New England chief is thrilled to be back in London this week for an NFL game but reveals why owning a football club here is a non-starter for now

Evening Standard

Robert Kraft, a fan of the New England Patriots long before he bought the club, has always been proud that, in sport, his heart has ruled his head.

So, when he takes his seat on Sunday at Wembley for the match against Stan Kroenke’s St Louis Rams, his feelings will be those of a fan rather than an owner. “Unfortunately the low of losing is lower than the high of winning. You want to prevent losing as much as you can.”

But, six years ago, when he considered buying Liverpool, it was Kraft’s head which overruled his heart.

Speaking as he prepared to fly to London for the one regular season match the NFL holds outside the United States, Kraft revealed: “Do you know I came close to buying Liverpool, right before George Gillett and Tom Hicks bought it? I met David Moores, a wonderful man, and it was quite an interesting episode because I love the game of soccer, too.”

The 71-year-old, who also owns the MSL franchise New England Revolution, then confesses: “My heart wanted to do it but my head told me, no.”

One reason his head warned him off was that Kraft knew he would have to solve Liverpool’s stadium problem, which he feared would be a repeat of his Patriot experience. “The situation at Anfield reminded me a little bit of our situation,” he says.

It took Kraft eight years after he bought the Patriots in 1994 to get a new stadium. Liverpool have taken almost as long with John Henry, Kraft’s New England neighbour who took over from the disastrous Gillett-Hicks regime, only now deciding to abandon plans for a new home and renovate Anfield.

And, while Kraft praises Liverpool’s owners as “smart people, they will be all right”, he admits: “I am relieved I didn’t buy Liverpool. Sometimes the best deals you do are the ones you don’t do.”

That is hardly surprising given all that has happened at the club but the fundamental issue, says Kraft, was a more general one. “I didn’t like the fact there was no salary cap. If English clubs ever had a salary cap then I would look at buying a Premier League club.”

And, should a salary cap come, then Kraft might even be prepared to lock horns with Kroenke’s Arsenal and look at buying Tottenham. “With a salary cap, we would look at whatever was for sale because we feel we can bring a competitive advantage. We know how to manage a sports franchise. It’s very complicated. It’s different from other businesses. You are dealing with the public and the media. You bond emotionally with your product.”

Without a salary cap, Kraft feels a new owner is hamstrung and fans are cheated.

“We as owners are going to compete against people who could spend hundreds of millions of pounds more and we’ll let our fans down. One thing I know about the NFL and the EPL is that the teams are really owned by the fans. They feel the ownership, they feel a connection. These two sports are the only ones which bring a whole community together. People from different social and economic backgrounds and ways of living can all root for a team on a common basis. So you have to be very mindful that the owner is really a custodian of an asset. You have to put the interest of the fans first or people will be very upset with you.”

These are just the sort of words football fans love to hear but owners seldom oblige. Kraft can point to his record at the Patriots to prove this is not mere PR spin. “I was a fan of the Patriots sitting in the stands in that old stadium [since 1971]. The fans know I put their interests first. I’m very proud of our record since we bought our team.”

With that he trots off the figures: “In the five years before we bought, our record was 19 wins and 61 losses. The stadium never sold out so the TV games were blacked out at home. I’m proud to say that, in the 18 years since we owned the team, we have the best win/loss record. We have a sold-out stadium and every game has been televised. We went to the Super Bowl six times in 18 years, won it three times and, each time we lost, we lost by just three points. We also have more than 60,000 people on a paid waiting list.”

It is a performance emphasised this season. The Patriots 4-3 win/loss record — their fourth win coming on Sunday against the New York Jets — is not remarkable but the three losses involved just four points: two games were decided by a point and one by two points. “That,” says Kraft, “has never happened in the NFL.”

The key to such success is stability, says Kraft, and he has been rewarded for that belief. Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have shared in all three of the Patriots Super Bowl triumphs, the first of which was in 2002.

Kraft says: “One of my things is continuity and stability always gives you a better chance for success. The coach and the quarterbacks are probably the most important people in our system.

“This is my 19th season as an owner and I’ve only hired two coaches and I’ve had two quarterbacks. I believe it’s either the oldest or the next to longest relationship going in the NFL. You’ve got to pick good people. Everyone goes through hard times whether it’s a marriage, a relationship, a business relationship. If you have people with solid core values in the first place usually you go through some tough times before you have the good times.

“We live in a world with texting, tweeting and emailing. People want instant success and gratification and they lose the ability to build a relationship that really can make that happen. I have to be disciplined and I try to resist fan pressure. It’s worked for me so I will continue to do it.”

But surely his fans cannot be happy that for the second time in three years a Patriots match is in London?

Kraft brushes this aside saying: “This for us is an away game because this is a home game for St Louis. Between going to St Louis and London, there is no choice. It does not even come close, we love to come to London.”

The first Patriots visit to Wembley was also an away game but Kraft feels the Patriots are so well supported in the capital that the team do not miss America.

“We’re the No1 NFL team in the UK with the largest following [some 40,000 fans]. With such a wonderful UK fan base, it feels like a home game.”

Kraft has been coming here since 1972 when his company International Forest Products set up operations in this country and is a confirmed Anglophile.

“There’s something about England. When I come to London, it’s like coming to my grandparents. I’ve gone to Wimbledon for 34 straight years.”

The NFL regular season matches have been going only for six years and next year will see two of them. For Kraft, this is a sign that the NFL want to use London to help spread the game globally. “Football is really America’s popular sport and the Super Bowls are the most watched programme of any kind. I believe in America 300 million people watched the Super Bowl we played against the Giants last year and more than a billion people worldwide [4.3m of them were in the UK].”

However, Kraft admits America has not managed to sell its game to the world. “We haven’t done a good job in this respect. We’ve decided now that we want to try and globalise the game more and explain it and we see the UK as the hub of starting to do that. In the past we had B level exhibition games in the UK but the fans wanted real games. By playing real games we have, I believe, some 15 or 20 million fans in the UK.”

They might not all be full-on fans. The NFL estimates that, of the 11m in the UK who show an interest, 2m are avid followers. However, since 2007, an average of 82,000 has attended the regular season Wembley matches and, says Kraft: “The game this year sold out quickly. It’s a great experience.”

Part of that experience is that, after the match, the media, including female reporters, will be allowed into the Wembley changing rooms to interview the players and the coaches. “That’s part of how the fans relate to the product and what’s happening,” he says.

But, when I ask whether he would recommend that such openness in the Premier League, the American suddenly going coy and says: “Well I’m going to keep my nose out of that, that’s the media’s job to work that out with them.”

A job the British media may not find easy even if Kraft does one day buy a Premier League club.

NFL International Series 2012

St Louis Rams v New England Patriots, Sunday, Wembley, 5pm, live on Sports 2


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