Last summer, upon finalizing his group’s purchase of the Washington Commanders from embattled businessman Daniel Snyder, whose quarter-century-long stewardship of the once-proud franchise was tarnished by a flurry of federal investigations over sexual misconduct and toxic workplace allegations, Josh Harris referred to the development as bashert, the Yiddish word for “fate.”
For Harris, a native of Chevy Chase, Md., who grew up as a hardcore supporter of the Washington Redskins (since rechristened the Commanders), the $6.05 billion transaction – a record for a North American sports franchise – was more than just the latest add-on to his multi-billion-dollar portfolio, which already included majority ownership stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. The acquisition of his hometown franchise, which was celebrated across all corners of the NFL, was an opportunity to revive the fortunes of a franchise that has fallen on exceptionally hard times this century.
When Harris co-founded the alternative investment firm Apollo Global Management in 1990, Washington was less than two years away from winning Super Bowl XXVI, their third title in a decade. The burgundy and gold were synonymous with NFL royalty with legacy head coach Joe Gibbs patrolling the sidelines, standout players Brian Mitchell, Darrell Green, and Art Monk squarely in their prime, and a rabid fanbase streaming into RFK Stadium every Sunday. But soon after the hard-charging businessman Snyder took over in 1999, Washington crashed hard, winning merely two playoff games over the next quarter century. And with Snyder embroiled in a string of controversies while presiding over a non-contending team, interest in the Redskins/Commanders has waned in recent years.
Until this past July.
When news broke that it was a done deal, that the Harris-led group, which also includes NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, venture capitalist Mark Ein, and businessman Mitchell Rales, whose parents are the namesakes of the Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services in Boca Raton, Fla., was taking over, football fans across the D.C. region let out a collective sigh of relief. No longer would one of the NFL’s legacy teams be a perennial underachiever with a besmirched reputation.
Upon finalizing the deal to buy the Commanders, Harris said in a statement: “On behalf of our entire ownership group … I want to express how excited we are to be considered by the NFL to be the next owners of the Washington Commanders and how committed we are to delivering a championship-caliber franchise for this city and its fan base.”
As has been the case with the 76ers, a team that slowly but surely ascended to the ranks of the NBA’s elite after years of irrelevancy, the Commanders’ transformation likely won’t happen overnight. It could be a drawn-out process laced with incremental improvements and rebuilding steps to acquire draft capital, such as the pair of blockbuster trades last month involving uber-talented defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young.
The Commanders – who will be playing the Dallas Cowboys during next week’s Thanksgiving matchup – have been hovering around .500 this autumn but possess a stable of dynamic receivers (Jahan Dotson, Terry McLaurin) and running backs (Antonio Gibson, Brian Robinson), a promising young quarterback in Sam Howell (“I think Sam’s been killing it. You can just see him taking over the offense pretty well,” said kicker Joey Slye) and tough-as-iron head coach Ron Rivera, who over the past decade has survived skin cancer and a devastating house fire.
Looking ahead, Washington has a handful of high-round picks in next year’s draft and ample cap space for landing a splashy free agent or two. But irrespective of the team’s standing in the NFC East – and they could be looking up at the Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman-led Philadelphia Eagles for a while – Harris being the new face of Washington football promises to restore dignity into the heavily-maligned franchise.
Not to mention excitement, a dynamic of which the players themselves are acutely aware.
“Definitely with the new owner, definitely bringing a lot more excitement from the fan base,” said veteran defensive back Kendall Fuller.
“There’s just good vibes around the building overall,” noted center Tyler Larsen. “People are excited in the community and all that. It’s just been a lot better.”
The optics are, indeed, a lot better this season. For starters, Harris’ personal engagement with Washington fans (during preseason games he sat in the stands with the masses) and everyman persona (he is known for his unassuming nature in walking around team facilities without a security detail) have endeared himself to the Commanders community at large.
“I think really like not only inside the organization, but outside it’s kind of like a reset,” added offensive lineman Chris Paul. “You can definitely feel the newer energy and excitement with this new era.”
Under Harris, Washington has invested $40 million into FedEx Field (Washington’s home since the late 1990s) for infrastructural upgrades, addition of new themed suites, and badly needed maintenance repairs to the bowl and paint encircling the stadium. While the multimillion-dollar facelift to the Landover, Md.-based facility has not gone unnoticed – the Commanders sold out their first four home games and season member ticket sales are up 20 percent from last year – a new glitzy downtown stadium (à la Mercedes-Benz Stadium) may be in the works.
“It’s personal for me,” said Harris, when speaking to the AJT, for whom Washington’s victory over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI holds special meaning as it was the final game of Russ Grimm’s Hall of Fame career. “I’ve been with this team through the highs and lows, and I know that this fan base deserves a team and franchise they can be proud of. That’s what I hope to deliver.”
While emerging as a bona fide captain of industry, Harris has consistently delivered for Israel where he is heavily invested in several philanthropic campaigns involving youth sports and the preservation of Jewish artifacts. Most notably, he has been the driving force behind the 48ers, a nonprofit that provides Ethiopian Israeli youths with organized athletic opportunities after school. Today, there are 25 teams with more than 400 participants in 18 different underprivileged communities across Israel.
“Philanthropy is extremely important for me, as is my relationship with Israel,” Harris emphasized. “I think often about tzedakah and how I can give back to my community and the world at large.”
As he looks ahead toward shepherding the Commanders back into annual postseason contention and league-wide respectability, Harris likes his chances going to battle with his cadre of associates, headlined by Magic Johnson.
“To put it simply, Magic [Johnson] is a winner. Five championships as an athlete and five more as an owner, who wouldn’t want him as a partner?” says Harris about his mega celebrity business partner whose inclusion in the new ownership group made for above-the-fold news this summer. “On top of that, he’s a successful businessman with an incredible story.
“The entire ownership group is truly an outstanding collection of individuals. Magic is a great leader and knows how to win. Mitch [Rales] is a great businessman and knows the city inside and out. Mark [Ein] is one of my closest childhood friends and a trusted advisor. I see these guys as teammates of my own, who love this franchise and want nothing more than to return it to the greatness it once achieved.”