SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
A little over a year ago, things could not have been better for Jonathan Kraft, his father and the rest of the brain trust behind a sports empire that includes the New England Patriots, the Revolution of Major League Soccer and Gillette Stadium, home of both teams.
The previous 12 months had seen the Revolution win the Eastern Conference title, the Patriots win the Super Bowl, the Kraft family open Gillette for the start of the 2002 NFL season, and the defending champs explode to a 3-0 start in their new, privately financed, $325 million stadium.
But success in the NFL, as so many Super Bowl champions over the last decade have discovered, is fleeting, and the Patriots could not fully escape the harsh realities of a league ruled by competitive balance.
The club lost the next four games, and while it finished the season a playoff-worthy 9-7, a lost tiebreaker robbed New England of a playoff berth and the chance to defend its title.
Despite the disappointing finish on the field, the Patriots, who had set an NFL record in 2002 by generating what sources estimated to be nearly $250 million in revenue, managed to increase operating revenue in 2003 while not raising ticket prices, Kraft said. Those two facts, Kraft said, say more about the franchise's and fans' commitment to each other than any number of Super Bowl victories.
"Fans know you can't win a Super Bowl every year," said Kraft, the 39-year-old vice chairman of the Patriots who is in his 10th season with the club. "They want to know there's a commitment to winning. When you have that, you have value to sponsors."
The Patriots' rise from league laughingstock and relocation target to model franchise is well documented, and it's no secret that journey began the day Robert Kraft purchased the franchise in 1994 and began a piece-by-piece restoration of pride in pro football in New England.
Those involved with the day-to-day operations of the club, however, know that Jonathan Kraft from the beginning has been as much a part of the success as anyone.
"From the time we went to purchase the team, he's been more than a trusted aide," said Robert Kraft, who called his son the "main architect" of Gillette Stadium. "He's meant more than anyone else to the acquisition of the franchise and the development of it.
"It's nice that there's a good sense of continuity with him for the franchise," the elder Kraft added of ultimately handing over the reins to his son. "It's a sense of stability for all of the key employees."
While sports make up the high-profile — and fun — aspect of Kraft's responsibilities, oversight of the Patriots and Revolution takes up only about 40 percent of his time. He estimates he spends an equal amount of time working as president and chief operating officer of the Kraft Group, the holding company of Rand-Whitney Containerboard, the Rand-Whitney Group, International Forest Products, the Revolution and a portfolio of more than 30 private-equity investments.
With the remainder of his time, Kraft is heavily involved in charity work.
Kraft's accomplishments over the past decade speak for themselves, but his legacy likely will be determined by how well he maintains the house his father built. It's a fact Kraft seems keenly aware of, and a task he knows cannot be met by riding a wave of past successes.
"We set out to run a first-class business operation and marketing operation, to consistently put a competitive product on the field and win a world championship, and to get a new stadium for the Patriots," Kraft said. "Ten years in, we feel we've achieved a lot of what we set out to do. That's a good feeling, but in this business, you just start setting new goals and work to achieve those.
"So there's not a sense of great satisfaction or a sense of great comfort and ease. It's a sense of wanting to continue to get better and to really evolve the business and to win more championships."