(Photograph by Wiqan Ang)


What does a football team have to do with bass fishing, blockbuster movies, and Sichuan beef? Today, everything. Why Robert Kraft's Patriot Place is the model for the new age of pro sports.

By Charles P. Pierce
November 16, 2008
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Heath Ledger is firing bullets and dripping face paint at roughly the same clip. The movie screen is bright and the sounds are clear and you can hear every one of them. The chairs enfold you and rock with your every motion, and there's a little table that swings in front of you like the ones that you see in the big lecture halls in college. There are also menus. There is a menu in the movie theater. The menu's a substantial thing. Its pages are made of stiff cardboard and its cover is made of metal. There's a menu in the movie theater and its cover is made of metal and it shines silvery there in your lap in what little light there is.

It is midafternoon and there are only three of you playing hooky on this Tuesday at the Showcase Cinema de Lux at Patriot Place in Foxborough. The place has a huge lobby, and from its main floor, it seems to be a fairly conventional movie house, albeit a luxurious one. But the balcony, the part of the theater where, traditionally, juveniles of all ages would repair to court, spark, and hurl Jujubes at one another, is a different place entirely. Its winding stairway is guarded by a velvet rope. At the top of the stairs is not an usher, but someone at a maitre d's stand. There is another lobby, and this one has a bar and some armchairs scattered around from which you can watch television while waiting for the movie to begin. It's as self-contained a universe as any ocean liner. For $18 a throw, on a weekday afternoon, this can be all yours.

"Can I get you more popcorn?"

You jump. The waitress is back again. There's a menu in the movie theater and there's a waitress in the movie theater who will get you more popcorn if you want it and will put it on your bill. There's a menu and a waitress and a tab running for you in the movie theater. It takes a long while to get used to this, but, gradually, the realization dawns that you aren't really in a movie theater. You're in a luxury box, just as if you were sitting back and watching one NFL team knock another one around while people asked you if you'd had enough to eat. You're in a luxury box at a movie theater. Something's out of place here -- and you decide that, maybe, it's you.

Everything is amalgamated. The great synergistic breeder reactor of commerce and culture has melted so many things together that what has come out is a huge, undifferentiated, but quintessentially American lump. Snippets of information -- air, really -- are converted to tangible products. Mass entertainment no longer depends on mass communication as a mere vehicle. They're both now pistons in the same mighty engine. Las Vegas has always been family-friendly, but it seems today to be aimed at families named "Brady" and not "Gambino." What with amusement parks on the Strip, incongruity is a concept long since burned away. There are water slides in baseball stadiums and casinos rising from the cotton fields of the Delta and from the deep Connecticut woods.

Professional sports is vividly affected by this. Sports is no longer just the people who play the games, the stadiums in which they play them, and the people who watch the people who play them in the stadiums. Sports is pure information, and pure product as well. There are people who are fans only of the columns of statistics that represent their fantasy teams, and there are people who are fans through the clothes they wear. A football team is a TV show, and it is a launching pad for commercial development. Everything is amalgamated. Everything is a part of something else. Nothing stands alone, and everything gets turned into product. It was only a matter of time.

The picture hangs on a wall not far from Robert Kraft's office, deep in the mahogany innards of Gillette Stadium. It's an aerial shot of Foxboro Stadium. There's a trailer park in one corner, and in the opposite corner, a few degrees above the stadium, there's a battered old racetrack and the battered old barns in which they kept the battered old horses that raced at the battered old racetrack. There are woods surrounding everything and a brook runs through them. Everything around the stadium looks like the remnants of a previous civilization unearthed an hour before the picture was taken.

Today, the woods are trimmed back, and instead of racetracks and barns, there are high-end restaurants, clothing stores, a sporting-goods store that has more to do in it than New Hampshire on a good day, and a dining spot owned by a television network that's so richly festooned with video equipment that it makes Mission Control in Houston look like a Trappist monastery. This is Patriot Place, which shares its owners and its real estate with the New England Patriots, a local professional football team of some renown. Patriot Place is its own project, but without the improbable success of what once was a burlesque of an NFL franchise, horses might well still be grazing where the tourists now come to eat.

"Where we're sitting right now," Kraft says, "this was the racetrack. The trailer park was right out there."

