The Patriots’ on-field record is a model of excellence and consistency. But following the team’s latest alleged infraction — underinflated footballs used during the AFC Championship Game — a brand that should be bright and shiny appears a little . . . flat.
Since Robert Kraft bought the Patriots in 1994 for $172 million, the franchise has amassed 16 division championships, won 23 playoff games, hoisted three Super Bowl trophies, and earned seven trips to the title game — all NFL highs during that period.
On the business side, it’s hard to imagine things being much better. The club has sold out every home game under Kraft’s ownership, is frequently showcased by the league in prime-time contests, and is now worth $2.6 billion, according Forbes magazine — making it the eighth-most valuable sports team in the world.
Yet tactics that range from downright illegal (videotaping opponents’ defensive signals) to merely provocative (lining up in confusing offensive formations) have made the Patriots an object of scorn among many sports fans, especially those outside New England. An organization that might otherwise be known simply as the best in its field is also regarded by some fans as just another corporation that will bend or even break the rules to get ahead.
“Forever, no matter how much they win, the Patriots’ brand is tarnished,” declared Scott Deming, a corporate branding consultant based in Syracuse.
“Nobody believes the Colts would have won that game,” Deming added, given the Patriots won by 38 points. “But people are thinking Bill Belichick would do anything to win that game.”
In a striking disconnect, a team that draws viewers and customers at a rate few others can match also seems to attract more suspicion and venom than most. The Patriots frequently rank among the NFL’s most disliked teams in various polls of football fans.
On Twitter Tuesday and Wednesday, social media tracker Brandwatch counted more than 34,000 tweets marked by the hashtag #DeflateGate. Messages bashing the Patriots outnumbered those defending them 3 to 1.
The criticism of the Patriots may make fans rally around the team even more than usual ahead of the Feb. 1 Super Bowl, said Daniel Korschun, a fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation Management at Drexel University.
But Korschun said the controversy over the deflated footballs used by the Patriots could cost the team in the marketplace, turning off casual observers who might otherwise jump on the bandwagon of a winning team.
“If there’s a missed business opportunity, here it’s probably in picking up new fans,” Korschun said. “The NFL in general has been actively trying to expand its fan base. That’s where accusations like this are most hurtful.”
Ironically, “Deflategate,” as the most recent scandal has been dubbed, began with a rare Patriots miscue in the course of play on Sunday. After quarterback Tom Brady threw a second-quarter interception against the Colts, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who caught the errant pass, told coaches and equipment managers on his sideline that the ball felt unusually squishy.
NFL teams provide their own balls while on offense, and a followup investigation by the league determined 11 of 12 balls supplied by the Patriots were under the minimum inflation level.
The finding has given existing legions of haters new ammunition and may even quiet some loyalists who otherwise would be boasting about the next chapter in the Patriots’ dynasty.
Even Harvard Business School, Kraft’s alma mater, is keeping mum at the moment.
In November Kraft and his son Jonathan, also an alumnus and president of the Patriots, appeared at the inaugural event of a contest for innovation in sports launched by Harvard. Business school dean Nitin Nohria proudly told the crowd that he is a longtime Patriots season ticket holder and already had booked his trip to the Super Bowl.
Turning to the Krafts, Nohria said, “More than anything I want to thank you both for your inspiration for this challenge, for building the kind of team that inspires us all.”
Asked Wednesday about the Patriots’ current situation, Nohria, through a spokesman, declined to comment.