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Kraft investing in the future

‘Look, we’re going to have a labor deal eventually. It’s a question of when.’ ‘Look, we’re going to have a labor deal eventually. It’s a question of when.’ (Bill Brett/For The Globe)
By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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IRVING, Texas — NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said on a live chat on the union’s website yesterday that there remains “a substantial threat of a lockout’’ following the 2010 season.

But in the opulent setting of the Omni Mandalay in suburban Dallas, NFL owners are meeting to build a future beyond the specter of looming union strife.

At the top of the agenda is a vote to select a site for Super Bowl XLVIII, with the new $1.6 billion Meadowlands stadium widely expected to win out and put the big game in an open-air, cold-weather setting for the first time. The new overtime format, already voted in for next year’s playoffs, and the possibility of expanding the regular-season schedule to 18 games are also up for discussion.

Suffice to say, if trouble lurks for the NFL, the owners believe those problems are workable and the game’s future remains bright. Count Patriots owner Robert Kraft among the optimists.

“Look, we’re going to have a labor deal eventually,’’ Kraft said with a measure of certainty. “It’s a question of when. There’ll be a lot of noise. Since the last labor deal, we generated $3.6 billion in new revenue, and $2.6 billion went to the players, plus another $200 million. Ownership collectively had $200 million greater expenses on this last revenue drawn.

“We can’t continue that and continue to invest in the business.’’

But that hasn’t kept Kraft from planning the future for his team and the fan base that supports it.

In an interview with the Globe, Kraft said the team soon will announce improvements to Gillette Stadium featuring the installation of high-definition video boards in each end zone. It’s part of an effort, Kraft said, to keep the Patriots’ nine-year-old, privately-financed facility on the cutting edge of stadium technology.

“I think excluding Dallas, they’ll be the largest,’’ Kraft said of the video boards. “They’ll be HD, they’ll give us the opportunity to show a lot more replays, we’ll be showing the Red Zone Channel in-stadium, with great plays at other stadiums, and it’ll continue to improve the in-game stadium experience.

“Everything where we’re touching our customers, we’re trying to customize it. And everything’s not perfect, but I believe our in-stadium experience is among the best you can have in the country.’’

Kraft said the Patriots are also looking into creating their version of the Kangaroo TV handheld video devices — which allow fans to review highlights, and check their fantasy rosters and out-of-town scores at their seats — that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been marketing to teams as another way of getting fans off the couch and into NFL venues.

This is Kraft’s proof that, even with an uncertain future, the league is moving forward undaunted. And the Patriots owner is backing that up by supporting the league’s initiatives of change.

At the forefront is his support of a New York Super Bowl.

“Ever since 9/11, I’ve hoped that something like this could happen,’’ he said. “I see two major things: Payback to the people of that region in bringing what I think is the greatest sporting event in the world, to host it, and thank them for what’s gone on almost a decade later. And then also a thank you to the [Jets and Giants] owners who stepped up with real financial stakes.’’

Kraft was also clear his support isn’t a veiled attempt to bring the big game to New England. “I would love to reward our fans and do it in our region,’’ he said. “I just think it’s too hard. You need cooperation on a lot of fronts to put an event like this on, and it’s much easier to do in a warm–weather climate. And that is, by and large, what I would prefer.’’

As for the other two major league-wide topics of debate, Kraft is for a uniform overtime system. But he added that “probably we need to do more due diligence with the players and coaches and see how this works’’ before expanding it from a playoff-only system.

And the idea of the 18-game schedule, something he said probably can’t happen until 2012, brings him back to the labor topic. Kraft believes adding two games will make the CBA problems more workable, and won’t add significant injury risk for players.

“We actually have statistics to show that at the end of the year — second half of the season and in the playoffs — there are actually less injuries than there are in the beginning of the year,’’ he said. “I can understand the concern, and if any of them would like to take a reduction in pay . . . It’s just a matter of you can’t have it all ways. If you want to see your salaries grow then you have to do things that allow the revenues to grow.’’

For these two days, league issues are on the front burner for the Patriots owner.

But he’s also aware there’s a fairly significant team-specific issue on his fans’ minds. That would be Tom Brady’s contract situation, as the franchise quarterback approaches the final season of a six-year deal.

And while he maintains there’s no timetable for getting Brady locked up, Kraft emphasized that since both sides have an interest in a deal, there isn’t a whole lot to be worked up about.

“We’re very lucky to have him as our quarterback and we want him to be our quarterback for a long time into the future,’’ Kraft said. “Everything he represents is pretty special. He’s a winner. We’re privileged to have him a part of the New England Patriots organization.’’

For that organization, and the league it plays in, uncertain days may be ahead. But today, they all keep moving forward.

“For us, it’s been business as usual,’’ Kraft said. “I can’t speak for other people. For us, it’s business as usual. You just have to be more flexible in your plan because you don’t know what the rules are going to be. That’s the only thing that tempers what we’re doing.’’

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer.

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