In 1985, Kraft acquired more than 300 acres of land in and around the area of what was then Foxboro Stadium. He bought the stadium out of bankruptcy court four years later. In 1994, for $172 million, he bought the team itself. From the beginning, though, it was clear that he didn't plan simply to build a new a stadium surrounded by 22,000 parking spaces, all of which would be used 20 to 25 days a year. Besides the stadium facilities, the defunct horse track, its barns, and the trailer park, the rest of the property was undeveloped woodland and wetland. At that point, Kraft found himself in a position most of his fellow NFL owners would envy. He owned a team, a stadium, and enough land to build another stadium. After a rocky attempt to build a new stadium in South Boston, and a brief flirtation with a fantastical offer in Hartford by which the state of Connecticut seemingly offered to give him the keys to the state treasury, Kraft ultimately built his own stadium on his own land with his own money.

Gillette Stadium itself was designed with conference facilities and special-events amenities. But it was the empty land around it that brought real value to the property.

Ultimately, the Krafts would more than double their stake in Foxborough to 800 acres -- for some perspective, a football field is about 1 acre in size. Now the Krafts have spent some $350 million to launch a singularly ambitious retail and entertainment project unlike any seen anywhere else around the league, a 1.3 million-square-foot development that eventually will include at least 15 restaurants, a luxury hotel and spa, and a healthcare facility. The next phase likely will be the development of commercial office space elsewhere in the property. (The Krafts also own mostly wetlands behind what is now the south end of the new development and the parking lots on the west side of Route 1 that serve the crowds at Gillette.)

"We knew that, with the attitude toward public financing around here, if you're rooted here and you care about your legacy here, you have to have a way to make things stand on your own," Kraft explains. He adds that to build a stadium with no public money and without personal seat licenses -- one-time fees charged to fans for the right to buy season tickets, a tactic many teams use -- and to justify paying back the state for infrastructure improvements around the stadium, "we always had a plan to do something special and unique." Besides branching out in Foxborough, the Krafts recently signed an agreement that makes them the title sponsor of the Israel Football League.

It has helped, of course, that Kraft's football team prospered, on and off the field. Having won three Super Bowls in five years, and having nearly won another one last season, the Patriots turned their stretch of Route 1 in Foxborough into a national destination. And they did so just as the National Football League was experiencing yet another in a series of financial booms. According to a report published by Forbes in September, for the first time in the history of any professional sports league, the average value of an NFL franchise topped $1 billion. (For those of you keeping score at home, the Patriots were ranked third, at $1.3 billion, behind the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins.) The Patriots, once so bedraggled that they played a home game in Birmingham, Alabama, became the NFL's signature franchise.

Over the last year, however, the team's image has acquired some dents. Fans around the country -- and not a few national media types -- came to resent the team's success and loathe what they perceived as the team's arrogance. Last season began with the embarrassing incident in which coach Bill Belichick got caught taping the New York Jets' signals and was assessed the biggest fine ever handed down to an NFL coach, and it ended with the team's loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, an upset just as profound as the one the Patriots pulled off over the St. Louis Rams to start their dynastic run in 2002. The off-season was enlivened by the arrest of offensive lineman Nick Kaczur on drug possession charges, and then, seven minutes into the first game of the season, the team lost quarterback Tom Brady, the living avatar of the team's success, for the rest of the year when his knee got folded sideways.

The Patriot brand is still strong, but it's not as spotless as it once was. Even so, Patriot Place is of a piece with everything the NFL believes about itself -- the league has tied itself inexorably into the country's corporate class, especially those parts of that class that produce vehicles of mass entertainment. In fact, the project seems to be pointing the way forward for many of the other teams in the league. Given the general reluctance of state governments to subsidize private amusements in tight economic times -- a problem the Krafts avoided by using their own money to build on their own land -- teams are looking to maximize the revenues available to them on land they already own. The new stadium being built for the Dallas Cowboys will feature a Hall of Fame Museum, and even the Green Bay Packers, the league's only publicly owned franchise, have remodeled Lambeau Field to include an "Atrium" that can be used more often than the 10 times a year in which the Packers play home games. "We have become a facility that capitalizes on our brand," says Green Bay spokesman Aaron Popkey.

