New England Revolution’s Long, Slow Fade Continues

Photo by kbrookes

“We feel as passionately about the Revs as we do the Patriots. It bothers us when people presume otherwise.” – New England Revolution Investor/Operator Jonathan Kraft

Robert Kraft is widely considered one of the best owners in American sports. Since Kraft bought NFL’s Patriots in 1994, the team has won three Super Bowls and made the playoffs ten times. In 1996 Kraft bought into MLS for its inaugural year as owner of the New England Revolution. Several difficult seasons and bad Alexi Lalas haircuts later, the Revs established themselves as one of the premier franchises in MLS, making the MLS Cup four times between 2002 and 2007.

Kraft acquired his reputation as a great owner by hiring smart coaches with a keen sense for how to navigate the NFL and MLS salary caps in order to bring in quality players at good value. Both Bill Belicheck and Steve Nicol also have excellent track records for maximizing the talent from the players they have. Kraft also funded Gillette Stadium, which the Revolution share with the Patriots, with $350 million of his own money.

However, while the Patriots keep churning out Super Bowl contenders, the Revolution have skidded off the rails since their last MLS Cup appearance in 2007. And much of that blame should fall on Kraft.

Times have changed in MLS, while the Revolution have not. As the league has expanded from 10 to 18 teams, soccer-specific stadiums have sprung up each year. When Montreal joins MLS in 2013, only two teams will still be playing in NFL stadiums: DC United and New England.

DC, another former MLS giant that has fallen on hard times, at least has been in the headlines as it tries to escape creaky RFK Stadium. Hemorrhaging money from a bad lease deal, the club has to move to remain financially viable. No such pressure exists for the Revs. Since Kraft owns the stadium, the only people suffering under the current arrangement are fans fed up with playing second fiddle to an NFL team.

Count me among them.

The first MLS team I ever saw in person was a Revolution playoff game in 2009. New England had squeaked into the postseason a week earlier on a thunderous free kick from Jeff Larentowicz against the Columbus Crew, earning a first-round matchup with the Chicago Fire and that rascal Cuauhtemoc Blanco. I immediately bought tickets, excited to catch my first live game after years of following on TV. The fact it was a playoff game made it even better; surely, the crowd would be rocking and the intensity level ratcheted up a notch or three from the regular season.

Except when a friend and I arrived to the stadium, all that happy energy dissipated. Gillette Stadium, which routinely sells out its 68,000 seats when the Patriots are in town, was practically empty. Seating for the game had been restricted to one lower-level sideline and a section behind one of the goals, where a Revs fan club was making a brave effort to inject a little life in the atmosphere. A 5,000 person estimate for attendance would have been generous.

The game itself was not bad. The players displayed plenty of conviction, if somewhat less skill. Nuances television does not catch, the overall movement, the way players utilize their first touches to buy space and time, and the actual speed and power of tackles, were readily apparent. Blanco was a world-class heel.

A true showman, he baited the crowd, referee and opposing players alike with clever hesitation moves, feints and flops. Once he drew a free kick after a love-tap from Jeff Larentowicz, going down like he’d been shot. When an annoyed Larentowicz grudgingly offered his hand to the prone Mexican, Blanco stared at it like a toddler in a highchair offered a plate of brussel sprouts, then theatrically waved it away.

As for the home side, there was a lot of muscular running around and overall hustle, but too often Steve Nicol’s guys seemed more like a bunch of undersized linebackers tearing around than soccer players with an idea of how to play the game. Shalrie Joseph, who had dragged the team into the playoffs almost single-handedly after injuries decimated their strike force, was an exception. Television doesn’t adequately capture his contributions. He’s huge — probably 6’4″ — and his deceptively simple touches and sound decision-making kept the ball moving and gave the Revs their only semblance of rhythm.

Somehow the Revs won 2-1, punching in the winning goal off a corner kick after a scramble in the penalty box. Yet, if there were any other first-time fans in attendance, they surely lost. It was impossible to ignore all the empty seats, the way the ball bounced too high and ran away from players on the artificial turf, and the general air of indifference. When the Revs fan club chanted, “I hate Blanco, you hate Blanco, we hate Blanco, Blanco sucks!” the cavernous stadium seemed to yawn.

As my friend and I left, a large group of fans lingered in front of a giant TV screen outside the stadium to watch highlights of the day’s NFL games.

