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’re going back to those days!”
Harris then pointed to a group behind him that included fellow billionaire Mitchell Rales, DC venture capitalist Mark Ein, NBA legend Magic Johnson and Commanders Coach Ron Rivera.
“It might take a while,” Harris continued, “but look who we’ve got on stage.”
Cue even more screams, the soundtrack of an almost unreal Friday afternoon at Washington’s battered stadium. Hours earlier, Harris and his group of about 20 investors had closed on their purchase of the Commanders for $6.05 billion, setting a record for the highest US sports franchise sale price and ushering in a new era in D.C.
In 20 minutes, Harris accomplished what no one else has done over the past 20 years in Washington. He restored hope to fans of a once marquee franchise. The fear of the next disappointment – because there always seemed to be a next one – eventually disappeared and was replaced by an atmosphere of unadulterated joy.
Daniel Snyder’s ownership in Washington will be remembered as one of the worst in sports history, giving Harris instant savior status. Harris is not Snyder, and that alone is a significant advantage 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 have DC ties, financial savvy, real estate savvy and obviously considerable wealth — vowed to restore the franchise as they remember it.
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“We will work tirelessly to make you proud again of this franchise like my family was when I was growing up here,” Harris said earlier in the day during his introductory press 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 in 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 father to the Capital Center in Landover to watch the Washington Bullets. But he lived for the times his uncle would offer a ticket to an NFL game at RFK Stadium. Harris wore a No. 17 Billy Kilmer jersey. He and Ein also wore 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 choice was Art Monk, and everybody said, “Who’s 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 match.
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 walking up and looking up at Jack Kent Cooke [Stadium] and be like, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Harris said in an interview with The Washington Post. “So, yeah, I was a true 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 rooted 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 the investment management firm Blackstone.
“I just remember us talking and I kind of remember him saying he was interested in investing in sports,” Blitzer said, thinking back to a conversation he had with Harris in the fall of 2010. “I kind of put it in the back of my mind.”
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A year later, Harris and Blitzer — co-founders of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment — bought the 76ers from Comcast-Spectacor for $280 million. In 2013, they teamed up again to buy the Devils from Jeffrey Vanderbeek for $320 million. Two years later, they invested in the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace, and in 2020 they bought a small stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It wasn’t like that [we had always planned to] keep investing,” Blitzer said. “But I think we both had it in our heads, and when it started playing, we got more and more excited to make it bigger and broader as we went.”
In the late spring of 2021, with Harris’ career at a crossroads—he announced plans to retire from Apollo after more than 30 years with the company—Ein suggested he meet with Rales, who had been an acquaintance of Harris’ for years. So the three met at the Glenstone, the private art museum in Potomac that Rales co-founded with his wife.
“We had an opportunity in the middle of the pandemic to really sit down and have a long talk about business and where he really wanted 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. … I didn’t know where it was all going to 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 ran for two franchises – the Denver Broncos and England’s Chelsea FC – before the Commanders became available.
“I think … the fact that it was his hometown was the whole reason he reached out for it,” said Ein, who is also chairman of the DC Open tennis tournament. “… I think he was a bit of the mindset that didn’t 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’ career has followed a basic trend: buy distressed assets and make them more valuable.
He did that for years at Apollo. He has also done it repeatedly with his sports franchises.
The 76ers drew criticism for their famous “Process,” essentially rebuilding through refueling. They destroyed their roster and plummeted to the bottom of the NBA, only to climb back up, primarily with the help of Joel Embiid, the third pick in the 2014 draft and this year’s MVP.
The 76ers have yet to win a championship on Harris’ 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 billionup from $469 million in 2014.
The Devils are starting 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 matched the biggest single-season turnaround in NHL history in 2022-23, and they followed it with another flurry of offseason moves.
With both teams, Harris made analytical and sports science priorities. He has said that with all his investments, he likes to hire the best talent. But he also remains involved in his team’s operations.
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“We have weekly calls [with Harris and Blitzer], and I can present what’s on my mind – what I want to do,” Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “It can 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 improve 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 alternatives did you consider? 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 be working for Josh.”
Turnarounds for both teams became part of Rales’ due diligence as he considered joining the group Harris assembled to bid for and eventually buy the Commanders.
“It made an impression on me, and I also did some fun due diligence by going to a couple of them [76ers’] playoff games,” he said. “Having been in Washington as long as I have been, to get the feel of the playoffs again, you had goosebumps.”
During Snyder’s 24-year ownership, Washington became the NFL’s biggest blemish, with more federal investigations than playoff wins. The days when Bordeaux carpeted the stands and the stadium shook seemed like a myth as masses of empty seats – or worse, seats filled with opposing fans – became the norm.
Quarterbacks came and went. So did the coaches. And even the victories were bound by the reality of the team.
Harris believes Washington’s new reality could look very different, even in his first year. He and his investors take over with little time to make significant changes before the start of the season, but they plan to improve the fan experience and evaluate the staff and team to determine next steps.
Building a new stadium is at the top of their list of long-term goals, along with repairing the franchise’s relationship with fans and local officials.
It already started last Thursday, when Harris called into the 106.7 fans end-of-Snyder party and bought beer for the fans.
It continued on Friday, when he held a town hall with team employees and then a lunch with former players, then greeted the 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 bring 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 like Washington used to do growing up a fan of the team.
“I’m grateful for it and grateful for it, but … I’m sweating it,” 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.”