PHOENIX – When you're the reigning Super Bowl champion, you draw a crowd.
Robert Kraft knows this much, having won the biggest football game five times as owner of the New England Patriots. He was in high demand from the media, as always, when he took a lunch break from a full morning of sessions at the 2017 NFL Annual Meeting.
While Kraft's Patriots are certainly big news almost anywhere, anytime, the team making the most headlines on this day was the Raiders. After decades in Oakland (and a brief period in Los Angeles during the mid-1980s/early '90s), the club is moving – eventually – to Las Vegas after NFL owners overwhelming approved the Raiders' request. Only one club (Miami) voted against the move.
"I don't ever like to see our teams move," Kraft began his comments to reporters on the subject, "but I was thinking back to our trying to have our own stadium and what we went through and all the machinations. The Raiders, since I came in [to the NFL], have been at the bottom of the league in terms of revenue, which has been difficult for them to do everything they want to do for their football operations. They've worked hard to make things work up there and it hasn't worked out.
"Now, they have an opportunity to be a very solid, vibrant team… In the end, we're in a competitive league, and you can't compete at the highest level if you don't have a first-rate stadium. I think that's what this is really all about."
Kraft revealed that he was in California attending a friend's birthday party over the weekend, and while strolling Santa Monica pier, he saw several people wearing Raiders apparel. So, he decided to ask them about their allegiance and the idea of the Raiders leaving Oakland for Vegas. While Kraft maintained he went unrecognized by the Raider faithful, he came away impressed with their dedication. Only one person in ten, he asserted, was concerned about the inevitable relocation of the franchise.
"I empathize with the Raider fans," Kraft continued. "The Raider fan base is unique. When I bought our team 23 years ago, we hadn't sold out and our games were blacked out. The first game that sold out… it was the Raiders. And I realized what a strong fan base [they have]. Very loyal to them and will travel with them. Las Vegas is a destination for visiting teams and will be very strong. I think it will be a wonderful venue and market, unique, one of the only small markets I can think of that would be in that category."
Until a new stadium is built for the Raiders in Las Vegas, they will likely play at least the next two years in their current Oakland home. Kraft's Patriots are scheduled to visit the Raiders in 2017, but that game had already been slotted to take place in Mexico City as part of the NFL's expanding International Series.
"We actually have a number of fan clubs in Mexico," Kraft remarked, "so, we're really excited. Instead of going to Oakland in that old stadium, we'll go to Azteca Stadium, where we had the privilege of playing once in the late '90s against the Cowboys in a preseason game. We're really excited."
As of yet, the league hasn't formalized the 2017 schedule, but that's among the topics on the table at these meetings. Word here in Phoenix is that the Patriots-Raiders game will take place in late November, around Thanksgiving, perhaps even the weekend before the holiday. The full 2017 NFL schedule will be announced in mid-April.