Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who's the best owner in sports? A friend's argument for Bob Kraft

A friend of mine (he wishes to remain anonymous) wrote this in response to Bill Plaschke's recent column in the New York Times. I thought it was a compelling argument supporting Bob Kraft. Maybe at some point, I'll write mine arguing why I think the Rooneys are the best for what they have done for the NFL as a whole, the sustained success of the Steelers and hiring diversity.

It's an interesting debate. As we've gotten more insight into how these organizations are run the past ten years, we really see how important culture, leadership and decision-making are.

Here's my friends argument for Bob Kraft as the best owner in sports:

Dear Bill-

I read your article in Monday's LA Times where you described Jerry Buss as the "best sports owner of the 21st century" on the heels of the Lakers' fourth championship this decade. I was wondering whether you would at least acknowledge offline, with no risk of offending your LA-based readership, that Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots is roughly on par with Buss for his contributions to the Patriots, the fans of New England, the NFL, and the community.

The bold manner in which Kraft purchased the Patriots from James Orthwein is somewhat comparable to Buss's acquisition of the Lakers and other assets from Jack Kent Cooke. The difference is that the Patriots were a laughingstock franchise with meager economic resources. They had made the playoffs six times in 33 seasons and played in a decrepit stadium 35 miles from Boston that could easily have been confused for a Division II college venue. Kraft initially bought the stadium out of bankruptcy and then leveraged the operating lease to keep Orthwein from moving the team to St. Louis, thereby saving professional football in New England. In the 15 years since he bought the team at what was then deemed to be a ridiculous price, the Patriots have made 5 Super Bowls and 6 AFC title games while becoming one of the most highly valued franchises in the league through a healthy season ticket backlog and resourceful development of ancillary revenue streams. Kraft also self-financed a large portion of the Patriots' new home - Gillette Stadium - to keep the team closer to its Boston-centric fan base and prevent the use of the dreaded personal seat license.

Objectively speaking, the Lakers currently have four titles this century while the Patriots have three, so if that is your sole criteria, then Buss has everybody beat. I would personally argue that NFL championships are more dependent on management strength because of the salary cap and the difficulty of allocating resources across a 53-man roster. These factors make the presence of one or two individual stars much less substantial and place much greater pressure on ownership and management to develop a consistently reliable system for player development and evaluation. As an example, during their 2003 championship season, the Patriots started an astonishing 44 of the 53 players on their roster at one point or another during the season, and won despite having to cut team captain Lawyer Milloy in Week 1 due to salary cap issues. In 2004, they got past a record-setting Colts offense, as well as the 15-1 Steelers and 13-3 Eagles, with a defensive secondary that included converted wide receiver Troy Brown and unknown off-the-street free agents such as Earthwind Moreland and Randall Gay. Imagine if the Lakers had to abruptly cut Derek Fisher at the beginning of the year, or play Sasha Vujacic significant minutes at power forward against the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, etc. I think that the economically-driven system of personnel management which Bill Belichick (whom Kraft and the Patriots gambled a first-round draft pick on despite a failed stint in Cleveland) has installed is simply amazing when you look at the caliber of competition and level of parity in today's NFL.

In addition to on-field performance and team financial success, Kraft has also built a tremendous legacy from a broader sports and community perspective. As chair of the NFL's broadcast committee, he negotiated a record TV deal during better economic times which places the NFL on much better financial ground going forward than its counterpart leagues. He has also launched the league's first Chinese language team web site and donated a great deal of time and money to the development of the sport in Israel. Away from football, Kraft has made substantial contributions to both of his alma maters - Columbia University (of which he was a trustee for 12 years) and Harvard Business School - as well as numerous other educational institutions. Furthermore, both of his sons who work his Kraft Group holding company - Jonathan and Daniel - serve as trustees of their respective alma maters, Williams College (tied as the #1 liberal arts college in the country according to US News) and Tufts University (a top-30 university nationally). In pointing this out, I am not disregarding the contributions that Buss has made to USC and other LA-area institutions, I am simply pointing out an aspect of the Krafts' legacy that sometimes goes unnoticed because it is not sports-related.

In any event, congratulations to LA on a great season. I simply wanted to highlight Mr. Kraft's accomplishments to a reporter on the West Coast who may not be fully aware of everything he has done on and off the field. To put things in an LA perspective, I wonder what type of praise your local media would heap on someone if they bought the Clippers and took them to the NBA Finals 5 times in the next 15 years while also making the team a resounding financial success and maintaining a spotless personal reputation in the community.

1 comment:

blinq said...

i gotta go with Kraft here. i think he made right decision in the right time.