A fascinating story came out on Sports Illustrated’s MMQB today. It tells of how then NFL executive Roger Goodell was instrumental in saving Boston from losing the Patriots to Hartford Connecticut. And in the story, there are some striking similarities to the situation with the Raiders bid to leave Oakland for Las Vegas.
The year was 1998 and Patriots owner Robert Kraft wanted a new stadium. The stadium had been built in 1971 and was never considered to be the type of structure that would be a permanent home for the team.
Just like Oakland, local politicians would not budge on offering up money to help with construction. An extremely rich man, Kraft wasn’t asking for much. He was willing to build the stadium with his own money on his own land. All he wanted from the state was money for infrastructure costs. Some $70 million.
When the state balked on even that sum, Kraft felt forced to look elsewhere. He found a willing and eager city in the neighboring state. In this case it was Hartford Connecticut, which is still in the New England area and therefore prime Patriots fan territory. Just as Las Vegas is just across the border of California where there is a large Raiders fan presence.
Also, like Las Vegas and Nevada, the city of Hartford and state of Connecticut was selling the farm to bring the Patriots over. To the tune of $1 billion. That makes the $750 million in public funding in Nevada to lure the Raiders to town look like chump change; especially considering we’re talking nearly a 20-year difference in inflation.
It was a sweet deal and Kraft was not passing it up.
“This is the greatest deal I’ve ever seen,” one league official had said after reviewing it.
A few weeks after Kraft gave Hartford exclusive negotiating rights, the city threw the Patriots a pep rally at the Civic Center Mall. Kraft attended and brought his son, Jonathan, a team executive, and a handful of players, including the team’s most recent first-round pick, Tebucky Jones, who’d grown up in New Britain, about 15 minutes away.
They all sat on a stage and went through the usual pomp and circumstance. Kraft gave Hartford’s mayor, Michael Peters, a Patriots jersey, and Peters gave Kraft a golden key to the city. The crowd waved blue and white pom-poms. Loudspeakers blared the University of Connecticut fight song. There was no reason to believe the Patriots weren’t moving to Hartford.
Connecticut Governor John Rowland had also held a press conference announcing to the world that the Patriots were coming to Hartford.
Robert Kraft signed the memorandum giving Hartford the exclusive right to negotiate a deal for the Patriots’ next stadium, just as Mark Davis has done with Vegas the past few months. Every time there’s stadium news out of Oakland, Davis reaffirms his stance that he is committed to Vegas — a stance he said he would make should the funding be approved, which it was.
And what a deal it is; $750 million in public funding from a hotel tax increase along with Sheldon Adelson saying he would kick in as much as $650 million on the proposed $1.9 billion stadium plan. That leaves Mark Davis with the smallest share of the costs, kicking in $500 million combined between his own money ($300M) and the $200 million from the NFL G4 loan.
A pretty sweet deal. But not as sweet as Kraft was getting from Connecticut
Then there was the business of actually securing a location. In the Patriots’ case, it was the site of a steam plant near downtown Hartford. Upon further study, that site proved considerably problematic and time consuming.
There have been several sites in Vegas which have been proposed. None are free of issues, some simply won’t work. And there has yet to be an official site chosen, which would figure to cause delays in construction.
Initially, Kraft had hoped to move into the new stadium by 2001—two full seasons and about 20 months away. Now, the state was indicating that 2002 seemed more likely. The longer the steam plant stayed open, the more likely things would be pushed into 2003. In that case, Kraft feared the Patriots would be stuck in Foxborough for four more years, playing in front of fans who knew they were leaving.
Does this ever sound familiar. Mark Davis has said he would like to play in Oakland during the construction of the new stadium in Vegas. As many as three years. That’s a tough sell. The Patriots weren’t even talking about moving very far away. And they wouldn’t even have to change ‘New England’. Hartford is about 100 miles away from Boston or Foxborough. Vegas is nearly 600 miles from Oakland. And the team would no longer identify with the city or region of it’s origin.
