How Josh Harris’s Washington roots inspired him to buy the Commanders

A sea of fans engulfed Josh Harris as he inched his way to the stage, signing autographs, posing for selfies and high-fiving strangers as Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2” pumped through the speakers.

When the screams and whistles finally quieted, the new owner of the Washington Commanders told the crowd how glad he was that the fans hung around to welcome him to FedEx Field.

And then he told a story.

“I grew up here in Chevy Chase,” he began. “… The Washington Redskins — not the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins — were the number one franchise. We need to get back to those days!”

Harris then pointed to a group, standing behind him, that included fellow billionaire Mitchell Rales, D.C. venture capitalist Mark Ein, NBA legend Magic Johnson and Commanders Coach Ron Rivera.

“It might take a little time,” Harris continued, “but, like, look at who we have up onstage.”

Cue even more screams, the soundtrack of an almost unreal Friday afternoon at Washington’s beaten-up stadium. Hours earlier, Harris and his group of approximately 20 investors had closed on their $6.05 billion purchase of the Commanders, setting a record with the highest U.S. sports franchise sale price and beginning a new era in D.C.

In 20 minutes, Harris achieved what no one else has over the past 20 years in Washington. He restored hope for the fans of a once marquee franchise. The dread of the next disappointment — because there always seemed to be a next one — finally dissipated and was replaced by an air of unadulterated joy.

Daniel Snyder’s ownership in Washington will be remembered as one of the worst in sports history, which grants Harris immediate savior status. Harris is not Snyder, and that alone is a significant edge as he tries to revitalize the franchise. The private-equity investor and owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils hopes to raise the bar in Washington, largely because of his personal connection to the area and the team. Harris and his investors — curated to feature D.C. ties, financial savvy, real estate knowledge and obviously significant wealth — vowed to restore the franchise as they remember it.

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“We will work tirelessly to make you proud once again of this franchise like my family was when I grew up here,” Harris said earlier in the day during his introductory news conference. “This is not going to be easy. My job is to deliver an organization that can win. It’s on me, and it’s on us up here.”

To get here, you have to go back. Back to the mid-1970s, when Harris attended Rollingwood Elementary School in Chevy Chase and lived a few blocks from Ein, a kindergarten classmate who became a lifelong friend. The two played touch football games at Candy Cane City, grew up as Washington NFL fans, attended the University of Pennsylvania and later Harvard Business School, went into finance, worked on Wall Street together and even shared beach houses.

You have to go back to when Harris, the son of an orthodontist, would go with his dad to Capital Centre in Landover to watch the Washington Bullets. But he lived for the times his uncle would offer up a ticket to attend an NFL game at RFK Stadium. Harris had a No. 17 Billy Kilmer jersey. He and Ein also had identical burgundy-and-gold Washington varsity jackets.

“One of my earliest memories was blocking Garo [Yepremian’s kick] — I mean, seriously — and then running it back for a touchdown, losing to the Miami Dolphins, 14-7, [in Super Bowl VII],” Harris recalled recently. “I remember when I was in high school and Joe Gibbs [was coach] and their first pick was Art Monk and everyone being like, ‘Who is Art Monk?’ ”

You have to go back to when Norman Rales would drop off Mitchell and his three other sons at the Friendship Heights bus station so they could go to RFK. They never missed a game.

And to get here, you have to go back to the late 1990s, when the behemoth of a stadium now called FedEx Field first opened.

“I remember literally going up and gazing up at Jack Kent Cooke [Stadium] and being like, ‘This is unbelievable,’ ” Harris said in an interview with The Washington Post. “So, yeah, I was a legit real fan and lived through all those experiences and all those years. … It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of who I am.”

Harris has always been entrenched in sports — he wrestled at Penn from 1982 to 1985 — but he built his fortune in finance, first at an investment bank, Drexel Burnham Lambert, and then at Apollo Global Management, the private equity firm he co-founded in 1990.

While living in London, Harris became close to David Blitzer, a managing partner at investment management company Blackstone.

“I just remember us talking, and I sort of remember him saying that he was interested in investing in sports,” Blitzer said, thinking back to a conversation he had with Harris in the fall of 2010. “I just sort of lodged that in the back of my brain.”

New Commanders owners pledge to win and ‘take all the headaches away’

A year later, Harris and Blitzer — co-founders of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment — purchased the 76ers from Comcast-Spectacor for $280 million. In 2013, they partnered again to buy the Devils from Jeffrey Vanderbeek for $320 million. Two years after that, they invested in the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace, and in 2020 they acquired a small stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“It wasn’t like [we had always planned to] keep investing,” Blitzer said. “But I think we both kind of had it in our heads, and as it started to play out, we got more and more excited about making it larger and broader as we went.”

