Shortly after buying the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, Josh Harris explained why.
“What we’ve done is buy good companies,” he told NJ.com in 2014, “good franchises that have a reason to exist but for whatever reason may have some financial difficulties or need some new leadership.”
Harris is doing the same thing by finalizing an agreement to purchase the Washington Commanders, once a marquee NFL franchise but one that fell on hard times during Dan Snyder’s ownership.
The deal, with the sale price of $6.05 billion, must be approved by the NFL. The earliest Harris could be voted in would be at the league meetings May 22-24 in Minneapolis.
Harris is poised to inherit a franchise that went 164-220-2 in Snyder’s 24 seasons; only five teams had worse records during that period.
But Harris will need to revive the organization in more ways than winning. One team employee said workers have been beaten down because of the heavy dose of negative attention over the past several years, in particular, stemming first from an NFL investigation into Washington’s workplace culture, followed by a congressional investigation. Multiple state attorneys general are looking into allegations of financial improprieties.
The new ownership group will have a number of priorities, from needing to find a site for a new stadium to winning back fans to eventually deciding on an organizational power structure: Will the Commanders move forward with team president Jason Wright, general manager Martin Mayhew and coach Ron Rivera? If handled right, Washington’s franchise could be reinvigorated.
Harris also owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, who, after six consecutive losing campaigns, have been one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference over the past six seasons. The Devils, after lean years, had the second-best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference this season.
At the NFL annual meeting in Phoenix last month, Wright said, “There’s nothing but upside on the other side of this, and that’s important.”
Decide on the coach and the general manager
It’s too late for the Commanders to change the power structure on the football side for the 2023 season. Rivera is the coach, Mayhew is the general manager, and it’s not expected that will change, team and league sources said.
However, Rivera initially signed a five-year contract, and he is entering Year 4. It is a pivotal year regardless of the ownership change.
Considering Rivera is the main decision-maker on the football side — he hired Mayhew and assistant general manager Marty Hurney in 2021 — the new owners will decide whether they want to keep Rivera beyond 2023. It stands to reason any determination on Rivera impacts his GM’s future, as well.
The Denver Broncos represent an example of an ownership group that made a change at coach one season after buying the team and assessing the situation. The Broncos fired coach Nathaniel Hackett after a 5-12 season in 2022 but retained general manager George Paton.
Washington’s new owners need to be judicious in making sure the organization is set up properly for the future. It is possible they want a fresh start, and Rivera couldn’t do much to change such a desire. In three seasons under Rivera, Washington has a 22-27-1 record with one division title. The Commanders were 8-8-1 last season and finished last in a loaded NFC East.
Keep in mind: None of the seven coaches hired by Dan Snyder finished with a winning record. Of that group, Rivera has had the most power, being allowed to select his own front office.
Only one coach, Jay Gruden, lasted more than four seasons under Snyder. And Gruden was the lone coach to receive an extension. Gruden, who had a 35-49-1 record in five-plus seasons with the team, was fired after an 0-5 start to the 2019 season. He is the only coach under Snyder who had consecutive winning campaigns.
Rivera has been through this, having experienced an ownership change when he was the coach of the Carolina Panthers. Rivera had been more successful with the Panthers than he has been with the Commanders, guiding Carolina to a 76-63-1 regular-season record, a Super Bowl appearance during the 2015 campaign and an 11-5 record two years later. David Tepper bought the team in 2019, and, after a 5-7 start, he fired Rivera during his ninth season with Carolina.
Rivera learned from the experience, saying he wishes he had explained the rationale for roster decisions better and treated his sessions with Tepper like an extended job interview.
“It’s all about presentation and what you’re doing going forward and understanding the reasons why you did things,” Rivera said last month in Phoenix. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing anything because I’m desperate; I’m doing things because this is the right way. If they’re not happy and want to let me go? Great. But … I’m not worried about what the decision is after a year. What I’m worried about is making sure this roster is being built, that it’s in place, and if I leave, I’ll leave it in a good position.”
Win back the fans
Washington has played in eight playoff games since the 1993 season, last winning one in 2005. The once-proud franchise won three Super Bowls in a decade, reached five from the 1972 season to the 1991 campaign and went 18-10 in the postseason during that stretch.
The fan base has seen more name changes in the past five years (two) than playoff games (one) — not to mention the numerous investigations and off-field issues.
“The first thing is winning,” Wright said. “They can be back again; these fans want us to do well.”
Winning will help, but it won’t cure all. A top goal needs to be regaining the fans’ trust.
