In 2013, just days before the Patriots hosted the AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, team president Jonathan Kraft addressed a future without Tom Brady as the face of the franchise during an event at Gillette Stadium’s Putnam Club.
Talking business, not football, Kraft said the team is developing other attractions to draw fans because Brady won’t be the quarterback forever.
“We’re lucky here — we have 60,000 people on a paid waiting list” for season tickets, Kraft said to a group of technology professionals. “But we try to worry about what’s coming around the corner.”
Two years later, Brady’s implication in the mushrooming Deflategate scandal threatens his status as the ideal frontman for a $2.6 billion organization. The episode could offer a preview of how the Patriots will market themselves on that fast-approaching day when the 37-year-old Brady is no longer their best asset — on and off the field.
“This is a critical moment of truth for the Patriots brand,” said Chekitan S. Dev, associate professor of strategic marketing and brand management at Cornell University. “How they handle this crisis will tell us about their values as an organization. Everything they do in the days and weeks ahead is going to be carefully scrutinized and dissected, and will signal their future strategy.”
Few brands in sports or business are as connected to one person as the Patriots are to Brady. His greatest rival, Peyton Manning, might possess similar star power, but the teams he has played for — the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos — had championship histories and Hall of Fame quarterbacks before his arrival.
Brady, on the other hand, has come to define the Patriots.
Drafted in the sixth round by a club that had never won a Super Bowl, he was a classic underdog on an underdog team. As his image evolved over the years, so did the Patriots’. Brady went from a scrappy cog in the wheel to an MVP with movie-star looks and a supermodel wife; meanwhile, the Patriots went from a band of lucky overachievers to a winning machine.
Together, they collected admirers and detractors.
“He is the brand,” said Susan Fournier, professor of marketing and faculty director of the MBA program at Boston University. “They are one.”
Since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001, the Patriots have risen from ninth on Forbes magazine’s list of most valuable NFL franchises to second.
The value of the Patriots brand name alone is now $351 million, according to Forbes.
Intertwined as Brady and the Patriots might be, the team’s business side — like the mechanized football operations run by coach Bill Belichick — is too savvy to attach all of its fortunes to one player, said Ben Shields, a former director of social media and marketing at ESPN who now teaches managerial communication at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Belichick’s system, almost everyone seems replaceable — including, one day, Tom Brady.
Other franchises, most notably the Dallas Cowboys, have kept the power of their brands alive long after stars retire and championship glories fade. The Cowboys have won just two playoff games since 1996 — the era of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin — yet are the most valuable team in the NFL.
With an eye toward Brady’s eventual retirement, the Patriots have been among the league leaders in high-tech stadium upgrades to make the fan experience more fun, regardless of who is under center. The new attraction Kraft highlighted on that night in 2013 was a powerful Wi-Fi network that would allow fans to post photos and stream videos in the stands.
“The Patriots understand the long-term game,” Shields said. “They’re now etched into the cultural fabric of New England and have built a brand that can withstand winning and losing, and the coming and going of players. I would be surprised if they suffered damage to their business.”
So far, sponsors appear unfazed. EMC chief executive Joe Tucci said he “look[s] forward to our working together for years to come.” Spokespeople for Bank of America and Putnam Investments issued similar statements.
Fournier noted that companies closely tied to a singular individual — Apple to Steve Jobs, for instance, or Martha Stewart Living to Martha Stewart — will often take the spotlight off that person with subtle, gradual moves in a time of crisis or when the end of a career is in sight.
Apple gave Tim Cook, now the technology giant’s chief executive, more prominent roles at product launch events in the years before Jobs resigned, then died of cancer, in 2011.
When Stewart went to prison in 2004 for obstruction of justice in an insider trading case, Martha Stewart Living magazine downplayed her name in a redesigned cover.
But there is little evidence of the Patriots shunning Brady since an investigator hired by the NFL surmised that Brady was “generally aware of inappropriate activities” by equipment managers to deflate game balls in violation of league rules. In a 460-word response to the investigator’s report, however, owner Robert Kraft did not mention Brady, focusing instead on his belief that the team did nothing wrong.
Asked by e-mail whether the Patriots would deemphasize Brady in their marketing efforts, a team spokesman did not respond.
While Brady has been a positive influence on the Patriots’ identity for 15 years, his effect on how the club is viewed is less certain now, said Kevin Lane Keller, professor of marketing at Dartmouth College.
“I think he’s still an asset, but this confuses some people and makes them wonder about him,” Keller said. “Your brand is a promise. You don’t want people to have any doubts.”