In the late spring of 2021, with Harris’s career at a crossroads — he announced plans to step down from Apollo after more than 30 years at the company — Ein suggested he meet with Rales, who had been an acquaintance of Harris’s for years. So the three convened at Glenstone, the private art museum in Potomac that Rales co-founded with his wife.

“We had the opportunity during the middle of the pandemic to really sit down and have a long talk about business and where he was really wanting to go with his next career step,” Rales said. “We just chess-boarded a lot of things together and had a lot of deep conversations. … Little did I know where this would all lead.”

Harris wanted to build his own investment firm, which he did in 2022. He also wanted to expand his family’s charitable foundation, Harris Philanthropies. And he wanted to do more in sports.

Last year, Harris made a run at two franchises — the Denver Broncos and England’s Chelsea FC — before the Commanders came available.

“I think … the fact that it was his hometown was the whole reason that he stretched for it,” said Ein, who is also the chair of the DC Open tennis tournament. “… I think he was a little of the mind-set like not to do it. Only because it was Washington was the only reason he did it. I think otherwise he would have just passed.”

Much of Harris’s career has followed a basic trend: Buy distressed assets and make them more valuable.

He did it for years at Apollo. He also has done it repeatedly with his sports franchises.

The 76ers garnered criticism for their famed “Process,” essentially a rebuild through tanking. They gutted their roster and plunged to the bottom of the NBA, only to climb back up, primarily with the help of Joel Embiid, the third pick of the 2014 draft and this year’s MVP.

The 76ers have yet to win a championship on Harris’s watch, but they have made the playoffs the past six seasons and have more than 14,000 season ticket holders, up from 3,500 in 2011, according to HBSE. Last year, Forbes valued the 76ers at $3.15 billion, up from $469 million in 2014.

The Devils have started to see returns on an expansion of their scouting staff and lucrative investments in players, including Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Ondrej Palat and Dougie Hamilton. They tied the largest single-season turnaround in NHL history in 2022-23, and they followed it with another flurry of offseason moves.

With both teams, Harris made analytics and sports science priorities. He has said that with all of his investments, he likes to hire the best talent. But he also stays involved in his team’s operations.

Josh Harris is embraced for who he isn’t. Now we get to see who he is.

“We have weekly calls [with Harris and Blitzer], and I can present whatever is on my mind — what I want to do,” Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “It may be as small as, ‘Hey, these are the prospects at development camp.’ … They like to hear about their team: the good and where we need to get better and how we’re going to fix things and how we’re going to maintain things.”

Daryl Morey, the 76ers’ president, added: “He’ll ask, like, ‘What were the alternatives you considered? Why did you choose to do it now versus if you waited a while?’ And if you don’t have good answers to those questions, you shouldn’t work for Josh.”

The turnarounds of both teams became a part of Rales’s due diligence as he pondered joining the group Harris assembled to bid on and eventually purchase the Commanders.

“It made an impression on me, and I did some fun due diligence as well by going to a few of the [76ers’] playoff games,” he said. “After being in Washington for as long as I’ve been, to get the feel of the playoffs again, you had goose bumps.”

During Snyder’s 24-year ownership, Washington became the NFL’s biggest blemish, with more federal investigations than playoff wins. The days when burgundy blanketed the stands and the stadium shook seemed like a myth as swaths of empty seats — or worse, seats filled with opposing fans — became the norm.

Quarterbacks came and went. Coaches did, too. And even the wins were bogged down by the team’s reality.

Harris believes Washington’s new reality can look much different, even in his first year. He and his investors take over with little time to make significant change before the start of the season, but they plan to improve the fan experience and assess the staff and team to determine the next steps.

Building a new stadium is atop their list of long-term goals, along with repairing the franchise’s relationship with fans and local officials.

That started as early as Thursday, when Harris called in to 106.7 the Fan’s end-of-Snyder party and bought beers for the fans.

It continued Friday, when he held a town hall with team employees and then a lunch with former players, then greeted those screaming fans.

“Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but I feel like one of the great things about Washington fans is [they’re] like a sleeping giant,” Harris said. “There’s still that loyalty.”

But to get back the fans who left in droves because of Snyder and to keep the many who showed up Friday afternoon to take selfies and give high-fives, Harris knows one thing is necessary: winning.

Just as Washington used to do when he grew up a fan of the team.

“I’m thankful for it and am grateful for it, but … I’m sweating this,” Harris said with a smile. “I’m stressed. This isn’t just some thing for me. I feel a great sense of responsibility to make this work and to make the city proud of the franchise again.”

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