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Saving Soccer: How a founding father helped keep MLS alive

By Ben Fischer
Kraft and Lee Nguyen (right) celebrated an MLS Cup berth in 2014.getty images

With American football, Robert Kraft always knew precisely what he was doing. He played the sport in college at Columbia, held Patriots season tickets for decades and could already see the economic and cultural force the NFL had become when he acquired the team in 1994.

Soccer, however, was a totally different story. Kraft had little cultural exposure to the game and scant data to go on, but it first captured his imagination when Team USA beat England, 2-0, in a match at his Foxboro Stadium in 1993.

Three years later, Kraft’s New England Revolution began play with the rest of Major League Soccer. Each initial investor contribution was $5 million, said former U.S. Soccer President Alan Rothenberg. Today, valuations for MLS teams are climbing into the high nine figures.

“I’m not sure he ever thought it was a good investment — he thought it was worth a shot,” Rothenberg said. “The entry point was a lot less than the entry point for an NFL team.”

Today, Kraft is regarded as a founding father of American professional soccer. Along with Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt, he’s one of three men who has had to take a hard look at the future of MLS during its entire history and didn’t blink.

For Rothenberg, Kraft’s most important contribution to MLS was recruiting Don Garber to be commissioner in 1999. “His initial and ongoing relationship was vital to bringing Don in,” Rothenberg said.

At the time, Garber was leading international business for the NFL, and admitted he knew little about soccer when Kraft approached him about the job. “That’s all right, you’d probably make a good commissioner regardless,” Kraft told him.

Two years later, the league stood at a crossroads. Bankruptcy papers had been drawn up.

“Phil Anschutz, my dad and Robert came together and said, ‘No, we’re going to keep the league alive, because we believe in this sport long term, and it will be successful in the United States,’” Clark Hunt recalls. “It was a very difficult call to make, but one that really solidified the relationship between my family and his family.”

The Revolution lifted the Supporters’ Shield in 2021 for having the best record in MLS.getty images

It’s no exaggeration to say Kraft could have killed MLS with inaction.

“If any of the three had made the decision to not go forward, the league would not have survived,” Hunt said. “It was that difficult of a circumstance.”

The Kraft empire’s role in soccer has not blossomed alongside the league as a whole. The Revolution has yet to win an MLS Cup and it has lost pace with the top-tier clubs on the business front, in large part due to the Krafts’ inability to construct an urban, soccer-specific venue that has been so critical to MLS clubs in many other cities. And Kraft has conspicuously stayed out of the American investment rush into European soccer, citing its unrestrained labor costs.

But the bottom line for Kraft, as Garber sees it, is unassailable: “There are very few people who can be viewed as a pioneer of a professional sport, and Robert was one of those true pioneers.”

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