Why the Commanders' $6 billion bidding war was one Josh Harris had to win

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 26, 2023

IT'S 9:04 P.M. ON a steamy Monday in late August, and new Washington Commanders owner Josh Harris is standing in a booth he never imagined he'd occupy, in between two legends he never imagined he'd meet: broadcaster Joe Buck and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman.

As Harris, all 5-foot-8 of him, prepares for a live interview, the producers have a dilemma: Buck is 6-1, Aikman is 6-4. They're in town to work ESPN's "Monday Night Football" broadcast of the Commanders' preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens. If Harris stands between them, the height difference will be noticeable.

How do you ask a man who just spent $6.05 billion -- the highest price in history for any North American sports franchise -- to ... stand on a wooden box?

To anyone who used to work for Harris' Commanders predecessor, Daniel Snyder, it is unusual that Harris is even considering the box. Snyder rarely granted interviews during his 24 years in charge and didn't take kindly to commentary on his height. But Harris is cut differently. He often speaks about how being undersized as a kid and wrestling in college at 118 pounds formed his personality, a relentlessness and scrappiness that has fueled his professional life, too. And he has been relentless as hell evaluating everyone and everything within the organization since he took over nine weeks ago.

Before the game, he was taking calls about the new sound system and reviewing ingress and egress plans. After that he was on the field shaking hands and doing photo ops with head coach Ron Rivera, Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, franchise legend Joe Gibbs and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg, who was the first major corporate sponsor to sign on with the team following the sale from Snyder.

"I've been around this long enough to know that people are impatient," Harris says. "I'm impatient. The honeymoon is going to last a certain amount of time, and then it's going to be on us and on me."

So if he has to stand on the box to make a good first impression, he's going to stand on the damn box.

Harris is one of the most powerful men in sports, owning three teams worth roughly $10.3 billion across three major North American sports. During the nine-month-long bidding process for the Commanders, Harris admits, he nearly walked away a half dozen times but never could. He knew how much the fan base had endured the past two decades because he endured it too. He'd also learned hard lessons in his first decade in the sports world -- and couldn't repeat them.

This was a $6 billion bidding war he had to win.

The Commanders are Harris' hometown team. And he knows that being out in front, where people can see him, is just the beginning.

"It's not something that I really relish or want to do," Harris says. "I'm more famous than I ever thought I would be. I have a family. I have five kids. I want them to have as normal of a life as they can.

"But on the other hand, I realized when I did this that I have a responsibility to the city, and part of that is understanding that the city wants to know who I am as a person. How do I make decisions? What do I stand for?"

This is why he's on the box between Buck and Aikman, shaking hands even when there's no shake to be had.

Yes, it's time to talk about the handshake. Buck asks a question. Harris answers it. Only Buck is also holding his hands out. Harris sees Buck's outstretched hand and goes in for the shake.

It misses. A total misread. A nightmare scenario on national television, but they both keep talking. Buck pulls his hand back quickly. Aikman smiles. And everyone on social media instantly starts clipping off the awkward clip, which goes viral by the time Harris leaves the booth and starts downloading with Commanders president Jason Wright and public relations specialist Dave Sholler.

The interview went well, Sholler tells him. Except for, well, the missed connection.

Harris, wearing Commanders burgundy, looks down at Sholler's screen and watches the handshake that wasn't.

Nobody likes going viral for something like this. But Harris has seen enough in his 12 years as an owner of the Philadelphia 76ers to know a little humility goes a long way.

He laughs and asks to see it again.

"What are you going to do?" Harris says. "Thought he was going for the shake."

SINCE IT OPENED in 1750, The Punchbowl public house in London's Mayfair district has served as the site of many great deals and nights out on the town. Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. used to be regulars. Justin Timberlake has stopped in. Guy Ritchie and Madonna liked it so much, they bought it in March 2008. At one point it was even a stop for sightseeing tourist buses.

It is exactly the kind of place two American titans of private equity would go for dinner.

David Blitzer had lived in London for a decade when Harris moved to town in 2008. Blitzer was at Blackstone, Harris at Apollo Global Management. Their firms were hugely competitive, but the community of expats doing private equity at that level in London was a small one, and they became fast friends.

One night over a long dinner at The Punchbowl, the seeds of a future partnership were born.

