It’s Wednesday night of Super Bowl Week and Robert Kraft walks into the basement of Sidebar, a sports bar in Atlanta. Kraft has owned the Patriots for 25 seasons and this is his 10th trip to the Super Bowl. Yet, this is new for Kraft.
On this night, Kraft is the premier guest on “Patriots Right Now,” a live show produced by the Patriots’ content team, airing from 7-7:30 p.m. ET Tuesday-Friday of Super Bowl Week. Kraft first discusses his team’s preparation for the week, but then, after a commercial break featuring Patriots’ official sponsors, Kraft talks about his recent criminal justice reform work with Meek Mill, Jay Z and 76ers owner Michael Rubin. He even tells a story about hanging out late night with Meek Mill’s entourage.
This content could not be found in 1997. Social media was nonexistent and the best way for teams to tell their own stories was in print, a hard medium to distribute in a single Super Bowl week. In 2019, the Patriots can communicate directly with their fans.
While the Patriots may have a reputation as the old guard of the NFL, the franchise’s content team is among the most innovative in the NFL.
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After Kraft gets off air Wednesday, he embraces Fred Kirsch. Technically speaking, Kirsch is Publisher & Vice President of Content at Kraft Sports Productions. But inside the Patriots’ front office, Kirsch is as valuable as family. In 1994, Kirsch was working as editor of New England Sport — Journal of the Sports Museum of New England, a quarterly publication covering sports in the region. During the 1994 season — the first in the Kraft Family reign — Kirsch sent then-Vice President Jonathan Kraft a letter mapping out an idea for Patriots in-house content. When the Patriots lost in January 1995 in the Wild Card Round to the Browns — coached by Bill Belichick — Jonathan called Kirsch to offer him a job.
On April 3, 1995, Kirsch published the first issue of Patriots Football Weekly. He’s been in charge of the team’s content ever since, and with the Krafts’ blessing, he keeps building.
“A lot of people don’t realize, but before [Robert Kraft] was the owner of the Patriots, he owned Channel 7 in Boston,” Kirsch says. “He gets content, especially video. He’s really into that. Jonathan’s the same way. They totally get video. We were the first team to have a website, we were the first team to do live video on the web, so since I’ve been here since ‘95, they’ve let us do whatever we needed to do.”
Kirsch’s team took a leap at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Establishing the “Not Done Network,” the Patriots brought in media veterans Jay Crawford and Molly McGrath to host a temporary 24/7 TV channel devoted to Patriots coverage leading up to Super Bowl LII. Broadcasting out of Mall of America, the channel intended to give Patriots fans a definite, constant source of content for the week.
With Atlanta’s Super Bowl layout being more spread out, Kirsch decided to focus his efforts on a nightly live show hosted by Patriots in-house talent Megan O’Brien and Andy Hart. Unlike the “Not Done Network,” “Patriots Right Now” launched at the beginning of the postseason and is already in Patriots fans’ routine.
“There’s an excitement factor,” Kirsch says. “Very few things nowadays, when it comes to content, are live. Everything’s on demand. Content consumption has changed. It’s shifted over the years. We know that, but there’s something about live. Let’s just make it an event. That’s not to say we’re not gonna wrap this up and not put what we did on demand. Of course we will. We’ll put it on our social channels, Patriots.com and all that, but just something to that live event, that’s cool.”
For obvious reasons, the Patriots organization has a wealth of experience in Super Bowl content. Kirsch and his team have dealt with trial and error. The biggest thing he’s learned: Fans want to feel the excitement through their screen.
“It really doesn’t matter how many times we do this,” Kirsch said. “It just doesn’t get old for us. And we want to make sure our fans realize that because it doesn’t get old for them either. Every year, we try to do something that brings them to where we are because everyone wants to be here, but they can’t.”
O’Brien, originally from Chicago, has had to learn the Patriots Way as the team’s on-air reporter for the past two seasons. In Minneapolis, Kirsch brought in big names. This year, he trusts his own talent, more familiar to the fans.
“They are as hardcore as they come,” O’Brien says of Pats Nation. “They’ve really welcomed me and embraced me. When I got this job, I knew about the Patriots, but I don’t think you realize how deeply rooted it is until you get there. Everybody lives and breathes the Patriots. On Sunday, everyone’s watching the game whether you’re a sports fan or you’re not.
“I think the fan rally shows that. They don’t get tired of going to Super Bowls. It looked like a gameday at Gillette. I feel like there were some growing pains my first year, like deep history, things I wasn’t here for. I’ve gotten to interact with fans and just figure out the ins and outs.”
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Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, Tom Brady — those are constants. It feels like those details will never change.
But behind-the-scenes, the content in Foxborough keeps evolving. With seven million Facebook likes, 4.3 million Twitter followers, 3.5 million Instagram followers and 80,000 YouTube subscribers, Kirsch has to keep making progress (for reference, the Rams have 849,000 Facebook likes, 823,000 Twitter followers, 749,000 Instagram followers and 4,500 YouTube subscribers).
“We basically doubled our social team when it comes to producing content,” he says of the 2018 season, going from two full-time social media employees to four. “We’re coming out with as much original stuff as we can for the different platforms. What’s good on Twitter isn’t necessarily good on Instagram and that isn’t necessarily good on Facebook. So, we look at all the platforms and try to feed each beast. YouTube may be the longer stuff and then of course there’s the app and Patriots.com. The Krafts are so forward-thinking. We’re so lucky to have them. They understand what good content is and they’re willing to give us the resources to make it happen.”
Kirsch might as well start preparing for Super Bowl LIV in Miami. As the Patriots keep making Super Bowls, he keeps getting tapped to innovate. So far, in 24 seasons, he’s lived up to the task.