Anyone who is even remotely familiar with New England Patriots history wouldn't bat an eyelash at the above headline. From their oh-so-humble beginnings, through the brash bumblings and bad decisions of forever-strapped-for-cash founder Billy Sullivan and his sons, the Patriots carved out a unique path in becoming what ESPN has crowned them, the Team of the Decade. The fact that Michael Jackson was involved along the way, only adds to the story.
Forbes Magazine printed a story in September of 2005 on Robert Kraft and his "Unlikely Dynasty." Kraft's plan to fulfill his dream of becoming the owner of the Patriots was a long, methodical process where he learned from his earlier experiences and mistakes, and put himself in a position to buy the team when the opportune moment presented itself.
The Sullivan family, founding owners of the Patriots, owned the team and the stadium but not the surrounding land. In 1985 Kraft bought a ten-year option on the property, paying a group of Boston businessmen $1 million a year for first dibs to buy the land someday for $18 million. It was risky, but "the option gave me ten years to try to figure out how to get the team," he says.
According to Christopher Price in The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower:
[The Sullivans] were getting deeper and deeper over their heads financially. They had lost millions when the players went out on strike in 1982, but they were hit hardest a few years later when they went into business with legendary promoter Don King on the Jacksons' "Victory Tour." On the surface, it seemed like a sound financial decision, one that could make the Sullivan family millions: Fronted by their world-famous brother Michael (who was just coming off the success of the album Thriller), the Jackson Family would tour America together for the first time in over a decade. But the family didn't take into account the cost of fronting such a massive undertaking--the Jacksons were using the largest stage in music history, one so huge that it took reconstruction of many of the concert venues just to get the staging inside the stadiums. And they were clearly out of their league when it came to negotiating with King. Sullivan later estimated in court that the tour ended up costing the Sullivan family between $6 million and $8 million, while King made money on the venture. In addition, court records also indicated that the family lost $14 million on Sullivan's licensing of T-shirts and other memorabilia from the tour, for a total of roughly $20 to $22 million in losses for the family. The collateral for loans for the licensing agreement was Stadium Management Corp. and Sullivan Stadium itself, which Chuck Sullivan owned and managed. It all added to the idea that Chuck and his family were in over their heads financially.
Michael Felger, in Tales From The Patriots Sideline, adds details to the fiasco:
The tour tanked, mostly because the Jacksons wouldn't match Chuck's [$41 million] guarantee on revenue with a guarantee of their own on expenses. And the Jacksons' consumption on that tour became legendary, as every whim of Michael, Tito and Jermaine was catered to. Chuck also miscalculated how many tickets he would be able to sell in many of the stadiums he had booked for the tour. Apparantly, Chuck never realized that the Jacksons' huge stage setup would eliminate thousands of seats on the field. Chuck couldn't even get the Jacksons into his own stadium, as the Foxboro town board denied him a permit for the concerts.
Almost immediately after [the $18 million licensing contract] was signed, Jackson went into seclusion and started generating headlines for some truly bizarre behavior. In no time at all, Michael Jackson souvenirs weren't worth a dime and the the team offices at Sullivan Stadium became home to truckloads of lunch boxes and T-shirts [and to Chuck who apparantly became homeless and was sleeping there.]
When Sullivan Stadium went into bankruptcy court, Robert Kraft bought it, giving him the second crucial element that helped him eventually land the team: The stadium, concessions and parking. The Forbes article points out that "Kraft held the ace: the stadium's operating covenant that required the Patriots to stay put until 2001. Anyone who wanted to buy the team had to negotiate with him first."
In 1988 the team was sold to Victor Kiam for $84 million, and Kiam sold it in 1992 to St. Louis businessman James Orthwein. Orthwein only wanted the Patriots so he could move them to St. Louis, but couldn't do it without Kraft's concent - because of the legal covenant that held the team in Foxboro until 2001. Orthwein eventually sold the team to Kraft for a record-high price of $172 million in 1994.
As Michael Felger relays it, "It was eight long and frustrating years, " said Kraft, referring to time between his purchase of the land and the final sale of the team...But I felt all along that the day would come that I would have my chance."