"I can still picture that dinner," Blitzer says, "and filing away his interest in investing in sports."

Harris was nearing what would become a legendary private equity deal -- a $2 billion investment in the multinational chemical company LyondellBasell during the pit of the financial crisis.

The company went through bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, but Harris believed in it more than ever. He thought it had competitive advantages in refining natural gas -- which had become cheap and abundant as fracking techniques were developed -- into polypropylene, a plastic used in everything from food and beverage packaging to textiles and the automotive industry. Where other investors ran from the distress, Harris and Apollo dove in and were rewarded handsomely. In just five years, the investment grew by 500%, to more than $12 billion.

Around the same time, Harris and Blitzer independently began studying another sector they felt might be undervalued: professional sports.

Eight NBA teams -- the Charlotte Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards, Sixers, Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors -- became available between 2008 and 2012, creating something of a buyer's market.

"I grew up a Sixers fan," Blitzer says. "He went to Wharton. So I said, 'Josh, let's buy the Sixers, man!' He said, 'Oh, that's funny. I already bid on them.'"

They joined forces, eventually adding other limited partners like Jason Levien and a brash young businessman named Michael Rubin, who'd just sold his company GSI Commerce to eBay for $2.4 billion.

Rubin was a late addition to the group, he says, "placed" there by former NBA commissioner David Stern.

The league was facing a long lockout, and Stern was still acting as the owner of the New Orleans franchise after George Shinn went bankrupt and was forced to sell it back to the league. Rubin was a guy the NBA had done business with since 1999.

"David said, 'Michael, I thought about this. You need to go in and be a real partner,'" Rubin recalls. "I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because if anything goes wrong, you work for f---ing me and I can control you. And so you're f---ing doing this, because I need someone in this group that I control.'"

The Sixers were something of a distressed asset at the time as well, Blitzer says, losing approximately $25 million a year with a mediocre roster and a frustrated local fan base that routinely prioritized the Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies and Flyers in terms of attendance.

Harris and Blitzer studied the financials, taking more than six months to work through and close the deal. They badly wanted the team. But they'd made their careers -- and their fortunes -- by making the right investments, at the right time, for the right price.

The more they studied the NBA and the sports world in general, the more untapped value they saw.

And so in early July 2011, Harris and Blitzer put pen to paper. It is one of the great sports business success stories of the modern era -- from a purchase price of $280 million to a $3.15 billion valuation in 2023.

"No. 1 is the scarcity value," Blitzer says. "They don't make more of them. It's like art in some ways."

In a lot of ways, actually. About a year after Harris closed on the Sixers, Harris' co-founder at Apollo, Leon Black, closed on a $119.9 million purchase of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" at auction, a record at the time.

The second factor, Blitzer says, was the changing landscape of sports media rights.

"I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I had some crystal ball and I realized that the NBA media rights were going to go up as dramatically as they did in 2014," Blitzer says. "But certainly I thought they were going up."

Once they were in on sports, Harris and Blitzer did exactly what private equity guys do: They added to their portfolios.

In 2013, they bought the New Jersey Devils for $320 million. In 2015, they bought a $75 million stake in Crystal Palace of the English Premier League.

Two industry-changing deals confirmed their analysis that valuations on sports franchises were about to skyrocket: In 2012, Blitzer's firm, Blackstone, handled the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2014, Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion.

Since that Clippers sale, four of the five NBA franchises that have been sold went for at least $1.5 billion -- most notably the Phoenix Suns, who sold for $4 billion this year.

"My only regret," Blitzer says, "is we didn't invest in every single league back in the 2010 to 2015 time frame."

HARRIS WOULD LOVE to say that he saw value in sports back in 2010 the way he saw value in LyondellBasell back in 2008.

But that return on investment is not what comes to mind when he looks back on his investments in the sports world over the past 12 years.

"In business we're fiduciaries for pension funds and investors and our job is to make them money," Harris says from what has become his office at FedEx Field. The room is empty, save for a few items on the desk. There hasn't been time to furnish anything yet. Just to work.

"In sports, you can't make it about money. You have to make it about winning and you have to make it about engaging with the city."

In that respect, Harris hasn't succeeded. The Sixers have won 248 regular-season games over the past five seasons, tied for second most in that span, but haven't made a conference finals. The Devils have made the playoffs just twice in Harris' tenure. And Crystal Palace hasn't finished higher than 11th in the Premier League table.

