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 donât they seem to care about the New England Revolution?
Last October, ESPNâs Sunday NFL Countdown ran a fluffy segment about how New England Patriots owner Robert Kraftâs box at Gillette Stadium has become Bostonâs âmost exclusive club.â He invites âa gathering of the A-listâ 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. âBob,â Wahlberg said, âjust does everything top-notch.â
A week later, the Kraftsâ 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 fansâ 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 Revsâ biggest supportersâ group, the Midnight Riders, did their best to bring the ruckus, but at times Gillette was so quiet that you could clearly hear the playersâ 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 3â2, but during the game, the Kraftsâ box hardly felt like an exclusive club. There were no celebrities, not even any lesser Wahlbergs. It was hardlyâas Mark would have put itââtop-notch.â
Nearly 20 years after its launch, Major League Soccer is finally booming in America, reaching a point of unprecedented profitability, popularity, and expansionâat least it is in other places. But not in Boston. While the cityâs population of hip young urbanites, immigrants, college students, and soccer-crazed kids would seem ideally suited to ride the MLS waveâespecially considering our collective sports obsessionâthe Revolution toil in obscurity. What David Ortiz eats for lunch gets more buzz than Revs playoff games.
With another new season under way, itâs 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. Theyâve 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 itâs almost a moot point: Thanks to Gilletteâs lifeless atmosphere, even megabucks couldnât lure most veteran MLS and bigtime foreign players to dull Foxboro.
For those die-hard fans that do exist, itâs 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 NguyĂȘn 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 14â11â9 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. Itâs a young team on the verge, but one thatâs 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 Illustratedâs 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 teamâs publicists, both Bob and Jonathan Kraft declined repeated requests to comment for this story.)
Now, before Iâm 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 MLSâs 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 â70s and â80s, 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 Revolutionsâ 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. âAt the start, it was all, âBring out the kid, get two hot dogs and a cotton candy, and letâs sit down and watch this soccer ball!ââ says former MLS and U.S. menâs 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: âIn the early years we werenât sure who we were. Are we just running around for soccer moms?â
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. âIt shouldâve been a huge step forward,â Martino says. âBut, for the most part, because of where they were located, it was more like one step forward, two steps back.â
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 supportersâ 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 youâre trying to fill a supportersâ 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 supportersâ 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 supportersâ 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 Portlandâs 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 Revsâ largest supportersâ 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 donât create the ridiculously elaborate tifo displays of groups like the Timbers Army. âTheyâre like, âWhy arenât you doing that?ââ he says. âOh, I dunno, [maybe itâs because] we canât even fill our supportersâ section?â He lets out a long sigh. âWe got to walk before we can run.â
The drive from Boston to Foxboro is about 40 minutes, if youâre extremely lucky, and even under the best circumstances itâs a royal pain. One of the elements keeping the Revsâ numbers down, Harrington says, is the utter lack of public transportation to the stadium. Thereâs no T, no bus, nada. âThere are no options,â Harrington says. âThereâs a commuter-rail stop, but it only operates during Patriots games.â For Harrington, who, like many young urban professionals, doesnât have a car, securing passage is crucial: âIf you canât get a ride, the closest thing you can do is go to Walpole, and take a $50 cab from there. Or sometimes Iâll take a Zipcar, but thatâs kind of expensive, too.â
Even if public transportation were available, Harrington admits it would only be a temporary salve. âI donât think the organization can move forward a whole lot without getting out of Gillette,â he says. But for now, the Revsâ number one fan canât even get to the games.
In talking to both former and current players in the league, it became clear that fans arenât 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 âtakes a year off your career, at least.â And no one likes to feel like a second-class citizen in their own stadiumâan emotion that may be unavoidable in a venue where there is a sign below the scoreboard that reads âHOME OF THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTSâ in giant silver letters. âItâs just a different feeling walking into an NFL stadium,â says the veteran, âwhere thereâs no real permanent signage for the team, you see the football lines and feel the hard turf, and you can hear echoes of emptiness.â
Ask around about the vibe at Gillette, and other players will concur. âPersonally I was always excited because I knew Iâd have family and friends there,â says Roger Levesque, a former Seattle Sounder who grew up in Maine. âBut in terms of atmosphere, it wasnât a game you particularly got amped for. Iâd 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.â In other words, a minor-league experience.
âI remember being there at the MLS Cup during my rookie season, and it was huge, and packed, and incredible,â Martino says. But now, he says, âYou can literally hear peopleâs individual cell-phone conversations. Itâs sad.â
Even current Revsâsuch as Boston native and veteran left back Chris Tierney, who has been trained in the delicate art of difficult-question avoidanceâare candid when talking about the limitations of playing in Gillette. âItâs a football stadium, thereâs no question about that,â he says. âAnd with the amount of fans we currently get in our games, I think sometimes the atmosphere gets lost.â
Does that kind of enthusiasm gap really end up hurting the teamâs chances of attracting big-name players? Absolutely, longtime league observers say. âNew England has fallen way down the line,â the MLS veteran says. âItâs just not a place veteran guys are looking to play.â
Martino agrees. âWhen 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, Iâm going to retire. And now New England has kind of turned into that team where youâd rather hang it up, as a player in your last years, than play at. And if youâre not getting the veterans, youâre sure as hell not getting any significant DPs.â
Designated Players, or âDPâs, are high-salaried players whose compensation is exempted from counting toward a teamâs salary cap. Theyâre 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 leagueâs 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 letâs 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 Defoeâs caliber and fame that much money, their current situation makes it irrelevant. âSolid DPs would never go there,â says the MLS veteran.
