FARINELLA: Jackson's part in Pats' history was real 'thriller'

In this Dec. 3, 1984 picture, Michael Jackson performs with his brothers at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as part of their Victory Tour concert. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac)

There will never be a place reserved in the Patriots' Hall of Fame for pop icon Michael Jackson. But perhaps there should be.

It wouldn't be for his songs or his dance moves, which captivated the country 20 years ago. And it most certainly would not be for the bizarre behavior that characterized the singer's later years prior to his death Thursday at the age of 50 of an apparent heart attack.

But Michael Jackson - before "Neverland," before his multiple plastic surgeries and eerie skin lightening, before lingering accusations of pedophilia - had almost as much of an impact upon the future NFL dynasty that the New England Patriots would become as Tom Brady, Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft.

Can't be, you say? Read on.

Some of you thirtysomethings may remember that when Jackson was at the top of his popularity, embarking upon a continent-crossing "Victory Tour" in the summer of 1984, the ownership of the Patriots wanted him to play a series of concerts at then-Sullivan Stadium in Foxboro. The Victory Tour was supposed to be the last time the five Jackson brothers would tour together as Michael's career was ascending into the entertainment stratosphere, and this 55-stop tour was expected to be a record-breaking blockbuster.

But when the Sullivan family applied for dates, the Foxboro Board of Selectmen said "no" - something the town fathers had rarely done since the opening of the stadium in 1971.

Fearful of what was termed in newspaper accounts as "the unknown element" the concerts would bring to town, selectmen steadfastly refused to grant multiple dates to the Sullivans for the concerts when they considered the matter on June 21, 1984. Eventually, it was decided that the Victory Tour would bypass Foxboro entirely.

To this day, the debate still rages over what selectmen meant by "the unknown element."

It's easy to presume that racism was at the root of their fears - perhaps too easy. Jackson, an African-American performer, was as mainstream as one could possibly be in 1984, and his most ardent fans were the legions of teen and pre-teen girls from the suburbs who would have pestered their daddies unmercifully for the money to buy tickets to the Victory Tour concerts at every stop throughout the United States and Canada.

It should also be noted that, at the time, Sullivan Stadium was not a friendly place. Football crowds were often unruly, drunk and disorderly. Security was lax and high arrest totals were often posted either at the games or at the other big-ticket concerts that were staged there.

So it would appear that selectmen had legitimate concerns about crowd-control issues, although it was still a highly unusual decision on their part not to approve the concerts.

What made the rejection of the Foxboro concert dates even more amazing was the fact that the tour was being bankrolled and promoted by Billy Sullivan's No. 1 son, Chuck, the executive vice president of the Patriots and the man who did most of the day-to-day business for the club.

Sensing the town fathers' reluctance in bringing the Jackson concerts to Foxboro long before the application for dates, the younger Sullivan managed to talk his way into becoming the tour's primary promoter - and he produced the cash that made the Jacksons blink by using the Patriots and their home stadium as collateral.

There were some benefits to Sullivan's involvement. His NFL connections made it possible for the Victory Tour to be booked into NFL stadiums for 26 of the planned 55 concerts. He also hoped to apply what he had learned from the NFL Properties marketing wing of the league to spur concert-related memorabilia sales to record levels.

But when it came time for the Foxboro selectmen to make their decision, Chuck Sullivan's presumed clout as the promoter of the tour meant absolutely nothing - and that was the whole point of his getting involved, to make sure that his family got as big a piece of the pie as was humanly possible.

Sullivan, of course, knew even less about running a concert tour than he and his family knew about running a football team. Starting with the tour's first stop in July at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, he made a fool of himself by demanding discount hotel rates and free newspaper advertising. He bickered constantly with the Jackson family over every little detail and every little expense. He even forgot his pass to the concert at RFK Stadium in Washington and was denied access.

Another unanticipated factor was the sheer size of the stage used for the concert, which reduced the number of concert-viewable seats in each of the venues by anywhere from 25 to 33 percent.

Midway through the tour, the Jacksons had had enough of Chuck Sullivan, and boxing promoter Don King (who called Sullivan "Charley the Tuna" in their first meeting) took over the job as primary promoter. Reports differ about how much Sullivan lost for his trouble, but most agree that it was at least $22 million - at that time, practically all of the Sullivan family's net worth. The concert series was said to have grossed $75 million, a record for its time, but expenses and the failure of merchandising resulted in the Victory Tour being regarded as a colossal defeat.

