The best owner in professional sports turns 76 today.
Robert Kraft is founder, Chairman and CEO of The Kraft Group. Based in Foxboro, Massachusetts, it is the holding company of the Kraft family’s many businesses, including the New England Patriots, New England Revolution, Gillette Stadium, paper and packaging entities and a portfolio of more than 100 private equity investments.
“Bob” Kraft is a Boston guy. Born and raised in nearby Brookline, Massachusetts, he was educated at Harvard. Kraft grew up following Beantown sports. A long-time fan of the Patriots, Kraft suffered for years over the team’s ineptitude. Kraft has followed the Pats since their inaugural 1960 season, attending games at the club’s various home venues throughout the years, including Boston University, Fenway Park, Boston College, and Harvard Stadium. In 1971, when the team moved to Foxboro — halfway between Boston and Providence — Kraft bought season tickets for his family. Twenty-three years later, he bought the Patriots.
Born in the Boston suburb of Brookline on this date in 1941, Robert Kenneth Kraft is the son of a dressmaker in Boston’s Chinatown. He attended Edward Devotion School, where John F. Kennedy went to kindergarten. Kraft was senior class president at Brookline High School, alma mater of Conan O’Brien and Theo Epstein, graduating in 1959. After serving as class president at Columbia University, he earned an MBA from Harvard. While in college, he met and married Myra Hiatt, whose father ran the Rand-Whitney Group, a Worcester-based packaging company.
In 1968, Kraft gained control of Rand-Whitney through a leveraged buyout. He still serves as chairman. Four years later, he founded International Forest Products, a trader of paper commodities. The two companies make up the largest privately held paper and packing entity in the U.S. After investing in a New England television station in the early 1980s, Kraft was named president of the media corporation that owned it. In 1991, he sold his shares for $ 25 million. Kraft acquired interests in other ventures and formed The Kraft Group as an umbrella for them in 1998.
The Jackson Five kept the Patriots in New England.
Billy Sullivan owned the Boston Patriots franchise from their inception as an American Football League franchise in 1960 until their sale, as the New England Patriots of the NFL, in 1988. His family bankrolled The Jackson Five Victory Tour in 1984 and pledged Sullivan Stadium, the Patriots’ home, as collateral. The tour was a financial disaster that cost the family their entire net worth, forcing the Sullivans to sell the team. Kraft made two unsuccessful bids, and Sullivan sold the Patriots to Victor Kiam in 1988. Kraft bought Sullivan Stadium out of bankruptcy court. Considered outdated and worthless, the venue included the lease to the Patriots. When Kiam tried to move the Pats to Jacksonville, Kraft refused to let them break the lease. In 1992, mounting debt forced Kiam to sell the team to Anhueser-Busch heir James Orthwein, who wanted to move the Patriots to his hometown of St. Louis. Kraft blocked the move. Not interested in remaining in New England, Orthwein sold the team to Kraft for $ 172 million – the most ever for a professional sports franchise. Kraft said his passion for the Patriots led him to “break every one of my financial rules” in pursing the team.
Mr. Kraft has a Victory Tour poster as a memento to the circumstances that allowed him to realize his dream and become owner of the Patriots.
Upon taking ownership of the Patriots in January 1994, Kraft pledged, “My objective in buying the Patriots is to help bring a championship to New England.” The franchise’s worst-to-first ascent since Kraft took control may be the greatest in sports history. Under the Sullivans, the Pats made the playoffs six times in 29 years. New England made the playoffs in Kraft’s first season and four times in the first five years. In 23 seasons under Kraft, New England has qualified for the playoffs 18 times — 16 as division champs – and has won five Super Bowls. In the five years prior to Kraft, the Patriots had won just 19 of 80 games [.238 winning percentage] with no playoff appearances. The team had never won more than 11 games and averaged fewer than seven wins a season in the 34 years before Kraft’s involvement. Since 1994, the Pats have gone 14-2 four times and were a perfect 16-0 during the 2007 regular season. New England has played in nine Super Bowls in their 56-year history. Eight have come on Kraft’s watch. Since Tom Brady’s arrival in 2001, the Pats have played in seven title games and won five. They have hosted 23 playoff games and won all but three – an astounding .869 winning percentage.
Kraft’s interest in owning a sports team began in 1974, when he became an investor in the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis. Featuring Martina Navratilova, the Lobsters became one of the best teams in WTT before folding after four years. Besides the two failed bids to buy the Patriots from Sullivan, Kraft made runs at the Red Sox and Celtics before acquiring the Pats for a record sum of $ 172 million in 1994. His investment paid dividends, as the team is now worth $ 3.4 billion, the second-most valuable franchise in sports [behind the Dallas Cowboys]. In 1996 Kraft founded the New England Revolution, a charter member of the Major Soccer League, of which Mr. Kraft is a principle investor. The “Rev” share Gillette Stadium with the Patriots at Foxboro.
In 1988, Mr. Kraft considered moving the Patriots to Connecticut after the state offered to finance a new stadium in downtown Hartford. He chose instead to honor his charter-AFL-franchise’s roots and build a new stadium in Foxboro. Opened in 2002, Gillette Stadium is a privately-financed $ 325 facility that seats more than 68,000. Gillette is situated in Patriot Place, a “regional lifestyle and entertainment center.” It is the only venue in the NFL funded without gouging season ticket holders with greedy personal seat license [PSL] fees. The Chargers and Raiders – two of the other eight charter members of the AFL – should follow the lead of the most successful franchise in professional sports.
After Kraft purchased the team in 1994, the Patriots sold out their season for the first time in franchise history. Since then, they have sold out every game, including preseason.
Myra Kraft died of ovarian cancer in 2011. She was 68. A lifelong Democrat, Robert Kraft was consoled by Donald Trump, whom he considers a dear friend. “Trump called me once a week for a whole year,” said Kraft, “the most depressing year of my life when I was down and out.” In 2012, Robert Kraft became the first owner in the 44-year history of the George Halas Award to receive the honor, presented annually to the NFL player, coach or staff member who overcomes the most adversity to succeed. Robert and Myra Kraft had four sons. The eldest, Jonathan, is president of The Kraft Group as well as the New England Patriots. The Krafts are one of New England’s most philanthropic families. With a net worth of over $ 5 billion, Robert Kraft has donated hundreds of millions to various area charities.