It's been humbling.

"You learn so much as an owner," he says. "You can't always control the outcome. Just like you can't necessarily say, 'I've assembled this superteam, and it's going to win.'"

From the radical Sam Hinkie-era "Process" to the unraveling of Ben Simmons to the still-murky James Harden situation, the Sixers have taken as many big swings as any franchise in the past decade and still haven't seen the kind of return Harris says is required in sports.

As an investor, Harris has a reputation as a monster workaholic. Eighty-, 90-hour weeks. Phone calls until 2 a.m., then back at it by 5 or 6 a.m. with calls on the way to and from the gym. He doesn't golf or fish or travel the way men of his station usually do. He works.

But no amount of work and analysis could solve the kinds of issues that have come up during his time as owner of the Sixers. There have been personality conflicts, holdouts, mental health issues, philosophical differences on team building, even a high-profile burner account scandal.

"In sports, I've learned you need to get under the hood because everything plays out publicly and it can destroy momentum," he says. "I want to make sure Joel Embiid is feeling good and he's taken care of. I'm talking to him and making sure that I'm getting his point of view in terms of some of these decisions. What's important to a coach? What's important to a GM? And also not making decisions too quickly. You have to learn all that."

The public nature of sports ownership -- the need he feels to be more forward-facing with the Commanders -- has been the toughest learning curve.

"In sports, when your mother says act as if you're going to read about it on the front page of the paper, that's really true, literally," he says. "So how you act, even if it might make sense to do one thing financially, maybe you have to do another thing because it's your responsibility to the people who work in the organization and the city. Or it'll play out in public in the wrong way."

That's why he has been so public since taking over the Commanders. Right away he and minority owner Mitch Rales started scheduling lunches with groups of 10-12 players to build relationships.

"I have their [phone] numbers, I'm able to talk to them. And that's just really different to be able to have more of a personal relationship," says wide receiver Terry McLaurin. "And we have some guys in there who are not afraid to ask the tough questions, but also give our honest opinions. Mostly [Harris and Rales] were just asking about how they can improve. From the locker room, the training staff, the game-day experience, how our families are treated. A lot of things, they just seem little, but they add up."

There are bigger things Harris wants to tackle in the future, too. The team's stadium and practice facility are both in need of upgrades. There are hundreds of organizational and staffing issues to evaluate in the next few years. Not to mention a beleaguered fan base that's desperately hoping he is more than just not Dan Snyder.

It is a massive undertaking.

"Josh, he's been humbled," Rubin says. "He realizes this is harder than people think. He knows how to go in, listen, learn.

"This is not about an investment. This is about a chance. I had financial success in business and now I have a chance to buy my team I grew up with. And yes, he is going to make it a much better business. But his dream is to hold up a f---ing trophy and bring a Super Bowl to the region."

IT'S NOT HARD to drum up enthusiasm in the honeymoon stage of a new relationship. What's hard is sustaining it when things go wrong.

Two years ago, that's exactly where Harris was. Officially, he stepped down from running the day-to-day operations of Apollo after clashing with co-founders Leon Black and Marc Rowan over who should succeed Black as CEO amid an investigation into Black's alleged ties to Jeffrey Epstein. Unofficially, he lost the power struggle with Rowan and left the company he'd spent 32 years building into one of the largest private equity firms in the world.

It hurt him deeply.

"On a human level," Harris says, "being untethered from something you had done for 32 years was unsettling.

"But on the other hand, it gave me a chance to really think about what I wanted to do," he continues. "Once I got through the emotional part of it, I had a lot of opportunities."

He went on a listening tour, first talking with those who knew him best -- Blitzer, Rubin and childhood friend and fellow venture capitalist Mark Ein. Then with people whose perspectives he valued: Rales, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, former President Barack Obama, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon and former Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry.

Rales was someone he knew of but didn't know personally despite their shared background in Washington. Ein wanted them to meet because Rales had been through his share of personal and professional reinventions.

"Mark said, 'Would you do me a favor and spend some time with Josh?'" Rales recalls. "He's trying to think through everything going on in his life. Everything with the firm was coming a little unglued. And he's thinking about career and what he does next."

