The 2007 NFL season was "perfect" for more teams than just the New England Patriots.
Though the current form of the New England Patriots rates as a NFL dynasty thanks to their three recent Super Bowl victories, no one in football saw what the team had in store for the league in 2007. The Patriots did something that had not been accomplished since the NFL began its 16 game schedule in 1978 - they won every game they played. Now to point at the Patriots “perfect” season and say something fishy may have been occurring behind the scenes seems ridiculous. Yet to look at the numbers and what the Patriots’ run did for the NFL, you can see why the league and its broadcast partners may have not wanted to see that streak end prematurely.
In Week 9 of the 2007 season, the Patriots matched up against the also undefeated (at the time) Indianapolis Colts. This highly touted game resulted in not just a Patriots victory, but more importantly for the NFL, the highest rated regular season NFL game since 1987. Three weeks later, when the Patriots took on the Philadelphia Eagles on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the game gave NBC its highest ratings ever for a Sunday night game, beating the previous figure by over 40%. The following week as the Patriots march to perfection reached the Baltimore Ravens and ESPN’s Monday Night Football, the game resulted in the biggest audience in cable television history, drawing in some 12.5 million viewers. As CBS Sports President Sean McManus said, “The Patriots have been a great story for us. They’re the driving force behind our ratings.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Patriots bandwagon was fully operational in 2007. Sales of their merchandise were more than doubled from the year before which translated into profit for every team in the NFL thanks to their revenue sharing program. And since the Patriots continued to draw in viewers in record numbers, suddenly the asking prices for TV commercial spots escalated dramatically. According to an article on Bloomberg.com, CBS’s asking price for a commercial during the aforementioned Pats-Colts game was $700,000 for a 30-second spot. Compare that to the $400,000 per commercial asked for on TV’s top rated show, Grey’s Anatomy, and you can see how everyone involved was profiting (or profiteering if you prefer). The NFL Network, by a supposed quirk of fate, was the beneficiary of the Patriots last regular season game (which was hyped as the Patriots chance as being undefeated prior to them actually beating the 1-14 Dolphins during Week 16) against the New York Giants. For that final game on which the “perfect” season hung in the balance, the NFL Network more than doubled its asking price for commercial spots. But the league then took everything a step further. It so wanted to use the Patriots run at perfection to its utmost (including hyping the NFL Network), the NFL did the unthinkable. The league broadcast the Patriots final regular season game on three different networks simultaneously – CBS, NBC, and its own NFL Network. This was the first time an NFL game was broadcast on more than one TV network since Super Bowl I was shown on both CBS and NBC. As NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy was quoted as saying, “There’s increased interest throughout the country. The scriptwriters on strike [the Writers Guild of America was on strike at this time which undoubtedly helped open up NBC’s and CBS’s prime time schedules] couldn’t have come up with a better storyline.” And yes, once again someone within the NFL did in fact say, we’ve couldn’t have scripted this any better. Do you still believe them?
What’s perhaps the most amazing aspect of the Patriots undefeated season is that the four record setting (ratings-wise) games – vs. the Colts, the Eagles, the Ravens, and the Giants – all were won by the Patriots in come-from-behind fashion. In fact, the Patriots managed just a three point win against each the Eagles, Ravens, and Giants while eking out a four point victory against the Colts. This wouldn’t seem odd except for the fact that the Patriots won their 12 other games by a grand total of 435 to 167. The closest of these games was a 20-10 victory over the New York Jets that was played in a combination snow and wind storm that rocked the East Coast late in December and hindered play on the field. Two of the teams the Patriots “struggled” to beat, the Eagles who posted an 8-8 record and the Ravens which went 5-11 then fired their head coach, failed to make the playoffs. So were these four games in question made a touch more dramatic to hold the viewers’ attention throughout and maybe make some of those sponsors that shelled out all that extra cash for an advertising spot a little less apprehensive, considering nearly every other Patriots game that season was a blowout by halftime?
None of these four games were without controversy, especially the Patriots last minute win over the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens held a 24-20 lead as the Patriots took possession of the ball for what would be a do-or-die last drive. Little did the Ravens defense know what they would be up against in those final few minutes. Some 70 yards later and after the Patriots converted two separate fourth down situations (one of which came on a highly questionable defensive holding penalty), Tom Brady’s 8 yard touchdown pass put the Patriots in the lead for good 27-24 with just 44 seconds left in the game. Though it was the Patriots that won the game, several members of the Ravens pointed their fingers at the referees, crediting them more than anyone for the Patriots’ victory. The complaints over the officiating in the last moments of the game were so overwhelming, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating Mike Pereira had to later make a pronouncement that all of the calls made in the game were indeed correct. Correct, that is, if you were rooting for the Patriots (and as if the NFL would’ve said otherwise given what was on the line in that game). As for the Ravens, Baltimore cornerback Chris McAlister summed it up best when he said, “It’s hard to go out there and play the Patriots and the refs at the same time. They put the crown on top of them, they want them to win. They won.”
