On Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, the New England Patriots will kick off a football season nine years removed from their last Super Bowl victory — hardly a championship drought but the longest stretch without a title among Boston’s four major sports franchises.
They will take the field without tight end Aaron Hernandez, the former star charged with murder. They have another player facing jail, lost another receiver to a league rival, and a third to his sixth surgery in four years. The squad this year has 13 rookies, and the Pats’ last playoff appearance was a convincing loss to the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Baltimore Ravens.
Yet the team’s brand appears as strong as ever — undented by shortfalls and transgressions that might doom another business.
Each of the Pats’ four preseason games was the top-rated television program in the Boston market during the week it was played. For the 20th consecutive season, every home game has sold out before the first snap of the fall. Fans are shelling out an average of $365.98 on the secondary market for a seat at Gillette Stadium, according to TiqIQ, 4 percent more than at this time last year. More than 60,000 people have paid $100 just to get on a waiting list for season tickets.
“Any other business in another sector would take an extreme hit if they went through some of the things the Patriots have, and it would be years and years before they could recover,” said Susan Monahan, president of Channel Media & Market Research of Sudbury.
But the Patriots are not any other business. In a region full of fans who love their sports teams —
“The difference is that football has become much more popular than baseball, and even though the Patriots haven’t won [a championship] for almost 10 years, they’ve had a very competitive team every year,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.
Though off-field infractions may cause fans to raise their eyebrows, Zimbalist said the team’s track record of winning games and making playoff runs has glossed over them.
Longtime Patriots spokesman Stacey James acknowledged the power of on-field success and the growth of football, in general. But he said fans’ devotion to the team has been hard won by owner Robert Kraft and his family, former season ticket holders who were seen as saviors of a sinking franchise.
James worked in the Patriots’ public relations department for a year before the Krafts bought the club in 1994, and he recalled their early efforts to build a fanbase around a team whose games were often blacked out on local TV because of empty stadium seats.
“They spent that entire first offseason — Robert, Jonathan, the entire family — pounding the pavement like politicians, doing every meet-and-greet that came their way, accepting every award they were offered, and really trying impress upon a large audience, ‘We need you,’ ” James said.
The Krafts’ out-in-the-community strategy paid off with sellout crowds for every game of the 1994 season — and every game since.
Moreover, by building Gillette Stadium with private money, adding to it with the Patriot Place shopping center, and promoting volunteerism by their players, the Patriots have developed a favorable reputation that overshadows fans’ complaints about the team.
Interestingly, the top request by fans to improve the Patriots, according to Channel Media’s recent New England Sports Survey, went more to a worrisome wrinkle in the team’s image than on its on-field performance. Rather than find the next Tom Brady or explosive playmaker, fans want the Patriots to be more selective about taking on troubled players, and treat proven players fairly. Since the end of last season, the Pats have parted ways with receiver Wes Welker, a bedrock of the offense for six years, and reliable punter Zoltan Mesko, one of the team’s most active volunteers.
Nevertheless, 44 percent of New England sports fans identified the Patriots as their favorite team, ahead of the Red Sox by 11 points — a wider margin than in Channel Media’s 2012 survey.
“They’ve really done a good job selling the idea that they’re local, that they care, that they’re fans too,” Monahan said.
Outside New England, the Patriots’ approval rating is not so high. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said in a February interview on sports radio station WEEI that “31 other teams hate the New England Patriots,” and a subsequent fan poll by ESPN showed a majority agree that the Pats are the most hated team in the NFL.
But don’t expect local fans to sour on the Patriots, unless their tumultuous offseason is followed by a stunning collapse on the gridiron.
“Fans are willing to forgive a lot of things, as long as the success is still there on the field,” said Holy Cross sports economist Victor A. Matheson. “But you go 6-10 with the local police blotter, and you could alienate not just football aficionados across the country but also your hometown fans.”