“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.