At the same time, Patriot Place trades on its team's success in an almost subliminal way. Its logo is the "lighthouse" that has come to be the trademark of Gillette Stadium. Except for The Hall, the new shrine to the team's history, and some of the sweat shirts being sold in one of the shops along the brick-lined mall that is the main artery of the plaza's commercial district, the "Flying Elvis" logo of the Patriots is practically nowhere to be found in Patriot Place.

"From day to day, the stadium itself is backdrop," explains Ted Fire, the director of project administration at Patriot Place. "It's one more piece of Patriot Place in that it gives the project identity."

The stadium itself is invisible along most of the walkway that runs down the center of the mall. Strolling through it, you would never know if the team was 14-2 or 2-14 or whether or not the coach was doing his Gordon Liddy thing again. "That's the [recent] history," Kraft says, referring to last season's spying controversy. "If you try to do the right thing in terms of quality, people will stay with you," he adds. "I mean, no one's perfect. Life is managing through all kinds of different situations, and that requires a certain mental toughness. It doesn't always make us right, and we'll go through some rough spots, but if we're doing the right thing, we'll get through them. If everybody would see it, then everybody would do it."

Once, the Red Wing Diner was as exotic as Route 1 could get. Open since 1933 and owned by the same family since 1952, the restaurant was a place where you could buy lobster or a clam plate far from the beaches of the Cape. Then they built the first stadium, and Route 1 got a little busier, but the Red Wing Diner remained. Then they built the new stadium, and the diner continued to thrive and prosper, even though the new stadium now has brought with it a development that makes the neighborhood look so lopsided that it appears as though the whole south side of the highway might just capsize all the way to the horizon.

"I'm all for it," Liam Murphy, the third-generation proprietor of the Red Wing, says of the new complex. "As soon as the Bass Pro Shop opened, that was a huge weekend for us. Anything that brings business down here on days when there isn't a football game really, really helps."

A professional football team in Foxborough always has been an anomaly. "Right from the start, the stadium changed the nature of the community," recalls Police Chief Edward O'Leary. "That first happened when Schaefer Stadium was built in the 1970s." It's just that now, the football team and everything that's come with it have become a big, sprawling, honking anomaly.

"[The Krafts] had anticipated doing some development in the original filings for the new stadium," says Marc Resnick, Foxborough's town planner. "Perhaps it's a little larger than many people had envisioned, but I don't think it's unanticipated."

The Kraft Group leases the space in the facility to the tenants. At the start of this NFL season, Patriot Place was 90 percent full, if you include commitments from stores not yet open. Each of the approximately 70 tenants had different needs, and it was never a matter of simply hanging a sign over every new store.

"I probably underestimated the involvement that each tenant would bring to their part of the project," says Fire. "I assumed, perhaps naively, that we were just going to do plug-and-play with the tenants and deal with the geometry of the buildings, but they're living, breathing organizations, and I underestimated the intensity of that, from design to operations. I know a lot more than I did before about selling fashions, burgers, and perfume."

Nothing is a better exemplar of patriot place than Bass Pro Shops, which looms just as hugely at the far south end of the complex as the Cinema de Lux does at the northernmost point, and almost as hugely as the stadium does in the middle. Practically from the moment in which an ambitious Missourian named Johnny Morris convinced his father to let him sell fishing rods and more from the back of the family liquor store, Bass Pro has been a pioneer in what has become known as "entertainment retailing." (The company's Outdoor World national headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, draws more than 4 million visitors a year.) When officials on Kraft's team toured other sites around the country, studying the development of such multipurpose outdoor complexes as The Grove in Los Angeles and the Easton Town Center in Columbus, Ohio, more than a few of the people mentioned Morris's stores as, well, the fish to land.

"One thing everybody said to us is that if you can get a Bass Pro Shops to New England, it will be great, but you'll never get one," says Jonathan Kraft, president and chief operating officer of the Kraft Group. "We chased those guys for two years.

"Their people said that the store had to be on Route 1. . . . We knew we had that body of water back there in the woods, with deer and turkey, so we said to Johnny [Morris], 'You've got to come up and look at the site.' On his way to a fishing trip in Gloucester, Morris drove to Foxborough and looked at the location, and he agreed almost immediately."