“Trust is the perfect word,” said Grant Paulsen, a Washington, D.C., sports radio host. “There’s not a lot of trust in the football operation and not trust in the business operation, and some of it is not fair. … That’s a reality they deal with, and it won’t change the day Snyder is out. But they will get more benefit of the doubt. It will take time. They have to prove the witch is dead.”
The team’s local TV ratings steadily declined over the past decade. According to the Sports Business Journal, Washington ranked 24th in the league in 2021 with an average local rating of 16.64. In 2012, Robert Griffin III‘s rookie year, the franchise ranked 16th at 27.5.
Team attendance has continued to slide, as well. In 2019, Washington ranked 30th in percentage of seats sold and 20th in average attendance per game. Last season, the Commanders ranked last in both. The last time Washington finished higher than 20th in percentage of seats sold was 2007 (second), although even with a seating capacity that once topped 90,000, it ranked among the top five in attendance from 2006 to 2014.
Longtime D.C. sports talk show host Kevin Sheehan said it’ll be hard to know how many fans will return with new ownership.
“Five years ago, if you said Dan was leaving, that was the only thing that mattered and everyone would have been back,” Sheehan said. “But the last five years, this acceleration of shenanigans and reporting and investigations and [congressional] oversight committees and lawsuits, there has been a further wearing down and erosion of people ready to jump back on board.”
Paulsen said the Commanders can’t take the fan base — or the business it creates — for granted. The new ownership group must be proactive in winning fans back.
“They have lived off their name for so long that they stopped growing their brand or feeling like [they] had to satisfy the base,” Paulsen said. “They have to view themselves as needing the business.”
Build a stadium
The Washington franchise has been looking for a new stadium site for several years in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, increasing the intensity of the pursuit over the past two years, in particular. For new owners, a stadium would help boost the franchise value and, therefore, give them a return on their investment.
“It would increase it dramatically,” said Marc Ganis, a sports marketing expert and president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports financing consulting firm. “It would also be a new start for the team, which they really do need.”
A stadium would have been a boon for Snyder too.
Among the places considered: next door to the Commanders’ current site; 15 miles away in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on federal land and across from the MGM Casino and National Harbor area; their old home where RFK Stadium still needs to be torn down; and multiple sites in Virginia, including one approximately 10 miles from their current practice facility.
Multiple sources said Snyder was a hindrance in these talks, that numerous politicians did not want to do business with him or the team until the investigations ended.
“The owner definitely made it a nonstarter,” said one person with knowledge of the discussions in Maryland.
The same source said the hard part for a while was not knowing whom to deal with from the franchise; until perhaps within the last year, it could be one of three different groups within the organization, including Snyder. Eventually, it was Wright and vice president of public affairs Joe Maloney. Nonetheless, the source contrasted that with the Baltimore Ravens, who used the same person when talking about stadium issues or needs.
Under Snyder, Washington wanted to move into a new stadium by the 2028 season. The current contract at FedEx Field ends early in the 2027 season, although it can be renewed to extend the stay.
Former owner Jack Kent Cooke paid for FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, with his own money, but it was a poor sequel to RFK Stadium, the team’s home until 1997. RFK Stadium, which was in bad shape when the team left, was considered more intimate, with a seating capacity of 56,692 as compared with FedEx Field’s 78,270, which eventually grew to 90,000. RFK Stadium was accessible by the Washington Metro system; the closest such stop to FedEx Field is approximately a mile away. And because the main way to access FedEx Field is off Interstate 495, traffic congestion was an early issue for fans.
Current executives say the organization did not invest enough in maintaining FedEx Field, leading to failing pipes — which sometimes doused fans with water — and other problems. Players have complained there is no place to meet with their families after games and no day care for their kids — as other franchises offer on game day.
In August, USA Today ranked FedEx Field as the NFL’s worst stadium.
“A new venue changes the fortune of a franchise,” Wright said, “in the revenue growth but also in the fan experience. We definitely have to have the vision of a new ownership team. However, all the research and work done to date is additive; it’s not wasted. It’s all beneficial and will allow us to move quickly.”
The new owners must determine where they want to build: D.C., Maryland or Virginia. The RFK Stadium site remains a fan favorite. Three Super Bowl winners played at RFK Stadium, enabling fans to maintain a connection to the past. A source familiar with the stadium talks said people who represent Harris’ group have reached out to local politicians to assess the situation.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said multiple times over the past year — and beyond — that she wants the team back in the city. In the fall, she told reporters that ownership, meaning Snyder, was an obstacle.