That began a spiraling plunge toward bankruptcy for the Sullivans.

Broke and in the midst of a divorce, Chuck Sullivan was forced to turn one of the stadium's luxury boxes into his personal bedroom - which became a spectacular embarrassment to the team when The Sun Chronicle's beat reporter stumbled into the room upon the close of training camp, still thinking it was being used as the stadium's media workroom.

Even though the Patriots defied all of the odds and advanced to Super Bowl XX in the 1985 season, their financial resources had been drained by the debts incurred by the Victory Tour. Piece by piece, the parts of the Sullivan empire crumbled away.

After a failed attempt to attract Reebok CEO Paul Fireman as a major investor, the Sullivans were forced to sell the Patriots in July 1988 to a partnership group headed by Remington Products Corp. CEO Victor Kiam. Four months later, the stadium and its surrounding properties were sold in a sealed-bid auction under the auspices of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and a partnership consisting of paper products magnate Robert Kraft and shopping mall developer Steve Karp submitted the winning bid of $25 million over Kiam's low-ball offer of approximately $17 million.

Kraft would eventually buy out Karp and gain full control over the stadium's iron-clad lease to keep the Patriots in Foxboro until 2001. That lease had made it impossible for both Billy Sullivan and Kiam to sell the team to interests in Jacksonville, Fla., and as Kiam teetered on the brink of bankruptcy himself in 1992, he sold the team to a group of St. Louis investors headed by James Busch Orthwein.

Orthwein, too, was restrained by the terms of the lease from moving the team to St. Louis after that city was denied an expansion franchise by the NFL. So, in January 1994, he sold the team to Kraft for a reported $168 million - a sum that Kraft still claims was "overpaying" for the franchise.

It's fair to suggest that Kraft made out quite well in the end. The new stadium, the team and the Patriot Place development are said to be worth more than $1.2 billion today, and Kraft has used those resources and the income he helped acquire for all 32 NFL teams from his position on the league's television committee to build a team that has won consistently throughout the last decade.

It can be argued, however, that if the Sullivans' bankruptcy hadn't paved the way for Kraft's initial involvement in the franchise as a part-owner of the stadium, the end result may have been a team playing in another city instead of one that has three Super Bowl championship banners hanging inside a gleaming new stadium.

In one of the great ironies of this story, it's said that in the years following the Victory Tour debacle, Jackson ignored several letters from Chuck Sullivan, all of them begging the singer to bail the family out of its financial woes. A quarter-century later, the bizarre recluse that Jackson had become was himself on the brink of bankruptcy when he died.

MARK FARINELLA may be reached at 508-236-0315 or via e-mail at mfarinel@thesunchronicle.com. Read Farinella's blog, "Blogging Fearlessly," at thesunchronicle.com/farinella.

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(5) comments


It was all about racism pure and simple that the concert wasn't allowed.


Hey Fearless,Stay on vacation next time. Its not like Sarah Behn died or anything. You freakshow.


Nice copy and paste job.The Globe will be sending the lawyers..http://www.boston.com/sports/football/patriots/reiss_pieces/2009/06/how_michael_jac.htmlYou HACK!!


Hey, Butch -- I happened to experience the Victory Tour situation first-hand as a beat writer covering the Patriots for The Sun Chronicle in 1984 -- which, of course, I remain today. The article in Reiss's Pieces (written by Chad Finn, not Mike Reiss) was a re-hash of a Forbes magazine article from 2005 that told the story only from Robert Kraft's point of view, which was tangential at best at the time all of this took place.By the way, I was the reporter who discovered that Chuck Sullivan had turned a stadium luxury box into his personal bedroom. I also covered the U.S. Bankruptcy Court hearings in which Robert Kraft and a partner purchased the stadium.If you'd like to have me clear up any more of your misinformation, I can answer your questions personally at 508 236-0315. Feel free to call any time.


I bet he had a brain bleed from the hit on the head. I know too many people and stories about the same situation. Hit on head by something and within a month or just days, they die. Get checked out at the hospital if you hit your head.......... Mandatory people..... http://billymayes.blogspot.com/

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