As if that weren’t enough, late in the 2007 season at was revealed that CBS, the network that broadcasts the AFC’s games of which the Patriots are members, had made a deal with Patriots owner Bob Kraft to open up a CBS themed restaurant in the Patriots home, Gillette Stadium. The restaurant, tentatively named “CBS Scene,” is a joint venture with the team. CBS Sports President Sean McManus said, “It’s not a business we’ve been in before, but we thought it was a no-brainer to further associate ourselves with NFL football and the Patriots.” But, of course, this deal begins and ends with the restaurant, right? Even though McManus also said, “It’s hard to overestimate the value of NFL programming, especially when you’re having the kind of season that we’re having with the Patriots. That obviously translates into significant revenue.” It sure does. And it’s obviously no coincidence that since 2005, Patriots owner Robert Kraft is on the board of directors for the media giant Viacom, the company that up until Kraft joined was partnered with/owned CBS. But since the two companies split, I’m sure every tie between the two was completely severed, right? So we’re safe to assume that the Kraft/Viacom/CBS connection is simply circumstantial. And we’re supposed to believe that all this revenue generated by the Patriots and such direct deals with CBS in no way, shape, or form could influence the outcome of any game involving this money making machine. That’s where the line is drawn in these business deals – right on the sidelines. Nothing crosses over onto the field of play. In fact, it’s blasphemy to even think such thoughts.
Yet part of that dual edged sword the NFL possesses in its 16 game schedule is the fact that because one game can have such a significant impact league wide, fixing one select game could make a huge difference in how a season transpires. Clearly the Patriots were the best team in the NFL in 2007, but as their undefeated season became more and more possible, more and more pressure was on the team to actually complete the task at hand – not necessarily from the fans, but from those profiting with each and every win. All of the games in question occurred in the second half of the season, weeks 9, 12, 13, and 17. By this point (especially after the victory over the Colts), the NFL knew what they had in the Patriots run at history. Wouldn’t it have made good business sense to ensure such a run didn’t get cut short? To not just make history, but a great deal of money along the way as well? Perhaps a tweak here and there in each of these games did just that. Or perhaps just the adjustment made in the Ravens game mentioned above was enough to seal the deal.
The truth is that one game in the NFL means more than one game in any other sport. In fact, out of all the major sports leagues only the NFL has a single game championship, the Super Bowl, to determine its ultimate winner. No other league possesses such a simple set up to culminate their season. This is why Super Bowl Sunday has turned into such an event. The day has become a new national holiday celebrated among friends and families with parties raging from coast to coast. In many circles, the activities surrounding the game – the pre-game concerts, the halftime show, and the commercials – overshadow the game itself. Many who tune in to watch the game do so not caring about the outcome (unless some sort of office pool hangs in the balance). This has made the Super Bowl consistently one of the most watched televised events every year. Out of the top ten most watched prime time telecasts in the United States since 2000, the Super Bowl holds the top eight slots (and by a significant margin. Number eight is Super Bowl XXXV with some 84 million viewers compared to the number nine telecast, the final episode of Friends, with 52 million viewers). It would likely hold all ten, but only eight Super Bowls have been played since 2000 as of this writing. The Super Bowl also holds fifteen of the top thirty slots in terms of the most watched television programs ever aired.
This is why most would slough off any notion that the NFL actually cares which two teams meet up in the Super Bowl. If the ratings are always through the roof, if a thirty second commercial is selling for over $2.5 million (and for Super Bowl XLII, the 58 commercial “units” for the game were 90% sold out by November 1st, some 3 months prior to kickoff), and if the day is nearly a national holiday and seen by people world wide, does it really matter who’s playing? On the surface, that would seem very true. However, two teams do ultimately have to take the field, and not only that, one of them has to win. And I believe that the 32 NFL owners more than care who wins, they determine and “award” it to the franchise most deserving.
If, as we’ve seen previously in the 2006 New Orleans Saints' season, the NFL has the ability through a purposefully created system known as parity to sculpt a season in a certain team’s favor, similar actions within a playoff schedule would also be a very real potential. By this late date in a season, when Wild Card Weekend kicks off, the NFL is well award of which teams and players are their storylines, their money makers. With the assistance of their contacts in Las Vegas and the gambling world, they know which teams the public favors over their opponents. All this information can be quite advantageous. If something wasn’t arranged prior to the start of the season, by the time the playoffs arrive it would take just two or three properly arranged games (if one wanted to be certain) to propel any playoff team into the Super Bowl. An unlikely underdog, a league powerhouse, whatever the league might feel is the team du jour could easily have their way paved to a championship. If the NFL, through parity, truly wants to act as a utopia and share every aspect of the league among its owners, then why wouldn’t they also be willing to share and award Super Bowl rings in a similar fashion? Does this mean it happens every year and every team is given their time in the spotlight? No, but parity is supposed to allow for the possibility of it. Even so, constant upheaval wouldn’t benefit the league as suspicion could be aroused if a different team won every season. Even “randomness” allows for teams to repeat once in a while, so the allowance for so-called dynasties is necessary for such an illusion to seem real. Plus, remembering the NFL’s league wide revenue sharing plan, though one team may be repeatedly crowned the champion, the success seen by the likes of the 2007 New England Patriots is still spread around all 32 teams though not as openly as titles, trophies, and ticker tape parades.
