The Krafts Are the Worst Owners in the League
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?”