Another ex-player with close ties to the organization sums it up: âThe reputation of the Revolution is that theyâre cheap.â He mentions a story of the team, a few years ago, having to make two connections on their flight to a game. Itâs a little thing, but it sends a signal. âItâs stuff like that that gives you the rep among the players and the fans,â the ex-player says. âThey donât hold their breath that the Revs will ever get a legit DP. Not when you know youâre second on the totem pole within your own organization.â
So where exactly are the Krafts in all of this? According to the insiders I talked to, they areâperhaps unsurprisinglyâhands-off. Though both Bob and Jonathan are listed as âinvestor-operators,â Bob has essentially passed the Revolution to Jonathan, and has very little public interaction with the team.
âI always thought that Bob gave [the Revolution] to Jonathan as his pet project,â says Harrington, the Midnight Riders president. âWhen we do events like a season-ticket welcome, usually Jonathan will show up, but not Bob.â
âYou rarely ever hear from Bob,â confirms Steve Stoehr, who serves as the Revs beat writer for SB Nation Boston and edits SBâs official Revs blog, the Bent Musket.
One source with knowledge of the organization put it this way: âI think Jonathan Kraft is a soccer fan, but I donât think Robert cares about the game. I think he cares about the people on the team, and heâs always been good at knowing who you are, and remembering things about your wife or your girlfriend. Heâs always been a great people person, but do I think he likes soccer? I donât think so.â
While Jonathan plays a role on MLSâs executive committeeâworking with the commissioner and select owners on strategic issuesâthe 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 Groupâs director of quality and operational control, then as the Revsâ COO, before finally being named president in 2011. âHe was a really good choice for team president,â Stoehr says. âHe was probably the only good choice.â
But Bilello is limited in what he can doâit is, after all, the Kraftsâ money. Itâs all the more frustrating because heâs put together an exciting young squad. When I talked to SIâs Wahl, he said the Revs were âone of the most entertaining teams in the league last year.â He then paused and added, âOn the field.â But off the field, as Wahl alluded to, it might be time for a change. After being quick to say that the MLS wouldnât 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 franchisesâDallas, K.C., and Columbusâbefore recently selling the latter two.
âYou look at what had happened with the Hunts in K.C.âthings only picked up there when they sold,â Wahl said. âIf you look at Columbus, same thing. And they sold it to owners who want to win championships, and get upset publicly when they donât, and have made smart decisions in repositioning the teams after years of mediocrity and bad times with the Hunts in charge.â He stopped to consider what heâd said, and went on. âI know it sounds harsh, but thereâs a lot of truth in it, too. You donât want an owner of your team who just wants to continue to exist. Itâs hard to rally around that.â
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 theyâre 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 doesnât appear that they want to pay for their own new stadium, the Revsâ prospects seem limited. The Krafts built their golden reputation in large part by funding Gillette Stadiumâs 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 arenât serious about the Revolutionâs 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 Henryâs 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: âThe Krafts have been very important for MLS, but it is getting to the point where if theyâre not willing to see the bigger picture, itâs like, give someone a crack at reviving this team.â
There are often rumors that the Revs are looking to build a stadium somewhere north of Boston, where scads of yuppies and immigrantsâthe perfect soccer demographic!âlive 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. Itâs been on the planning board for so long that weâll 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 mayorâs 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?
âWeâve made progress on a number of sites,â Bilello said, failing to give specifics. âSome of those weâre 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 weâre extremely committed to getting the project done. We think itâs 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.â
When I asked specifically about Somerville and Revere, Bilello pivoted, saying there are many sites that havenât 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: âItâs absolutely understandable the frustration that our fans have. Weâre frustrated as well. Really, for most fans, theyâll continue to be frustrated and continue to have doubts until they see a project with a shovel in the ground. And frankly I think thatâs very fair for them. And I wouldnât be committing to it on behalf of the organization, and the Krafts wouldnât be committing to it, if it wasnât something we wanted to do, and weâre committed to doing it. And again, I know there are fans that wonât believe it until they see it, but thereâs no value to us saying we want to do it if weâre not really trying to do it.â
This line of rhetoricâthe understanding and relating to the frustrations of the fansâappears to be a company line. In an interview in January with Kyle McCarthy for the New England Soccer Journal, Jonathan Kraft echoed the sentiment. âI totally get the frustration of fans,â he said. âWeâre frustrated, too. But weâre going to solve it.â
Empathy is nice, but itâs 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.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2014/03/25/bob-kraft-worst-owner-new-england-revolution/