We’re frustrated as well. Really, for most fans, they’ll continue to be frustrated and continue to have doubts until they see a project with a shovel in the ground. And frankly I think that’s very fair for them. And I wouldn’t be committing to it on behalf of the organization, and the Krafts wouldn’t be committing to it, if it wasn’t something we wanted to do, and we’re committed to doing it. And again, I know there are fans that won’t believe it until they see it, but there’s no value to us saying we want to do it if we’re not really trying to do it.”

This line of rhetoric—the understanding and relating to the frustrations of the fans—appears to be a company line. In an interview in January with Kyle McCarthy for the New England Soccer Journal, Jonathan Kraft echoed the sentiment. “I totally get the frustration of fans,” he said. “We’re frustrated, too. But we’re going to solve it.”

Empathy is nice, but it’s a shabby replacement for a decent stadium. When I requested interviews with the Krafts through Revolution PR, I was never given a reason why Bob would not answer questions. Jonathan, at least, offered an explanation: He said he was too busy preparing for a Patriots playoff game.

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