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Building a future: Gillette Stadium financing altered NFL landscape

By Ben Fischer
The Patriots’ gleaming new home opened in the spring of 2002.getty images

Before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived in Foxborough, the New England Patriots very nearly left that Massachusetts town altogether. In 1998, Robert Kraft had a plan to move the franchise to Hartford, where Connecticut politicians had offered one of the most team-friendly stadium development deals in history: upward of $1 billion in construction plus guaranteed revenue. Kraft would have risked almost nothing.

But he got cold feet as cracks emerged in the Connecticut plan, and embarked on what today is a pillar of his legacy: the privately financed Gillette Stadium, where the team covered $389 million and only relied on the state for what became $72 million in infrastructure improvements, which is being repaid by the team on a long-term schedule.

Privately funding a stadium was not totally unprecedented, but the scale of the expenditures was. The stadium itself cost $325 million, with land costing $30 million, interest during construction another $30 million and infrastructure overruns (a Kraft responsibility) hitting $4 million, according calculations by Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist.

“The Kraft Gillette Stadium model might not be for every owner, but it stands as a monumental achievement,” wrote Zimbalist, a frequent critic of public subsidies for sports venues, in a 2003 edition of Sports Business Journal.

Kraft also helped the NFL develop a groundbreaking tool for stadium development for all other teams: the creation of the G3 stadium loan program, which in turn created today’s G4 program.

The Patriots received $150 million in NFL loans, backed by the league’s robust revenue streams and strong debt rating. Since then, most of the league has participated in those programs.

Reminders of the Patriots’ success are on display at Gillette Stadium.getty images

“Robert was a major contributor in the private financing that became a model for the entire league, and was a model that was applicable to all 32 teams — that was significant,” said Paul Tagliabue, who was serving as NFL commissioner at the time. “He and [son] Jonathan [Kraft] were major players in that, along with Al Lerner, Pat Bowlen and Jeff Lurie (past or present owners of the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively), they were all doing it at basically the same time. That was very, very important.”

Early on in the process, Kraft personally guaranteed $56 million for the blue steel inside the stadium — re-creating his bold embrace of the debt it took to buy the team in the first place.

Today, Zimbalist also credits the Krafts for building the Patriot Place shopping center in 2007 and establishing a new model. Many stadium development plans now include auxiliary mixed-use elements, enhancing the potential return for investors in ever-escalating stadium projects.

“Maybe it’s not always the best investment that could have been made,” Zimbalist said, “but the jobs are generated, it does generate tax revenue, and it does provide a boost to the economy.”

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