Also, there’s the issue of markets. Potentially losing the Boston market would have been a big deal, even for a team moving up the freeway a piece. The Bay Area market is 6th in the nation and Las Vegas is 42nd.
In the efforts to keep from losing the market, Boston would find an unlikely ally.
In December 1998, Dan Rooney, the owner of the Steelers and an influential figure in league circles, bumped into Paul Kirk Jr., the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at a dinner in Washington, D.C. Kirk was a Boston power player, with deep ties to both the political and business scenes, and he also knew the league well. He was on the short list of candidates when the NFL last picked a commissioner.
“What can you do to help us keep the Patriots in Massachusetts?” Rooney asked. Like others around the league, Rooney was concerned about abandoning the Boston TV market.
That concern was a major one, perhaps more so than the Bay Area because at least in the Bay Area, they still have the 49ers and their shiny new empty stadium down in Santa Clara to try and fill.
To get something done with Kraft dealing exclusively with Hartford, the NFL stepped in. They built a team of civic leaders and commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent in a league executive by the name of Roger Goodell to try and facilitate things. To act as a ‘liason’ to negotiate things with the city on the NFL and the Patriots’ behalf.
Goodell traveled to Boston to meet with Kirk and his team. The team included the Rev. J. Donald Monan, the chancellor of Boston College; Jack Connors, the advertising executive; William Connell, the industrialist; and a few others. They called themselves Operation Team Back.
In that first meeting, Goodell laid out the gravity of the situation. He indicated that the league was taking the Hartford stadium deal seriously. The NFL would be voting on Kraft’s pitch to relocate at the league’s spring meeting in late May, and if Kraft’s only option was moving to Hartford, Goodell told the room, “then that’s the way the vote will go.”
These days, with Goodell as the commissioner, he has sent VP Eric Grubman to perform these functions on behalf of the NFL. Grubman last year met with officials from Oakland and local business leaders. It was the blueprint Goodell laid out in his attempts to get something done in Boston.
Boston had ‘Operation Team Back’ and Oakland has Oakland Pro Sports LLC which is the investment group headed up by former Raiders Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott and former NFL QB Rodney Peete. They are working to help Oakland put together a viable plan in an attempt to convince the league and the Raiders to stay. The NFL has also met with the Lott group to look over their plans to keep the Raiders
Thus far all we’ve heard from Grubman and Goodell is that what they’ve gotten back from Oakland has not been nearly satisfactory. That doesn’t mean it can’t improve quickly and it doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty happening between the league and Oakland behind closed doors. Goodell offered a lot of back channel assistance to get things moving in Boston.
Goodell also helped them map out a plan of action, to be carried out largely in private over the next few months. The group started by secretly meeting with key decision makers, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and the House Speaker Thomas Finneran, who had opposed Kraft’s failed stadium effort. “Some bridges had been burned on Beacon Hill,” Kirk said, referring to the state capital, “and they had to be re-constructed.” Then they started rallying leaders in the business community, the people who would be buying luxury boxes.
There is definitely a lot of bad blood and at very least some damaged bridges in need of repair between the Raiders and Oakland these days. A lot of blaming going on as to whose fault it is that a new stadium has not been built with no one wanting to be the bad guy if the team leaves town.
The way the league went about ensuring the Patriots stayed in Boston should offer some hope that the same could be done in Oakland. But it would take earnest commitment from all parties involved in wanting it to happen. That means the team, the city, and the league. That’s what they had in Boston and it’s what they all say publicly about Oakland.
The league’s 32 owners will then vote on March 26 as to whether to approve the Raiders to relocate to Las Vegas. It will take 24 of 32 votes to approve the move.
Correction: This article has been updated. It previously said Oakland had until February 15 to submit a plan to the NFL. That was incorrect. That was the initial deadline for Raiders to file for relocation.