The store is set in the woods along Route 1, just south of the stadium. (A nature trail is being built through the woods behind the store.) The store's interior is vast and almost incomprehensibly busy. Models of various game animals peer over the counters. A mock shark hangs ominously above the fishing tackle. Along one down-sloping staircase is an old-style shooting gallery. With 50 cents and a decent aim, you can make whistles blow and jugs spin and squirrels duck back into hollow logs. At the foot of the staircase is an aquarium full of various local game fish, all swimming in a wide circle. If the whole place becomes too exhausting, you can repair to the Blue Fin Lounge on the ground floor.

Patriot Place begins in the sporting-goods store with the bar in it and ends in the movie theater with the waitresses and the shiny metal menus. There is some kind of consistency in that kind of jumble.

When members of the Kraft team started talking to people around the country, "the thing that kept coming up -- because we're not traditional real estate developers -- was if you could build a destination that's entertainment- and retail-focused," says Jonathan Kraft. "In the Northeast, land is so scarce that everything is vertical. But if you go around urban areas in the Southeast and the Southwest, you can see these open-air entertainment and retail venues being built." When the new stadium was built, he says, one of the things they asked themselves was: "What is going to make us special -- not be like everyone else?"

The nature trail is going to wind through the wetlands, and, sooner or later, the big store will fade from view and the stadium will as well. There will be deer and turkey. And everything -- the sporting goods and the movie house, the clothes and the perfume, the burgers and the linebackers -- will be in the same place, all part of "entertainment retailing," which is what used to be called "amusement parks," before everything became one.

They look lost, the three of them do, in their "Brady" and "Moss" and the old-school "Grogan" jerseys. They've come to a pre-season game between the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. They've parked across Route 1 from the mall, because that's where you have to park now for games. They've walked through the tunnel and across Route 1 and down through the parking lots reserved for the people in the luxury boxes. The stadium, they are sure, is somewhere around here, but they've made a wrong turn and they've beached themselves in front of Aeropostale. One of them walks down toward the movie theater, and another one walks off in the general direction of Red Robin. The third one wanders just around the corner, and there, looming above the end of one of the sidewalks, is the stadium, like some diffident monster peeping out of its lair.

There's a lot of general milling about in Patriot Place this August Friday evening. (It's vastly more interesting than the typically useless NFL exhibition contest in which New England is thumped, 27-17.) The whole thing seems like the culmination of a series of mergers decades in the making -- sports wholly merged with entertainment and entertainment wholly merged with consumerism and the corporate culture until everything seems here to be part of a universal whole, a common destination for football fans, Sichuan beef fans, Batman fans, and people in the CBS Scene, wallowing in the glory days of M*A*S*H. There's always a lot of earnest huffing and blowing about the problems with wanting it all, but this generally overlooks the American desire for convenience. We are, after all, the culture that invented While U Wait, the Drive Thru, and the All U Can Eat Buffet. It isn't just wanting it all. It's wanting it all here.

It's difficult at moments like this to remember the simple football team that is somehow at the heart of it, the team that's hidden by the atmosphere of Patriot Place as surely as the upper deck of the stadium is hidden behind the line of shops and restaurants. Once there was just the team and the beaten-up stadium and the racetrack and the horse barns and the trailer park and the deep woods. Then the team started winning and the new stadium came and everything that's come afterward appears now almost to have been inevitable, even as the singular competitive entity that is the New England Patriots seems to be no more (or less) relevant to Patriot Place than Davio's restaurant or the CBS Scene.

Now in his 13th season with the team, linebacker Tedy Bruschi is the only player to have participated in all five of the Super Bowls in which the team has played since Robert Kraft bought it. He started in the old stadium. He once drove around the horse barns. He had a stroke, and he came back to play. "I like to tell people," Bruschi says, "that I grew up with the organization, that I grew up as the organization was growing, too. If we can be as successful as we have been, then there's no reason why the whole organization can't be that successful in its own way, too."

By the third quarter, with boredom and futility wrestling each other to a draw, the crowd starts filing out again, up the hill away from the stadium and through Patriot Place. The stream of people diverges to the left and to the right, down the main pedestrian mall. There is no longer just a steady flow of people from the stadium to the parking lots. There are tributaries now, running through the mall. From somewhere off to the left, a cheer rises into the night. Maybe someone found the end zone. Maybe someone found a bargain. It's so hard to tell these days.

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