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Patriots' Kraft has led winning drive

FOXBOROUGH -- Everyone told him he was nuts: his banker, his wife, his friends, even his children.

Take the money, they urged Robert K. Kraft, when St. Louis beer magnate James Busch Orthwein offered him $75 million in 1994 to abandon his bid to buy Orthwein's New England Patriots. They said Kraft was crazy when he turned his back on easy money and scraped together $172 million to buy the Patriots and their legacy as football's biggest laughingstock. No one had ever risked so much on a professional sports team.

Even after Kraft suffered a bruising political defeat trying to build a stadium on Boston's waterfront -- and lost a similar gambit in Providence -- he confounded his confidants in 1999 when he wavered after Connecticut all but guaranteed him a $1 billion windfall to move the Patriots to Hartford.

''You're breaking every rule of finance," Josh Kraft told his father.

But Kraft, 63, who has emerged as one of the most influential owners in the National Football League while transforming the Patriots from a national joke into a model franchise, had a plan. He also had the ear of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the chairmanship of the league's powerful finance committee, neither of which hurt his furtive effort to privately fund a new stadium in Foxborough after he already had agreed in principle to accept Connecticut's largess.

As the final deadline approached in Hartford, Kraft's finance committee endorsed a lucrative program whose immediate beneficiary was Kraft himself. Teams in the NFL's six largest media markets, including New England, could borrow up to $150 million in low-interest loans from the league to finance new stadiums (other teams could borrow as much as $100 million). NFL owners overwhelmingly approved the aid package, clearing the way for Kraft to kill the Hartford deal and leverage Massachusetts for $70 million in infrastructure.

So was born a $325 million, state-of-the-art stadium that kept the Patriots close to Boston. The foundation for a budding dynasty was laid. And the value of Kraft's once-faltering franchise, which Forbes magazine estimated in 1998 at $252 million, last year reached $861 million (fourth-highest in the NFL) as the Patriots stalked their third Super Bowl victory in four years.

``What Bob has done with his team is remarkable," said Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. ``But I'm not surprised at all by how influential he has become in the league because he finds the business both very interesting and very important to him."

Kraft has immersed himself in the inner workings of the league with all the gusto of his previous challenges, from collecting money for the Jimmy Fund as a child at Braves Field near his boyhood home in Brookline to turning his late father-in-law's paper and packaging business into a global giant. He has left his fingerprints on nearly every major NFL deal in recent years as a member of the league's finance, audit, investment, broadcasting, business ventures, and expansion committees, as well as the special committee on league economics and the Los Angeles stadium working group.

``His influence shows in the way he is perceived by Tagliabue and league officials and his fellow owners," said former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. ``He's in the [esteemed Pittsburgh owner] Dan Rooney category of respect."

Influential voice

Kraft's fellow owners said he played a major role in 1998 negotiating the NFL's eight-year, $17.6 billion television deal, the richest broadcast contract in sports history. Bowlen, who chairs the broadcasting committee, said Kraft recently helped renew deals with CBS and Fox worth $8 billion through 2011 and is working on similar renewals of the Monday night and Sunday night television contracts with Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN.

Kraft also helped close a five-year, $3.5 billion deal for DirecTV's ``Sunday Ticket" package and a seven-year, $220 million pacts with Sirius Satellite Radio, which is run by Kraft's friend, Mel Karmazin, who was president of CBS during the 1998 contract talks.

With the NFL eager to complete negotations in 1999 to place an expansion team in Houston, it was Kraft who stepped in with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. The pair approached Houston businessman Bob McNair, who had expressed little interest in paying more than $650 million for the new franchise. Write a check for $700 million, Kraft and Richardson told McNair, and you can own both the franchise and the rights to the 2004 Super Bowl.

``Bob helped to get it done because hosting the Super Bowl was very important to me," McNair said. ``It allowed me to rationalize the price I was paying."

Kraft was described as a key backer in 2001 of a 10-year, $250 million deal for Canton-based Reebok, which is owned by his longtime friend Paul Fireman, to serve as the exclusive supplier of NFL uniforms. He also is in the forefront of efforts to build a new stadium in Los Angeles and return football to the nation's second-largest city. And he is engaged in so many other aspects of NFL business while his Patriots try to repeat last year's championship that The Sporting News recently ranked him the most powerful owner in football.

``The thing about Bob's success is, he's a long-term thinker who is able to maintain an objective viewpoint in a very emotional business," McNair said. ``He has the discipline to not get carried away by the emotion of chasing a short-term fix and hurting the long-term position of his team or the league. A lot of people don't have that discipline."

Less impressed by Kraft, Connecticut officials considered suing him and the NFL after he reneged on his agreement to relocate the Patriots to Hartford. The state's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, reportedly said at the time he was exploring whether Kraft acted in bad faith by separately pursuing financing to build in Foxborough. In 2000, the NFL settled the matter by paying Connecticut $2.4 million.

Kraft has denied acting deceptively in the Hartford saga. During an interview last week in his office at Gillette Stadium, while a driving snow pelted his 400-acre property, he said the stadium loan initiative was Tagliabue's idea. He asserted that the plan was aimed at discouraging the Patriots and other large-market teams from moving to smaller markets, as the Los Angeles and Houston franchises had done. And he insisted that he ultimately cared less about cashing in on Connecticut's offer than keeping the Patriots closer to Boston.