Ownership has made all the right noise about wanting to move to a new stadium where the empty seats don’t outnumber the spectators 10 to one, but so far there has been little tangible evidence. Several proposed sites closer to Boston (Gillette is about an hour away in Foxborough) have fallen through. Revs COO Brian Bilello said in a recent interview, “We’re really being patient with it.”

That’s the problem. MLS is no longer a curiosity, a ragtag bunch of clubs playing out the string in front of paltry crowds. Revolution fans forced to gaze wistfully at the 35,000 person sellouts of Sounders games (for a club that’s been in existence for two and a half years) have to wonder when their time will come.

Jonathan Kraft, who helps run the club with his father, said recently, “We feel as passionately about the Revs as we do the Patriots. It bothers us when people presume otherwise.”

Statements by the senior Kraft undermine that notion. A week before the Revs toiled in that empty stadium in 2009, Robert Kraft admitted to the BBC that he was interested in buying Liverpool FC of the English Premiership. The club was bought last year by another Boston billionaire, John Henry, for over $600 million. Revolution coach Steve Nicol, a former Reds great, could be forgiven for dreaming about what half of that figure could do for his team in a new home.

Certainly, it is easy for fans to clamor for a new stadium when they do not have to foot the bill. If the Krafts shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for a new stadium soon, they should be applauded.

But with every game Revs fans watch their team in the shadow of empty seats, the more Kraft’s sterling reputation as an owner appears to rest on a foundation of sand.

43 thoughts on “New England Revolution’s Long, Slow Fade Continues”

  1. It’s absolutely easy for fans to demand the owners spend money. However, it’s perfectly reasonable to demand that if they’re going to do this soccer thing that they try to actually do it right. The Revs long, slow decline into irrelevance is evidence that, despite Nicol’s and Joseph’s best efforts, the owners aren’t doing it right. Fans are voting with their feet. Even when the Revs were good, they were exciting (which is why attendance starting falling around 2002, when the novelty wore off, even though that’s when the team started being successful in the standings). Now boring AND bad is a deadly combination to fan interest.

    1. the issue is not the size of the stadium, or that they share it with the patriots, or that the field surface isn’t natural grass. The issue is that it’s 45 minutes away from Boston! People are willing to make that journey for pat’s games, but they are the model franchise in american sports right now, there is just no comparison. They desperately need to move to Boston, to a place where people can take the T to games and not have to worry about driving home 45 minutes after drinking all day! If you wanna attract fans, you have to make the game more than just the game, it has to be a fun way to spend a day. Sitting in traffic on route 1 for an hour after seeing a team without a Designated Player play in a stadium with 50,000 empty seats while being stone cold sober isn’t fun! They would be doing well for themselves to move the games to a local college football stadium even- Harvard Coliseum would be pretty cool, but that isnt a long term viable option. The location and lack of financial committment to bringing world class talent to the club (feilhaber not withstanding, and they got lucky there) is killing the franchise.

  2. How about Qwest field thats a football stadium right? nobody says the sounders should get a specific soccer stadium like DC united and the Revs. Its because there are thousands of fans there that show up to the game so watching the game does not look bad. I personally like RFK stadium so what if its old! all other stadiums in the world are old, its about history of what that stadium has, and i think rfk has a lot of american soccer history more than any stadium here in the u.s. I think the issue in new england is they need to attrack more fans, not to get a new stadium, well am just saying

    1. The reason why Qwest, the new Portland stadium, the new Houston stadium are ignored in the discussion of the Football stadiums is tone big reason. The soccer teams are respected tenants, if not the primary tenant. In Qwest you don’t see a single football line. In Gillette, you can still see them even with the league locked out. In RFK, the Nationals destroyed the structure of the stadium and the District’s use leaves the field often damaged. In Houston and Portland, expect the Timbers and Dynamo to dictate the local college’s schedule.

  3. I know how you feel, being a DC United fan. The major difference between DC and NE, is that Bob Kraft actually has money to do something about his situation. I don’t think United have the money to pursue anything that involves money from the owner. I hope I’m wrong, but DC soccer is in the hands of the politicians.

  4. I’m curious as to why New England must be in Boston. I’m from Boston, and went to some games in Foxboro (Foxborough, however it’s spelled) to games. Would Somerville make a better location, undoubtedly. But what about Providence? Or Hartford? I honestly feel that Providence, a city where the Bruins and Red Sox (technicaly Pawtucket, but who care about geography) minor league teams do very well, might be a better location than Boston. If the Krafts can’t get the Somerville location that they have said they were after since ’07, or the South Boston Waterfront location they’ve been after since I left Boston in ’09, they need to look elsewhere.

