We’ll always remember these good times. They started the day when Josh Harris, his super friends and their $6.05 billion deal to purchase the Washington Commanders went official and it seemed as though a pall that had stretched from Landover to Ashburn and beyond had finally lifted. The light and fun times kept coming, always with Harris as the man of honor. The beer-soaked celebration at the Bullpen (with Harris buying a round). The pep rally live-streamed from the stadium. That awkward but lovable attempt at a handshake with Joe Buck during a preseason “Monday Night Football” telecast. Ahhh, such memories.
If only our favorite rich guy could stay frozen like this forever. As a fellow die-hard fan who just happens to have billions lying around. The hometown savior who patiently worked through a complex deal just to peel Daniel Snyder’s grip from his favorite football team. And the pure-hearted soul who might not be great on camera but at least is one of us. But the fairy tale has a tendency to nosedive off a cliff when you’re a sports owner, because owners so often become either the siloed autarch or the tightfisted bookkeeper who will anger and disappoint the fan bases they are supposed to serve.
There’s an expiration date on the goodwill. Eventually, and unfortunately, Harris’s day is coming.
Oh, it will happen. It’s a matter of when, because Harris will soon have to make his first hard decision as managing partner of the Commanders. And this decision will have greater stakes than what he has done as owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, simply because the NFL is an ever-present coiling, all-consuming leviathan in our society that only intensifies in strength and reach every year. It’s the league that just matters more. The stakes are even higher because Harris is the townie who’s from here. The next general manager in the front office and the next coach on the sideline might have great success or fail dramatically, but it’s Harris’s name that has been branded all over these new Commanders.
Of course, we’re not counting what he did Monday morning as anything but a necessary and obvious decision, firing Ron Rivera as the coach and top football executive. That move surprised exactly no one as it became clear that even during the first feel-good year with the Harris ownership group, the Commanders’ next great reset would have to happen within its football power structure.
Now, with the honeymoon ending, it’s on to the hard stuff — and, for the first time, a true evaluation of who Harris is as an owner.
This will be different for Harris than it has been with Philadelphia and New Jersey because those teams have been more defined by their front-office leaders than their owner. In 2011, Harris and his merry band of rich people purchased the 76ers. The ownership group would take a back seat as the franchise underwent “The Process,” which was the brainchild of basketball executive Sam Hinkie.
But as much praise as “The Process” gets in retrospect — when Hinkie orchestrated an intentional tank while also trading for picks so the 76ers could rebuild in the draft — it only worked in theory. In 2014 and 2015, the 76ers chose third, selecting big men Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. They earned the right to draft first the next two years, taking Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Only one of those picks remains in Philadelphia (Embiid), and the 76ers have advanced only as far as the second round of the playoffs.
So if Philadelphia is fine with watching superstar center Embiid win an MVP award, then “The Process” worked beautifully. In reality, however, the plan hasn’t resulted in the one thing cities want: a championship. Harris and the ownership group might have financed it, but to this day “The Process” belongs to Hinkie’s biography. Hinkie will be remembered as the mastermind/mad man behind it all.
Similarly, the decade-long story involving Harris, David Blitzer and their ownership of the Devils has been defined by the hockey executives. After acquiring the Devils in 2013, they allowed longtime general manager Lou Lamoriello to remain in charge. And while Harris and Blitzer have steadied the business and made upgrades to Prudential Center to enhance the fan experience, they made a wise move by letting the hockey men do hockey things. In 2020, when the Devils hired a new general manager and a new coach, it was Blitzer, the minority shareholder in this operation, and not Harris who attended the video news conference and delivered remarks on behalf of the owners.
Harris might have dispatched a statement following a PR nightmare — as when he asked salaried employees to take a 20 percent salary reduction during the pandemic, then reversed it and apologized — or remained at a distance as his partner handled public-facing moments with the Devils. He can’t do that in Washington. He doesn’t have to be so hands-on that he’s meddling in Ashburn affairs, but the Commanders’ next era will belong to Harris.
No matter how many people are listed in the Commanders’ ownership group, there was a single microphone set up on a stage Monday afternoon. And it was for Harris.
When Harris met with reporters — and he was punctual, walking in at precisely 1 p.m. as had been announced — part-owners Mitchell Rales and Mark Ein, along with Tad Brown, CEO of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE), sat in the front row. They listened as Harris did all the talking. And two things stood out about Harris during his big moment.
One, Harris is not Ted Leonsis.
And two, he is not a Lerner.
Although Harris is a modern-day owner who clearly wants to build an empire (HBSE once put in a bid for Chelsea of the English Premier League), he doesn’t come across as having a lust for world domination. Nor does he seem as though he would sacrifice the city’s soul to attain it, unlike the owner of Washington’s NBA and NHL franchises.
Still, by bringing in Bob Myers, a former NBA executive, to help in the search, Harris might be pulling a Leonsis. Remember when Leonsis spoke with everyone from Barack Obama to Billy Beane and Howie Roseman to figure out whom he should hire to run his basketball team? And he still ended up hiring the guy who was already here? Hopefully, Harris doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel and just makes a sound hire.
Meanwhile, the Harris-led groups have shown they will give their general managers freedom to spend, paying for free agents and retaining their stars — a very anti-Lerner way of running a team.
In a few weeks, however, we won’t have to imagine how Harris might behave at a crossroads. His first hard decision will reveal who he truly is as an owner. If Harris gets this right, maybe these good times don’t have to end so soon.