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On This Date in Sports January 20, 1994: Robert Kraft to the Rescue

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Robert Kraft buys the New England Patriots, saving them from a potential move to St. Louis. The Patriots had long been struggling in a dilapidated stadium and had been through three owners in five years as one of the worst teams in the NFL. James Orthwein had wanted to move the team but was blocked by Kraft who held Foxboro Stadium’s lease ever since a bankruptcy auction in 1988.

Robert Kraft was the first aboard the Patriots bandwagon, becoming a season holder when they finally got a permanent home field in Foxboro in 1971. Though the stadium had no frills it was an upgrade of their situation in Boston, where they played in four different stadiums Nickerson Field, Fenway Park, Alumni Field at Boston College and Harvard Stadium.  The Patriots owned from the early days of the NFL by Billy Sullivan had modest success over the next 15 years even making a surprise run to Super Bowl XX.

While the Sullivan family owned and operate the stadium, they did not own the land around the stadium and were prevented from holding non-Patriot events in Foxboro. Nearby the stadium was a horse track, that was purchased by Robert Kraft in 1985. Kraft was born June 5, 1941, in Brookline, Massachusetts. A shrewd businessman, he owned several companies in the New England area and had once owned the Boston Lobsters of World Team Tennis.

The Sullivan family meanwhile was making poor investments in 1984 they had backed the Jackson’s victory tour, promoted by Don King. The tour turned into a financial disaster for the Patriots owners who were forced to declare bankruptcy. When Billy Sullivan first announced the tour, he put Foxboro Stadium up as collateral. As the Sullivan family finances were crashing, the Patriots were becoming the NFL’s laughing stock. In 1988 Billy Sullivan lost the stadium in an auction, the winning bid was made by Robert Kraft for $22 million.

Losing Foxboro Stadium, put the Sullivan family in a situation where they could no longer make money off the Patriots forcing them to sell. Robert Kraft had hoped to buy the team since he held the team’s lease with the purchase of the stadium, but he was outbid by Victor Kiam. Kiam had wanted out of the lease, and possibly move the team to Jacksonville, but the terms were so that they were trapped in New England. The Patriots meanwhile hit rock bottom in 1990, finishing 1-15 under coach Rod Rust. With fans giving them the mocking nickname “The Patsies” Making matters worse, they had an ugly locker room incident where several players led by Zeke Mowat sexually harassed a female sportswriter named Lisa Olson, exposing themselves while she was working in the locker after a game on September 17, 1990. Victor Kiam later commented flippantly that they just wanted to show off their “Patriot Missiles”.

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The embarrassment led the NFL to pressure Victor Kiam to sell the team in 1992, once again Robert Kraft was unable to get a hold of the team as he was outbid by James Orthwein, a businessman whose objective was to bring the NFL back to St. Louis. Orthwein had looked into heading an expansion team proposal but after the bidding process did not go in his favor looked at other options. Under Orthwein, the Patriots began laying the groundwork for a turnaround with the hiring of Bill Parcells as head coach in 1993.

While the Patriots were beginning to rebuild with the drafting of Drew Bledsoe, James Orthewein was looking for every way to get out of the team’s ironclad lease in Foxboro. By 1993, the Patriots were the NFL’s least valuable franchise, with the smallest fan base as some questioned if professional football could ever work in the greater Boston area. Not even a new logo helped, as the Patriots were often an afterthought when it came to the NFL. With the team unable to make money, Orthwein stepped up his efforts, offering Robert Kraft $75 million to break the lease to allow him to move the Patriots to St. Louis. The negotiations broke down and left Kraft to offer $172 million to buy the team. Not wanting to stay in Foxboro, James Orthwein agreed to sell the team to Kraft.

Shortly after buying the Patriots, Robert Kraft thought about moving the team to Hartford. While they would still be New England Patriots they would lose much of their connection to Boston. This led Kraft to reconsider and instead make plans to build a new stadium in Foxboro, at the location of the former racetrack that closed in 1997. The new stadium would open in 2002 right as the Patriots were celebrating their first championship beginning a dynasty.  The team that was once a laughing stock is now viewed as one of the premier teams in sports. Once worth just $172 million the Patriots are estimated to be worth $3.8 Billon.