Rales, who made his $5.4 billion fortune by building a variety of businesses, founded the Glenstone art museum in 2006 in Potomac, Maryland, with his second wife, Emily Wei Rales. He has since built its asset collection to nearly $4.6 billion, on par with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

He'd also been through a near-death experience in 1988 while on a fishing trip to Siberia that he says changed the course of his life and priorities.

His advice to Harris was simple: "'Why would you want to be part of something that doesn't necessarily want you to be necessarily part of it?'" Rales recalls. "'You have a chance to really craft something incredible. You're still a young guy. You've got one more great run left.'

"And sure enough, that's what he did."

Harris found new purpose after his existential chats with Rales and others. In 2022, he founded a new private equity firm, 26North, which launched with more than $5 billion in assets and put together a group that was a finalist for the Denver Broncosbefore the Walton-Penner family paid $4.65 billion.

"My view on the Broncos deal was simple," Blitzer says. "If Rob Walton and his partners decided they want to buy the team, they were going to buy the team. And if they don't, Josh will buy the team.

"My view on the Commanders was my view of the Waltons and Denver. If Josh hangs in there, he's going to end up figuring out a way to invest in the team."

Harris had been building a relationship with Snyder for some time. He understood that Snyder would have the ultimate say on whom the team would be sold to, if he ultimately decided to do so.

For years Snyder maintained he would never sell. But over the course of the past three years, a series of lawsuits and league and congressional investigations made it untenable for Snyder to continue. That spiral began with a series of reports by the Washington Post into mistreatment of the team's female employees in the middle of 2020. Those allegations led to an investigation by the NFL and then Congress. In February 2022, the NFL opened a second investigation into the team, led by former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White, following the testimony of two former employees before Congress. Snyder's final surrender seemed to come in February of this year after ESPN published a story detailing a federal investigation into allegations of financial misconduct by Snyder and the team.

Harris followed all of the news from afar but was close enough to the situation to be in position to bid on the team when the time came.

"I met with Dan a few times," Harris says. "Anytime that you're in a deal like this, the seller has to want to do a deal with you. So I had to cultivate him."

This was not the first time he had to build a relationship with the owner of a distressed company. He'd made his career buying companies like this.

"You have to be transparent, be direct," Harris says. "Say what you're going to do and then do it, be polite, be respectful. Sometimes when you're in a process [like this], there's agreements and lawyers and people can get angry. So communication is important."

The specter of Snyder's legal situation hung over everything. The threat of former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos -- one of the richest men in the world -- coming in at the last minute and outspending them was always there.

But after nine months of late nights and long calls, Harris and Snyder had a deal. A record for any North American sports franchise -- not Harris' typical buy-low acquisition.

"Paying $280 million [for the Sixers] then, might've been a harder decision than Josh paying $6 billion for the Commanders, just because it was a different time," says Rubin, who sold his stake in the Sixers last year to avoid conflicts of interest with his company, Fanatics. "And because he didn't understand sports then the way he does now."

NFL rules hold that the majority owner must hold over 30% equity. Harris says he's "well north of that" and that Rales is the second-largest shareholder, at around 10%. Ein is also a minority partner, along with Magic Johnson.

Hours after the sale closed, Harris called into a local radio station (106.7 The Fan) and bought a round of beers for about 1,000 listeners at the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, Virginia. Since then he has done countless photo ops and interviews all over the District. The Commanders won their first home regular-season game Sept. 10 in front of Embiid, D.C. native Kevin Durant and franchise legends such as John Riggins, Champ Bailey and Sonny Jurgensen.

There hasn't been much time to soak it all in. There have been nice moments, like holding his daughter Bridget's hand on the field before the first preseason game, in between photo ops.

But there hasn't been time for much else. Not even makeup before his TV appearance with Buck and Aikman.

"It's not going to help," Harris jokes. "Not at my age." But there's a larger point he is making.

The Commanders might not end up producing the kind of financial returns Harris is used to delivering.

But that's not the kind of reward he's after.

"People just start almost crying when they tell you about the memories they had of Washington football," Harris says. "One of the most important people in government just emailed me and said they remembered being at a game with their dad. I remember being at games with my dad.

"So this is really important. It's a very important city, and it's a very important franchise."

John Keim contributed to this story.

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