``The Hartford deal was definitely the best financial deal," Kraft said. ``But it goes back to my youth, to what matters. It's not about the money because there are easier ways to make money and better ways to make money."

Community investment

It went back, he Kraft said, to him weeping at age 11 when his beloved Braves bolted town for Milwaukee. All he had left were the memories, the Warren Spahn Diner, and a motive in his later years to spare another generation from similar heartache.

Kraft said it also went back to his late father, Harry, who struggled to make ends meet with a small dressmaking business yet each year managed to donate 10 percent of his income to his synagogue, Kehillath Israel in Brookline, and other charitable interests. Unlike Kraft's late father-in-law, Worcester benefactor Jacob (Jack) Hiatt, Harry Kraft never donated enough to be hailed as a philanthropist. But he instilled the charitable spirit in his son, even if Kraft disappointed his father by spurning his desire for him to become a rabbi.

``If he's looking down now, he would think winning Super Bowls is important," Kraft said. ``But he left me a dictum. He said, `Make sure when you go to bed at night that the people you touched that day are richer for having known you.' "

Kraft's wife, Myra, reminded him of his father's edict when Orthwein offered him the $75 million buyout the night before he was scheduled to announce his purchase of the Patriots. Kraft already owned the stadium and its vast parking lot.

``Take it," Myra said of the buyout. ``We'll still have the stadium, and we can give more money to charity."

But Kraft had a plan. Like countless other diehards, he had endured the follies of Boston's professional football franchise since its inception in 1960. He had followed the Patriots in their nomad years, walking or riding the trolley (his family had no car) to Fenway Park, Harvard Stadium, Boston College, Boston University, wherever the team found a place to play before it moved to Foxborough in 1971. After he graduated from the Brookline public schools, Columbia University, and Harvard Business School, Kraft bought season tickets in Foxborough for his family. And as he made his fortune expanding the paper and packaging business to 80 countries, he methodically put the pieces in place to gain control of the franchise.

Forget about the $75 million, he told Myra.

``I thought about the Braves that night," Kraft said, gazing out over his property. ``This was my dream, my roots. If your family is important to you, then community assets are important to you, and I've always believed that sports teams bind a community together like nothing else. When I turned down the money, I said to my wife, `If we do a good job running this franchise, we will have a bigger impact on the community than if we gave $1 million a week to charity.' "

With their vast wealth, the Krafts have far exceeded his father's 10 percent annual commitment to charity. But their good works came at a cost, none higher than Kraft's original dream of returning the Patriots to Boston in a gleaming new home near the harbor dying in 1997 in a bonfire of ill will. The experience taught Kraft a memorable lesson about bare-knuckle, back-room politics and his own naivete about public relations and coalition-building. Before he abandoned the effort, his foes cast him as ``a whining multimillionaire," an image he reinforced by complaining that doing business in ``this town this town ``can make the Middle East look easy."

Political lesson

Eight years later, one of Kraft's chief rivals in the Boston development plan, House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, has left office amid a federal investigation of his role in a redistricting plan. And two leading figures in Kraft's attempts to relocate to Rhode Island and Hartford - Providence Mayor Vincent (Buddy) Cianci and Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland -have been convicted in unrelated cases of public corruption. But Kraft said he has drawn no satisfaction from their tribulations.

Instead, he suggested he has gained from his political struggles.

``I learned that every crisis is an opportunity if it's managed properly," he said. ``When you go through complicated, difficult times like we did in a lot of political areas, you learn what you don't like and what you don't want to do. Maybe we didn't handle things properly all the time, but I know our intent was good. Those experiences made clear to me that it's better to do it our own way and not have outsiders interfering. We can do OK that way."

By almost any measure, Kraft has done better than OK, thanks in part to his prominence in the NFL's hierarchy. His fellow owners said he has thrived in the thorny challenge of trying to unite key factions of longtime owners and newer owners in an exclusive group that is thick with dynamic personalities, outsized egos, and competing agendas.

``A number of teams have won Super Bowls and then had their organizations cave in," McNair said. ``But Bob has done the work to keep himself in position to remain successful. It's a great model for all of us."

Kraft attributed his involvement in league affairs to a fundamental business philosophy.

``When we spend so much money, it's important to me that our partnership works well together," he said. ``It can only succeed if there's a sense of team on the league level. When people go their own way to satisfy their selfish motivations, it hurts the league and it hurts the New England Patriots."

Nothing much has hurt the Patriots lately. No NFL team has won more games than the Patriots since 2001, a span in which they won the franchise's first Super Bowl in 2002, prevailed again last year, and earned another shot at glory when they face the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday in Jacksonville.

Kraft knows as well as anyone that previous generations of Patriots fans never had it so good. He was 19 when the Patriots played their first game and 60 when they won their first Super Bowl. So, after the Patriots defeated the Steelers last Sunday to advance again to the Super Bowl, championship game, he was riding through the streets of Pittsburgh when he turned to his eight-8-year-old grandson, Harry, who is named for Kraft's father.

``Make sure you enjoy this," Kraft told the boy. ``Things may never be like this again."

His fellow owners suspect otherwise.

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