  5. Jon Kraft may or may not care about the Revolution, I don’t know, but Bob Kraft does not. In any interview about the “business” of sports, he never even mentions the team even in passing. Is he ever in the owners box at the Rev’s games? Does he follow them out of town? I don’t live in the Boston area, so you tell me. Does he do a good job with publicity, perks for the fans, providing free buses from various parts of the metro area to Foxboro?

  6. this is the problem with closed leagues with no relegation or promotion.

    If you had pro/rel you would have 2 or 3 clubs in the new england area, possibly more. You would at least have a club in Boston.

    1. Actually, the way promotion/relegation would help is that you couldn’t have a crappy team for years on end and still remain in the top flight. There would be an incentive to improve things or otherwise lose a significant amount of revenue.

    2. 10 posts, in 6 short of the record.

      Explain, in detail, how these clubs would be financed, where would they play, who would watch them?

      It is the same people every time, complain about the format, but never the brass tax with numbers from team count, to financing, etc. on how to make the theorized format work and would be more financially viable for bother the owners and the league than the current format.

      When one of you pro/rel/open league ‘reformists’ comes up with something that covers all the bases, then get back to me. Until then, quit using MLStalk as your soapbox.

        1. Then remain within the context of the subject presented to talk about and real world, not some fantasy land.

          If you wanted to talk about something that is unrelated to the topic, make your own blog, go to BigSoccer or start writing for MLStalk.

          1. Unless you own or operate this blog, no one’s going to take snippy orders from you. This is soccer we’re discussing here on Major League Soccer TALK, not how to save the world. Take a Xanax.

          2. And incidentally, it IS related. The discussion is how to draw more fans in New England. Having a regular season that mattered would help attendance for ALL clubs.

        2. Dave,

          tell that to every other football league in the world.

          It gets old explaining how the sport works to know-nothings like you.

  7. The Revs are a tax write off to the Krafts and something to occupy the stadium in the NFL offseason. Because of that and because they own Gillette, it’s hard to see them investing money for an SSS for a team they don’t care about anyway. They obviously don’t care what happens to the club. Pressure needs to come from the league for some sort of change. It’s an embarrassment.

  8. Oh so true. I’m a Revs fan. We moved to Connecticut 3 years ago and for the past 2 years we’ve made the 2 hour drive to Foxboro for about 6 home games each year and we try to watch and follow the other matches. This year I don’t think we will be heading up as often. We love being in the supporters section and the energy and crowd. That extends for about 10 feet beyond the Fort(supporters section). Outside of that the stadium is dead space. The supporters experience is what keeps us coming back, but it’s clear Revs are a hobby and are not being taken as a serious team. I’ve watched it take 2 or 3 years for the fans to be heard on some basic requests. Like the article mentioned the fans are now voting with their feet. The club is in need of some new life, whether that’s a change in venue, some new big player or coach, or even something simple as some marketing love.

  9. Why do fans think they can force owners to spend in a closed league system? Revs are still entitled to division I status no matter what happens. Revs can finish in last and still be subsidized by the other teams in the league. I feel sorry for all you Revs fans.

    As for DC they should either buy the piece of land and renovate the hell out of that stadium or move to Baltimore.

    1. Sort of.

      Two things: it’s hard to keep accepting the presence of teams that doesn’t follow the path the league wants to go for long; and it’s hard for owners to keep teams that don’t make money.

      Revs seems, from distance, to give money to the Krafts; could be not much, but some. And someone there must like soccer, so the effort to keep the team within the organization is worth of it.

      So, even if the Revs fans turn heavily their back to the team, the whole point is the first one. And the fact that “the Revs fans turn heavily their back to the team” could make MLS to consider the team to move or to force the Revs to change the way they are run.

      Long shot, but it’s there.

    2. Robert, for the 10,000th time, the land under RFK is owned by the federal government. Doing anything with the stadium or land requires and Act of Congress (and years of legal work to determine which government would even jurisdiction to it, followed by more years of environmental studies because it was built in a time when no one did such things).

      You might think that you’re clever by suggesting that the team “should just renovate the hell out of that stadium” but you’re actually about the 10,000th person to suggest the same idea. I assure that if the facts stated in my previous paragraph weren’t true, I’m sure that someone would have demolished RFK years ago.

      To further point out that your mouth is bigger than your brain on this issue, RFK is an old brutalist stadium. That means it’s constructed primarily out of poured concrete. It would be more expensive to renovate it that to knock it down and build a new building.

