The New England Patriots are one of the NFL’s most storied and successful franchises. Their more than six-decade history, however, is one of many ups and downs and stories worth taking a closer look at.
So, to get a better idea of this franchise’s identity our new offseason series explores the very foundation of this team. The idea is to explain how the Patriots became who they are today — one of the NFL’s model franchises.
Today, the series kicks continues with one of the most unique stories in team history:
How the Jackson 5 saved the Patriots
The Patriots have been one of the most successful and stable franchises in the NFL the last 25-plus years, but that wasn’t always the case. They were sold by the original owners, the Sullivans, and the plan was to move them to St. Louis. This is the story of why that move didn’t happen.
It is a story that could happen only in America: there’s an overzealous NFL owner, some questionable decisions by a town board, a comeback world tour featuring Michael Jackson, and even Don King.
Our story starts in 1984, when the Jackson 5 were planning a reunion tour, mainly focused around Michael, and named after his latest album Victory. Chuck Sullivan, the son of Patriots owner Billy, was one of the people in charge of Stadium Management Corp, the subsidiary that ran the team’s Sullivan Stadium.
The younger Sullivan went to meet with the Jacksons to see if they would bring their concert to Foxboro. During said meeting, he found out that there was an opportunity to be a promoter for the tour. Having some experience with this in college, and while working with the Patriots, he decided to make a pitch to take on the job and promote the Victory Tour. He grabbed San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to be his partner, and they went to Los Angeles to make their pitch to the family.
The deal they would end up making would be a risky one — one that so heavily favored the Jacksons that DeBartolo would end up backing out of it. Sullivan, however, pushed on and even put the stadium up as collateral to help get the necessary funds for the deal. Sullivan figured that, regardless of how good of a deal it was for the Jacksons, three nights in Foxboro would be huge, since his family leased the parking lots, and owned the stadium.
They would make a killing on the tour. What happened next could never have been predicted by Chuck, however, and would eventually end up dooming his deal — and saving the franchise.
The Foxboro Board of Selectmen met to review the permit for the Victory concert, and denied it. Their explanation? They didn’t want to invite “the unknown element” into the town, and were concerned about safety. What they meant by that is unclear, and I won’t speculate, but I can tell you that it doesn’t sound great, especially since denying stadium permits was not a frequent practice even though the stadium could get awfully rowdy.
That was the first domino to fall for the Sullivans, but it would not be the last. The tour itself also didn’t do nearly as well as expected, for a multitude of reasons.
There was infighting between the family members, a ticket selling “lottery” scandal, and a bunch of injuries or sicknesses throughout the tour. Michael was put on emergency care at one point, the date in Tempe was cancelled because Jermaine was sick, and Sullivan himself even suffered a heart attack while the tour was ongoing.
When all was said and done, the Sullivans would lose anywhere from $13 to $22 million from the tour. Already one of the least wealthy ownerships in the NFL, they found themselves in financial trouble after losing so much money on the tour.
While this was happening, there was a lifelong Patriots fan who was becoming very wealthy in the paper business. Robert Kraft was a season ticket holder, and dreamed of one day owning the team. He just needed his chance and the Victory Tour created that opportunity for him. Kraft was not going to let it slip by.
The Patriots franchise at the time consisted of three separate entities: the parking lots around Sullivan Stadium, the stadium itself and the actual team. Kraft knew that his path to owning the team could lead through the parking lots and into stadium. So, when the Sullivans defaulted on the lease for the parking lots and Foxboro Raceway — a horse-trotting track — in 1985, Kraft swooped in and made sure to get them.
He paid what most would consider a ridiculous amount to lease the lots, but he leased with an option to buy for 10 years, at a total of $27 million. For comparison, the expected revenue was around $7 million total for the 10 years. It seemed to be a foolish move, but Kraft now had one of the three pieces of the puzzle he needed to ultimately own the club.
The financial hardships for the Sullivans continued, until they were finally forced to sell the team to Victor Kiam in 1988. Kiam had become rich and famous as president of Remington Products, appearing in their ads with the catchphrase, “I liked it so much, I bought the company.”
He also ended up buying the Patriots for $84 million. Crucially, however, the deal did not include Sullivan Stadium, which was tied to too many debts to be sold, and went to bankruptcy court instead. This, perhaps, is the most important part of our story.
Remember the up-and-coming businessman? Well, he had partnered with Steve Karp to form K-Corp and purchase the lots a few years back, and, although he still wanted to buy the team, he simply didn’t have the money yet.
He did have the money for the stadium, though. So, when Victor Kiam bid $17.5 million on the arena, assuming that no one would outbid him, Kraft and K-Corp jumped in and bought it for $25 million.
Kraft now owned two of the three pieces he needed to take full control of his beloved Patriots, and he held an extremely important card as well. The stadium came with a covenant that the Patriots would play every home game until 2001 in Foxboro Stadium. This would turn out to be the key to saving football in New England.
A few years later, after all, it became clear to Kiam that he could not afford to keep the Patriots. Remington wasn’t doing great, and, partly because he only owned the team and not the stadium or parking lots, he wasn’t making as much money as he expected to owning the franchise either. Once again, Kraft couldn’t get an offer quite good enough to buy the team, and Kiam would sell to James Busch Orthwein.
Orthwein had his sights set on moving the team to St. Louis, but to do that, he would have to buy Kraft out of his stadium contract, and with it, the covenant keeping the team in New England. In 1994, Orthwein offered Kraft $75 million to buy him out of the stadium lease, and allow him to move to St. Louis, but Kraft wouldn’t budge.
Realizing that he was going to be stuck in New England, Orthwein decided to sell the team later that same year. The obvious buyer was Kraft, but, again, he wasn’t the highest bidder.
Eventual Rams owner Stan Kroenke outbid Kraft, but requested Orthwein pay the moving costs and legal fees of moving the team to St. Louis. Knowing it would cost a lot to move the club, and also knowing that Kraft would take them to court for breaking the covenant with his stadium, he settled on his $174 million offer, instead of Kroenke’s $200 million.
It was the most an NFL team had ever been sold for, and many people (including Kraft) believed that it was an overpay for a team that had not made the playoffs in seven straight years. All of that did not matter to Kraft, though; he finally owned the team that he grew up with, and he became the hero who stopped the Patriots from leaving town in the process.
Kraft, of course, would go on to build a new stadium, but he too didn’t break the covenant, building it during the 2001 season to be opened the following year. I find some poetry in the thing that saved the Patriots being honored, even when the team and stadium were finally owned by the same person again.
So, that’s the long and winding road that the franchise traveled to get where it is today. Starting with one New England family who dreamed of bringing football to the area, and finishing with another who dreamed of keeping it here.
Under Kraft’s leadership, the team has flourished more than any other franchise in the last 28 years, and maybe more than any has for a 30-year stretch in NFL history. And none of it would have been possible without the help of Michael Jackson, Don King, and the Jackson 5.
Only in America.
Pat is a host of The Patriots Nation Podcast. Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats.