Though they're foes on the field, Kraft and Bowlen form a powerful team on NFL Broadcast Committee
FOXBOROUGH -- When the Broncos visit the Patriots tonight in a prime-time, nationally televised matchup, Pat Bowlen and Robert Kraft will watch from separate owner's boxes, divided by loyalties to their teams.
Bowlen is in his 23d year as Broncos owner, while Kraft's ownership tenure with the Patriots is in its 13th year.
Only a game between their teams could put them on opposite sides, as the two are close friends and even closer business partners working on behalf of the NFL. In perhaps no area has their impact been greater than in the NFL's Broadcast Committee, of which Bowlen is chairman and Kraft is a member.
Consider that 12 years ago, the NFL's total television package was worth $1.09 billion per year, according to Kraft. Today, that figure tops $4 billion per year, and is the primary source of income for many teams.
Other significant advancements in the last decade have come in the form of the league starting its own TV network, striking a deal with DirecTV to air all games, partnering with Sirius satellite radio, and having a major television deal that for the first time includes four major networks: NBC, CBS, Fox, and
So when the NBC cameras spot Bowlen and Kraft during tonight's contest, it will only be fitting because both worked hard to bring NBC back after an eight-year hiatus, offering a revamped, premier Sunday night package with flexible scheduling.
The role that Bowlen and Kraft have played in the league's expansion on television and radio is well-known in NFL circles. Meanwhile, their thoughts on the league's next area of growth -- digital media -- are compelling and eye-opening.
``Both of them are incredibly bright and intuitive," said Steve Bornstein, the NFL's executive vice president for media. ``If I had to identify one outstanding quality, it's that both are great strategic thinkers."
He quickly discovered that it wasn't easy to build a large viewing audience.
``I realized that very often we were promoting programming in the areas where we had low ratings, thus we could never get our message out," he said. ``If you had good programming, and you wanted to promote something else you were doing, that was how you build a wider audience. It made me appreciate how special that good content was, and how you can really push the margin and pricing on it, because there is so little of it."
Armed with that knowledge, Kraft began work on the NFL's Broadcast Committee in 1994 feeling the league had a most valuable asset: quality programming.
He also had some hometown motivation, realizing that strong television deals could help offset some of the debt he incurred from buying the Patriots.
``If I could contribute in any way to help to drive revenues of better contracts, that was something that would help to justify the investment we made in the team," said Kraft, noting that his purchase was more of an emotional buy than one based on cash flow. ``I had the monkey on my back to make this investment pay off and the key to it was having good, steady media streams."
At the time, Bowlen was already a member of the Broadcast Committee, first working closely with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, and then his replacement, Paul Tagliabue.
Bowlen and Kraft, now in their 60s, hit it off immediately.
``I could see when he came into the league that he wanted to be competitive and run a successful operation," Bowlen said. ``I had gone though some of the same stuff he did when I came in '84, and when you come into the National Football League from the outside, it's not like you're stepping into something you're used to or familiar with. You seek out people pretty quickly that are on the same page as you are, and we had a fast friendship."
Kraft remembers calling Bowlen on various issues in the 1990s.
``In the early years, when you have some challenging management decisions involving your organization and coaches, and you're a new owner coming in, it's a little bit overwhelming," Kraft said. ``So I talked with him and he gave very good advice. He and I have developed a very trusting friendship."
Bowlen said he and Kraft have similar approaches to running their teams, and that there are ``few things we deal with that we aren't in agreement with." Both of their clubs have been boosted by the building of new stadiums (the Broncos' opened in 2001, the Patriots' in 2002), something each owner targeted as a priority from their early years.
As part of the Broadcast Committee, both pushed hard for the creation of the NFL Network (which launched in 2003) and getting NBC back into the network mix as part of the Sunday night package, with ESPN moving to Monday night. They both agree that forging strong ties with broadcast partners is as crucial as understanding nuances of a rights deal, or rating and share numbers.
``I like the personal relationships that Bob and I, and the rest of the committee, have with those that run the networks, and the companies that run the networks," Bowlen said. ``It's at a very high level, with very intelligent people who run very successful businesses. Look at a guy like [NBC chairman] Dick Ebersol, who I consider a friend of mine. He puts on the Olympics. What else can you say about that? You have great respect for each other."
Kraft said he is proud that this marks the first time four major networks have all been broadcasting NFL games. When Kraft joined the Broadcast Committee, CBS was leaving the NFL and Fox was in. Then, a few years later, CBS came back and NBC was out.
Now they're all part of the equation, which is important to Kraft and Bowlen.
``You will always do better in your ratings with the more partners you have who are promoting your sport so that people understand what's going on," Kraft said.
``We're just scratching the surface there. It's a question I might not be able to answer until we're 18 months, two years out," Bowlen said. ``There is a lot of digital stuff coming at us, and a lot of it is very attractive. We have to embrace it and take advantage of it."
The possibilities are intriguing, and they started to roll off Kraft's tongue on a recent afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
``What happens on the Internet? What happens with video on demand? How are you going to be watching games? Are you going to be watching the game on a mobile device? Are you going to be in Italy or the Middle East and be able to watch streaming video? We have to figure all that out."
That ``new" media has altered the role of the Broadcast Committee from the days when Kraft and Bowlen were first appointed.
``The bulk of the responsibilities used to be in the renegotiation of media contracts, but it's now a much broader picture than it was in the early '90s," Bowlen said. ``There are a lot of different media-related things now, with the Internet, and it's more complicated than it was 10-15 years ago. I don't think anybody could have predicted, or had the foresight back in the early '90s, to see where we'd be at today in the whole broadcast area, with cable television and computers. We're delivering a lot of information, a lot of product."
A quality product, as Kraft likes to say.
``We now, from a media perspective, have a complete [picture]," he said. ``We're the only major sports league -- and this is very important to us -- that has every one of its games on free TV. Every other sports league has moved to cable and pay TV, but even the games that are on cable are broadcast in the local market.
``So that was part of the macro plan, and now we're wrestling with this whole digital media and what we do in that area. That will be a whole new chapter."