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ON FOOTBALL

Chance to be a giant among owners

By emulating Mara, Kraft could facilitate deal

Bob Kraft and his colleagues meet today to vote on the collective bargaining agreement.
Bob Kraft and his colleagues meet today to vote on the collective bargaining agreement. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)

DALLAS -- Today is Bob Kraft's moment. What he does with it may well determine both the short-term future of the sport he loves and his own legacy in the National Football League.

When the league's 32 owners meet in the Grand Hyatt at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to vote on what the Players Association says is its final offer to extend the collective bargaining agreement for six more years, they will be a contentious group. The owners are rife with factions. They are split among the rich, the filthy rich, and the obscenely rich. There are low-revenue teams, high-revenue teams, and middle-class teams. There are teams that would favor no salary cap so they could spend recklessly to win. There are teams that would favor no salary cap so they could spend not at all. There are teams that just want all the arguing to stop.

What there is not is any consensus that would attract 24 votes for anything, which is where Kraft comes in.

He has been, according to sources on both sides, a vocal dissenter to the revenue-sharing proposal that would divvy up the growing pot of local revenues among all 32 teams. He also is not a fan of a union proposal to penalize teams that go more than a few percentage points over the cap by deducting the same amount from their cap the following season. He opposes these things for good reason: they're not good for him because he has worked diligently and brilliantly since buying the Patriots in 1994 to change the team's way of doing business both on and off the field.

When Kraft took over, New England was last in the league in revenue and among the worst teams in pro football. It had a history of pratfalls and failures and was barely on the sporting radar screen locally. In 12 years, he has reversed that. On the field, his Patriots have been to four Super Bowls and won three. In the boardroom, he has built an organization that is now near the top of the league in revenue and is housed in a state-of-the-art stadium built without the help of taxpayer funding.

Once Foxboro Stadium had empty luxury boxes. Today Kraft leases suites in his new stadium for $100,000-$300,000 a year and has a paid waiting list of more than 50,000 for season tickets. He is also on the cusp of launching a real estate boom around the stadium that will bring in mall-like stores, a hotel, and who knows what else. Knowing Kraft, everything will be the best money can buy.

Kraft is rightfully proud of all he and his family have accomplished and less than sympathetic toward teams whose local revenues are well below his, because, he argued last week, if he could go from worst to first, why can't they at least try?

No one could blame him for taking the stance, which was in sharp dissent with those who are ready to accept the union's proposal that the cap be based on 59.5 percent of total gross revenues (which includes, for bookkeeping purposes, all local revenues). He also is opposed to the ''cash over cap" penalty in part because he has worked hard to put his team in position to pay cash-over-cap to improve the product. Now someone wants to penalize him for his success. How is that the American way?

He's right about those things from a purely business perspective, but pro football has never been a purely business undertaking, which is why it has blossomed into the most popular team sport in history. Much of the league's early growth -- growth that made it the kind of game Kraft wanted desperately to be part of -- was the result of one owner in a similar position to Kraft's making a hard choice in the early 1960s.

Back in those days, pro football was a little game played between the World Series and spring training. It wasn't quite college football but it would do for amusement. Then commissioner Pete Rozelle came to Wellington Mara, owner of the powerful New York Giants, with a plan. He could get the NFL a national television contract with CBS but Mara had to sacrifice his local TV rights, which were huge by the standards of the day.

Mara was asked to make a personal sacrifice for the good of his league. He did it, and pro football took off. The loss of Mara, who died in October, is a sad reminder that this is a new age in pro football, one in which individual concerns have split the owners along arguments over debt service vs. inheritance (Daniel Snyder vs. Dan Rooney, for example). Today, this group meets in Dallas facing the very real possibility of ending 12 years of labor peace that has made the NFL the biggest money-maker in professional sports.

The union's proposal will not be an easy sell for beleaguered commissioner Paul Tagliabue. There is no Wellington Mara among the high-revenue teams ready to stand up for the continuation of a system that has made the value of all their franchises skyrocket. Bob Kraft could be that man.

Kraft is one of the most influential and respected owners in the league. He also may be the most successful. When he bought the Patriots for $170 million, many people said he was nuts. However, the team recently was valued at $1 billion. He is, without a doubt, a brilliant businessman and someone who loves pro football.

He also may be the only one of the league's nine highest-earning owners with the kind of character to stand up for his sport over his business. Hard-edged businessmen will argue against it. Even his own son, Jonathan, reportedly has been a firebrand during some of the discussions in opposition to moving one step above the 56.2 percent of gross revenue the owners offered the union to establish the salary cap weeks ago.

Kraft understands the business implications better than anyone advising him. But he also rejected their advice when he could have put $74 million in his pocket just by letting the Patriots move to St. Louis.

He turned down a gold mine in Hartford to risk his own money to finance a stadium in Foxborough when his efforts to move the team to Boston met one stone wall and closed door after another.

Today Kraft faces a similar situation: To do what's best for pro football, he must do what isn't best for him. Either way, he will remain a rich man and by all accounts his team will remain competitive under any economic scenario. But will the NFL be the same league he bought into if he doesn't become the Wellington Mara of his time? Will it still be the competitive league it has become by sharing revenue or will it degenerate into a form of Major League Baseball, where the majority of the teams are eliminated from playoff consideration before the first day of spring training?

It will take 24 votes to accept the union's proposal. It will take only nine to reject it. Kraft has 350 million reasons to vote no, because that is how much debt he has taken on to create the crown jewel of the NFL. He has only one reason to urge his fellow owners to vote yes: because it's what's best for the game.

Wellington Mara once faced the same choice. He chose football. If Bob Kraft remembers who Mara was, he'll do the same, and no one will ever forget he did.

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