What pro tennis taught Robert Kraft about owning the Patriots

The iconic Patriots owner got his sports start in the nascent World Team Tennis league forty years ago.

Robert Kraft Patriots 1994
Robert Kraft speaks in February 1994, less than six weeks after he bought the Patriots from James Orthwein. –1994 FILE/Yunghi Kim/Globe Staff

Friday marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most pivotal days in Patriots history. On Jan. 21, 1994, Robert Kraft formally transitioned from Patriots season-ticket holder to Patriots owner, though he was far from just another yahoo sitting on Foxboro Stadium’s classic metal bleachers by that point. (He’d already purchased the land on which the stadium sat, then the stadium itself, years prior.)

Paying a then-record $172 million for what was arguably the laughingstock of the NFL, Kraft has made anyone who questioned the investment look ridiculous. From their 1960 inception to 1993, the Patriots went 225-276-9, making just six postseason appearances and being “the weak link in the NFL chain of franchises … always problematic in terms of getting things done and smoothing out their operation and becoming financially viable,” in the words of former 49ers CEO Carmen Policy.

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In Kraft’s 25 seasons, the Patriots are 310-135 — more than 40 wins clear of any other franchise. They’ve missed the playoffs only five times, the same number of times they’ve won the Super Bowl. Despite appearing in just one of the first 30 Super Bowls, the Patriots have now appeared in two more of them than any other team and can make it 10 in 23 years with a win on Sunday in Kansas City.

Kraft’s never played a down or written a game plan, but he’s without question one of the most pivotal sports figures in New England’s rich history. To say nothing of the impact he’s had in the NFL becoming the multi-billion behemoth it is today. (One where the Carolina Panthers sold last year for $2.3 billion and Kraft’s Patriots are worth nearly $4B.)

“I think he’s been one of the most positive of a very small handful of owners over my 40 years of involvement in the league,” said former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, in charge when Kraft bought the Patriots from James Orthwein.

The quotes come from Jeff Howe’s marvelous oral history of Kraft’s purchase in The Athletic, which includes chats with everyone down to the Bank of Boston president who helped a far less rich Kraft secure the financing to buy the team. It’s a deep read with all sorts of interesting details, including just how hard Orthwein was driving to move the Patriots to his native St. Louis (and perhaps rename them the Stallions), but prominent among them is that the Patriots weren’t Kraft’s first ownership rodeo.

Robert Kraft, 1973
Robert Kraft, shown in a 1973 issue of the Boston Globe —Boston Globe
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In 1975, Kraft was one of five local businessmen who put up a combined $250,000 to purchase the World Team Tennis franchise in Philadelphia and relocate it to Boston. The creation of superstar Billie Jean King, WTT — a mixed-gender, team-based, boisterous spin on the professional sport — debuted the previous year with much fanfare and 16 teams, including a local entrant. The Boston Lobsters drew a reported 3,500 fans per match to BU’s Walter Brown Arena, but lost a reported $300,000 and were one of seven teams folded after one season.

Enter Kraft and his cohorts. The new Lobsters would run four seasons from 1975-78 until WTT itself took a brief hiatus — it operated with six teams this summer, the league’s 43rd season — with Kraft eventually becoming team president and buying out his partners in 1977.

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“I learned a lot about how to run a sports team doing that,” Kraft told Howe. “We played at Walter Brown Arena, which is part of Boston University. We would advertise in the paper and bring in players. The university would get the parking, the concessions and sponsorship revenue, and all I got was the ticket revenue. I realized if I ever had the privilege of owning a team that I would make sure I controlled the venue and all the different parts of it.”

As Kraft noted later, his rise to purchase the Patriots worked the opposite way, first taking control of the land on which the stadium (and its parking lots) sat, then buying the stadium out of bankruptcy.

The Lobsters played matches in a variety of homes, waffling between the Garden and Walter Brown, and even heading to Hartford, Providence and Springfield for parts of their summertime schedule. Attendance sagged by about half that first season, but rose back to nearly 3,000 in the latter half of 1976 despite the Lobsters finishing last in the Eastern Division.

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“I’d rather finish first with no superstars than finish last [with them],” Kraft told the Globe after the 1976 season. “Big names are necessary to the gate, but a winning team is more important than a superstar. … We have a tremendous product to sell. It’s just a matter of having people taste it.”

And it was likely with that in mind when Kraft made his next big moves. Kraft hired 12-time Grand Slam singles winner Roy Emerson as the Lobsters’ player-coach for 1977, giving the Australian full control to choose his team, then paid $50,000 to acquire the rights to Martina Navratilova, then just 20 but already the No. 2 women’s player in the world.

“She made a big difference. When we switched to Roy Emerson as a coach, he knew how to bring out the best in her. She won a Wimbledon championship while she was part of the Boston Lobsters,” Kraft told Howe. “To enhance our gate in the summertime, we used to play a few matches down in Cape Cod because our family was there. It was pretty cool. I remember her coming from Wimbledon on global TV to the Cape Cod Coliseum. I had a chance to get close to her, and I realized how important it is to have a marquee star. The combination of the business aspect, the coaching and the star, I learned from World Team Tennis.”

Martina Navratilova Boston Lobsters
Boston Lobsters advertisements from the Boston Globe. —Boston Globe

The league, however, couldn’t keep up with him. After the Lobsters lost the championship series to Los Angeles in 1978, drawing more than 4,000 fans to their matches at Walter Brown despite being without an injured Navratilova, Kraft urged his fellow owners to make financial outlays similar to the one he did. The goal was to convince all of the game’s big stars, prominent among them Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors, to play in WTT in addition to their tour schedules.

When Kraft’s peers refused, the Lobsters suspended operations. Five of the league’s seven other franchises, led by New York and Los Angeles, followed suit and WTT didn’t resurface until 1981.

By which point Kraft was dreaming and working toward owning another franchise. Something for which every New England football fan is eternally thankful.