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Biggest 180s: Robert Kraft turns his back on Hartford, keeps Patriots in Foxboro

Krystle Boyajian
August 13, 2018 - 1:25 pm
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Nearly 20 years ago, in late 1998, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was talking with the state of Connecticut about moving the Patriots to downtown Hartford. But less than a year later, after it seemed the deal had already been finalized, the Patriots did a 180 on Connecticut and stayed in Massachusetts. 

As Foxboro Stadium became increasingly outdated, Governor John G. Rowland and the state of Connecticut were set on luring the Patriots out of the Boston area and making them the crown jewel of Hartford. They did so with what was considered one of the most extravagant offers to a team owner ever.

On top of offering to pay for the entire stadium, the state offered to fix the infrastructure in Hartford for the stadium, to buy back any unpurchased luxury suites, and to pay back the team any lost sponsor deals from the move. The offer alone would have boosted the Patriots’ earnings to No. 1 in the NFL.

By the end of 1998, the Patriots and Connecticut had signed an exclusive negotiating deal to house the Patriots’ new stadium.

Hartford celebrated with a Patriots rally where Mayor Michael Peters gave Kraft a key to the city and Kraft gave the mayor Patriots gear. Everything suggested that the Patriots had found a new home.

But a month later, the deal was still not final. 

Connecticut was having trouble figuring out how and where to move the city’s steam water cooling plant at the intersection of I-84 and I-91, where the new stadium was supposed to go. The project’s end date kept moving from the original 2001 to eventually 2003 as the plant stalled progress. 

Kraft finally signed the stadium deal in February 1999, but he had it written into the contract that he could back out of the deal within two months.

The people of Massachusetts, meanwhile, weren’t ready to give up on keeping the Patriots just yet, and some power players were starting to get involved in an effort to keep them. The clock was ticking, but the wheels were already in motion.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney and former Democratic National Committee chair Paul Kirk Jr., with the help of NFL liaison Roger Goodell, tried to create an alternate deal for Kraft to keep the Patriots in Massachusetts. 

Kraft couldn’t negotiate with Massachusetts himself after giving Connecticut exclusive rights, so the team met in secret with Massachusetts political leaders to convince them to craft a new proposal for the stadium. They published pieces in the Boston Globe and other outlets to urge the state legislature to approve a proposal a mere two weeks before Kraft’s opt-out deadline.

At the same time, the NFL announced a new loan program that would allow franchise owners to get up to $150 million to build new stadiums. 
 
Six days before the opt-out deadline, Massachusetts settled on a proposal. Kraft would build the stadium with the help of the NFL’s loan program, and the state would use $70 million to improve the infrastructure in Foxboro.

Then just days before the Connecticut stadium deal would have been finalized for good, in a complete 180, Kraft terminated the deal with Hartford. He instead opted to take the Massachusetts deal to stay in Foxboro.

To this day, just how serious Kraft was about moving the team remains a subject of debate. Many believe he was just using Hartford as leverage, while others insist he was sincere about the move.

Three years later, in 2002, Gillette Stadium officially opened, just months after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. 

Nearly 19 years later, the Patriots are still in Massachusetts, the steam plant is still in Hartford, and the idea that the Patriots could ever call anywhere other than Foxboro home seems incomprehensible.

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