But the Patriots lost the Super Bowl, right?
Yes, but why? Though it seemed as the NFL had managed to quash any discussion of what was dubbed “Spygate” (the Patriots’ video tapping of their opponents’ coaching signals as detailed earlier), somehow this story came back to the front burner in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLII. The NFL and its Commissioner Roger Goodell had dodged many questions regarding this “scandal” all season, yet when Senator Alren Specter and former Patriots’ video assistant Matt Walsh picked at that scab in the media prior to the game, the Patriots suddenly seemed doomed. Looking beat before they stepped on the field for the opening kickoff, the Patriots’ perfect season died with just 35 seconds left in the game. The controversy surrounding “Spygate” shouldn’t have factored into the game at all, and while no one on the Patriots cited it as a cause for their loss, it seemed odd to me that this issue reared its ugly head at such an inopportune time for both the Patriots and the NFL – unless the NFL wanted it to. Perhaps such talk was all part of the smoke and mirrors show the NFL runs with a startling regularity. A side show purposefully displayed to take some of the heat off the players in a game they were meant to lose. All attention instead became focused on head coach Bill Belichick, who was most likely the cause of the whole incident hence his $500,000 fine, and the Patriots’ organization which earned enough good will with their fans over the past few year to endure any such negative press that comes out of the situation. While Commissioner Goodell claimed to have “good reason” to destroy the evidence in the case against the Patriots while “reserving the right to revisit” the case should some new information come to light (which, I’m sure, won’t), what should be questioned more is how the Patriots seemed to get such preferred status in the NFL in the first place.
It all rests on the shoulders of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Since buying the Patriots in 1994, Kraft had willed his way into becoming the most influential owner in the NFL. He’s the chairman of the NFL’s financial committee, and sits on the league’s audit, investment, broadcasting, business ventures, and expansion committees, as well as the special committee on league economics and the Los Angeles stadium working group. What’s more, Kraft was very involved in securing the NFL’s prized contracts with the major television networks which gives the NFL the bulk of its money every season. Kraft also brokered a deal in 2001 with his friend Paul Fireman valued at some $250 million for Fireman’s company Reebok to provide uniforms for all of the NFL for the next ten years. He was also instrumental in bringing the Texans to Houston as an expansion team, basically telling Texans’ owner Bob McNair that his investment in the NFL wouldn’t just give him the team, but would guarantee Houston the rights to the Super Bowl in 2004. Kraft was correct in making that promise. And as fate would have it, Kraft’s Patriots won that Super Bowl played in Houston, giving them their second title in three years.
Does such standing within the league mean Kraft’s team gets some preferential treatment? It’s known that Kraft, thanks to his role on the league’s finance committee, authorized a program that allowed teams in the NFL’s six largest media markets $150 million each in low-interest loans to build new stadiums (every other team was allowed up to $100 million). Unsurprisingly, Kraft’s own Patriots were one of those 6 special teams. He immediately seized the opportunity for the loan, and then leveraged $70 million out of the state of Massachusetts’s infrastructure (under the threat of moving the team to Connecticut where he already had a deal in place, but later rebuked) to build his Patriots a $325 million dollar stadium to which he already owned the valuable parking lots. From that loan came the Patriots’ dynasty.
In 1998, the New England Patriots were valued at $252 million by Forbes magazine. Today, just ten years later, the Patriots are worth $1.2 billion. Meanwhile, his work for the NFL reaches around the world. Kraft met and gave Russian President Vladimir Putin one of his Super Bowl rings (or Putin simply took it in a misunderstanding, depending on who you hear the story from). He took the Vince Lombardi trophy from the Patriots’ third Super Bowl victory with him to Israel for a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It’s there in Israel where Kraft has spent some $500,000 to dedicate the Kraft Family Stadium – the only stadium in Israel dedicated to American football. Kraft also helped build what’s known as “American Football in Israel,” a flag football league with some 900 active players.
All of this stems from a man who hasn’t been an owner in the league for more than 15 years. Is the Patriots success just a coincidence? Is it another example of parity at work? Is Kraft simply a great owner, who realized from the start what it takes to run a successful NFL franchise and create a winning formula? Was he just lucky to fall into players in the draft like Tom Brady or pick up forgotten veterans like Corey Dillon, Junior Seau, and Randy Moss while casting off such stars as Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy at the right times? Or did Kraft’s hard work within the NFL behind-the-scenes earn his team its on-the-field success? The more Kraft immersed himself within the ranks of other NFL owners, the more the Patriots succeeded as a team. That cannot be questioned. What can be is how such success was possible. Was it Kraft’s grand strategy for his franchise that created the Patriots’ dynasty or was it a reward, given to (maybe even taken by) Kraft for his contributions to the NFL?
--By Brian Tuohy