When most people think of Robert Kraft, they first think of the four Super Bowl trophies that sit in Gillette Stadium, punctuating an unprecedented 15-year run of success for the New England Patriots in a league rife with parity.
But since purchasing the team in 1994, Kraft has been one of the important figures to the NFL overall, with impact stretching far beyond Foxborough, Mass. As chairman of the NFL’s broadcast committee, Kraft has spearheaded the league’s agreements with its media partners and in the process has helped make the NFL one of the most powerful brands in the world.
Kraft has been on the committee since he purchased the team 22 years ago; at the time he paid the highest price ever for a sports franchise (and 50% more than he had expected to pay). “I knew I had to do whatever I had to, to work hard to justify [the purchase],” he says. “The media was the largest source of revenue.”
It’s not like Kraft was foreign to the TV landscape, having owned WNAC (now WHDH), the CBS affiliate in Boston in the mid-1980s (he was also an investor in New England Television Corp.). “He was passionate about football and understood the network O&O model,” says Jonathan Kraft, Robert’s son, who serves as president of the Patriots and The Kraft Group. “It seemed like the natural place for him to make his mark and bring all of his business acumen to the table.”
Kraft’s ownership of the station helped him understand the value of content. “We were always fighting to get the right lead-ins for our news and I understood what was special about unique content,” he says. “We made our money mainly around the news programming.”
Buying the Patriots was more than just business for Kraft, however. “When we came into the league, football was something that we were passionate about as a family,” says Jonathan, who recalls his first childhood memory at age 7, when his father came home one night in and showed him the Patriots season tickets he just bought.
One of the reasons that makes the NFL so valuable is its scarcity of product. Unlike the NBA or MLB, NFL games have an event-like feel, since teams only play once a week. “We never gave too much so that the market became flooded with it so that they always wanted more,” Robert Kraft says. The past few years, however, have seen the league attempt to expand to Thursday nights. After initially using it to prop up the league’s own network and command higher sub fees, Kraft has helped turn Thursday Night Football into another profit machine.
The latest TNF deal saw it split among CBS, NBC, NFL Network and its first digital-only partner in Twitter. “He’s got a grasp of the current landscape of media and an aptitude for the future landscape that’s allowed the NFL to drive one of the more unique deals in media,” says Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports. “He was an extremely active participant in the room.”
Live sports, particularly the NFL, had for years been immune to the cord-cutting phenomenon, seemingly propping up the TV industry by itself. But the last year or so has seen even sports fall victim to those increasingly eschewing their cable packages. “We’re experimenting and investigating different ways to do that and meet the needs of the marketplace,” he says, noting that when the league has to go back to the negotiating table for its next round of media rights, the TV landscape could be quite different. “When the current broadcast partner deals expire [in 2022], we want to be prepared to serve the marketplace.”
Shortly after Lazarus took over for Dick Ebersol as the head of NBC Sports in 2011—a time when the league was in the middle of negotiating its next deal with its broadcast partners—Kraft was among the first people he spoke with, meeting with him that summer. “I went up more to sort of re-introduce myself, to spend time and seek counsel on how best NBC could work with the NFL,” he says. “He gave me good advice on how he and [commissioner Roger Goodell] approached business, on how he believes media partners are best served.”
Any good chief executive knows that the best thing they can do is hire the right people and get out of their way, especially when it comes to a sports franchise. Kraft nailed that first part when he hired Bill Belichick away from the rival New York Jets, just one day after taking the job, and gave him the keys to the franchise. And one of Belichick’s first moves was to draft an unknown, scrawny quarterback from Michigan in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. The draft pick’s name? Tom Brady.
But it’s also about keeping everyone on the same page, especially in times of turmoil. “When things don’t go well, how do people react? Who do they blame? Very often you have off-the-record comments,” Kraft says.
Beyond football, Kraft is dedicated to an array of causes. The Krafts are one of the leading philanthropic families in the world, donating hundreds of millions in support of local charities and civic affairs. The Patriots were the first team to make public community service appearances a contract requirement. “Some of the agents were tough on that, but it was non-negotiable.”
Kraft’s late wife Myra had dedicated her life to philanthropy, and Kraft remembers a conversation they had back when he first bought the team. Myra was nervous about the purchase, in those days buying a sports franchise wasn’t seen as the soundest investment. “I said to her if we do a good job managing this team, we’ll have a bigger impact in the community than if we gave $100 million a week.”