      Next time, keep your (not very) genius ideas about DC United’s stadium situation to yourself.

      1. Wow. Cavan. You must be a GIGANTIC DOUCHE BAG in person. The guy was just voicing his frustration. Don’t be such a raging tool.

  10. Two minor pedantic points –
    If someone “punched in” a corner, shouldn’t that be a handball?

    Also, Blanco’s so old and fat that he doesn’t do “hesitation moves” – he’s simply trying to sprint. 😉

  11. I don’t think soccer teams would be able to sustain a soccer only stadium without tenant sharing or non soccer revenue for the stadium. Also I don’t see the big deal, I mean they play rugby in old trafford stadium also, so I hear these excuses from other people as being very silly. Soccer is not a big money sport here in the US. Heck the revs probably need to take notes in marketing from seattle and toronto.

      1. I guess the problem with soccer only people, when it comes to stadia and playing surface they think the world evolves around them. They don’t take time to realize that they are in the US not in europe. Also if the Revs or Even DCU was more in demand they would probably been had a SSS by now. You have to look at it to see if its gonna benefit the city.

        1. The thing is that a good stadium environment creates more demand, not necessarily stadia that are soccer-only (which isn’t really feasible financially), just ones that are friendly to good soccer and soccer fans… or not overtly hostile.

          That means good surface, good in-game atmosphere, good location, good team. It’s no coindence that stadia that are soccer friendly draw a lot of people.

          Some stadia don’t have all of them and draw well, but the good ones have most of them. Seattle has a crappy surface but a great atmosphere and good location. Toronto has a crappy team but a great atmosphere and a good location. LA has a not so great location but a good atmosphere and decent team.

          Your team’s game experience can have a negative and still draw people, if it’s outweighed by a lot of positives. But NE has all negatives and no positives. What’s the attraction of that?

    1. The thought, back in ’07, for the Somerville Stadium, was that it would be the Revs stadium and the Revs would control naming/scheduling/ect. However, they were going to share it with the Boston Cannons (Major League Lacrosse) and the Boston Beacons (WPS).

  12. I’m just finishing up a series of posts examining how the Revolution could “reboot” the franchise, from the name to the logo to the uniforms to the way the team is branded and positioned.
    Intro –
    Part I – Identity –
    Part II – Uniforms –
    Part III – Positioning –

    It’s interesting that a few folks are writing about this at the same time – I think the Rev’s current situation is finally reaching critical mass. Something positive has to happen soon with this organization or I think people really will finally start to abandon ship.

    1. I’m taking a look at your stuff right now, unfortunately my work computer has blocked all of the images on your site…ugh…anyway, I’ll take another look at it tonight at home. Good stuff on the write-up though.

    2. You should send this to New England Sports Ventures (Red Sox et al). They’d give it a shot I’ll bet. Sharing agreement with Liverpool? Now that would be nice.

      1. Thanks, guys. It was fun to do. I have a feeling NESV would run a pretty great soccer club in Boston – especially with the Liverpool experience they’re rapidly acquiring.

  13. Sporting KC is perfect example of how you can turn a franchise around. Apparently Garber did lean on them to shape up. New ownership came in and rebranded. They also have a new SSS coming. In an open system this club would have folded since we can’t support an open system right now. There isn’t a strong D2 or D3 to work with. Maybe in 20 years, but by then, the rest of the world will probably being doing things the way the NFL/MLB owners want if they keep buying EPL teams.

    Garber can lean on the Revs and change them if he wants to. He rightly dumped the Florida teams. He has been active with other clubs to bring them into MLS 2.0. But is he afraid of Kraft since he is a NFL guy?

  14. Quite frankly, it’s an eye-soar to watch the Revs play in front of 4,000 people. Perhaps a soccer specific stadium would help, but I’d be in favor of moving the club to a better market.


    If a soccer specific stadium is in fact built… build it for a 15,000 capacity crowd (be realistic).

    1. Even when they were getting to MLS Cups they stadium seemed empty. A SSS for the Revs needs to be in Procidence, Boston, Hartford, Worcester, or Springfield. Pretty much anywhere but Foxboro.

  15. This thread must have been like some sort of good omen!!!! Since it went up the Revs got Feilhaber, and a jersey sponsor. Can a SSS be far behind? Or do I dream too much?

  16. Would they share it with the Cannons that would be great I love watching Lacrosse it is like watching hockey; hope the cannons win 2011 ;

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