However, because that land is owned by the federal government, it would first have to either sell or lease the land to the District of Columbia. Then the D.C. Council would have to approve any plans. Another fear by some team officials is that some D.C. residents would oppose a stadium because they don’t want it publicly financed, have a desire for different projects and worry about increased traffic.
With Snyder, those involved in the talks say, the team had no chance to build at the RFK Stadium site. But even without him, they say it will be difficult.
“You have to let [the fans] know you tried everything in the District,” one person involved in the situation said. “They still have to do the work; they owe it to the fans.”
It’s possible, one person involved in the stadium talks said, that the new venue could be located in one state — or district — with the practice facility remaining in Virginia, whether near the current one in Loudoun County or elsewhere.
The Commanders’ practice facility, built in 1992, is considered outdated, in part because it is small and would be expensive to expand.
In May 2022, the organization acquired the rights to purchase 200 acres of property in Virginia’s Prince William County; but multiple sources say if the team builds a stadium in Virginia, it would be in Loudoun, a growing county that has the nation’s highest per-household income.
Maryland also has options, including the Commanders’ current stadium site in Landover. The state has committed $400 million to redevelop the area around FedEx Field. Another site that has been mentioned sits on federal government land.
Matt Rogers, chief of staff for Loudoun County Supervisor Phyllis Randall, said “there’s no question” having Snyder out of the picture will help the process.
“There is a spring of opportunity,” he said. “We needed to have a clean slate here. We would have been further along had this not been the case for some time.”
Establish a philosophy
When Snyder took over in 1999, he established an immediate tone to his ownership style by firing dozens of employees within a couple of months and, one former member of the organization said, imploring the front office to chase big-name players, whether it was realistic or not. As one former employee said early in Snyder’s tenure, his group operated under a “fire, aim, ready” philosophy.
“He was a fan,” the former team employee said. “I would think a guy [Harris] who owns the Sixers and Devils would be smarter than that. Dan had a million people in his ear, and he didn’t know who to believe. A guy that’s been an owner? That won’t be a problem.”
Others who know Snyder well say he also hired, and trusted, the wrong people. Both things set the tone for his tenure as owner.
That’s why the first priority for Harris, if the deal indeed goes through, would be to establish a tone to set the organization up for success. One former member of the front office said the Commanders need to have a clear philosophy when it comes to the organizational structure, something the source said it lacked under Snyder.
Harris said in a 2015 article in Bethesda Magazine, “Your most important hire as an owner is your general manager and then your coach.” In a later interview with NJ.com after buying the Devils, Harris said it was important to “provide the resources and hold them accountable.”
Harris doesn’t have the reputation of a big meddler, another label Snyder wore throughout his tenure. Also, Snyder has gone a long time without taking questions at a news conference; he answered some questions at a 2014 ceremony. Harris, meanwhile, has typically addressed the media a couple of times a year, with other periodic interviews during a season.
“It’s picking the right people and developing a team,” former Washington coach Joe Gibbs told ESPN when asked what makes a successful coach and owner. “That doesn’t change.”
It’s what helped Washington be successful under Cooke, who oversaw three Super Bowl champions. Many employees were entrenched in the organization for decades.
One former Washington assistant coach said when his staff started, the members were struck by the unhappiness of many in the building. Scouts valued by the franchise left because of the low pay. Multiple team sources over the past several years said internal surveys conducted by teams showed Washington’s support staff workers ranked at or near the bottom of the pay scale as compared with other teams, despite being in an expensive market. In January, Consumer Affairs ranked Washington, D.C, as the seventh-most expensive place to live in the United States, based on housing costs. Multiple D.C. suburbs in Virginia and Maryland have been on previous lists.
The malaise wasn’t just about Snyder. Bruce Allen, the team president from 2010 to 2019, was described as “stingy” by a former front-office employee.
That has improved over the past three years, current employees say, but more work remains.
“The first thing is understanding what we need to do to fuel a championship,” Wright said. “It has to be about winning. The best thing for us to do is listen to ownership, understand why they bought the team, what is their aspiration for this, so we can align the way we work.”
Find a quarterback
Washington’s staff has expressed excitement about quarterback Sam Howell starting in 2023, but the Commanders haven’t shut the door on drafting a signal-caller. Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker is scheduled for a visit.
Maybe Howell will be the guy. The Commanders would celebrate if that happened. But he is a fifth-round pick who has attempted 19 career NFL passes. There’s a lot to learn. This season will dictate whether he can be the solution. If not, they have to keep trying until they get it right.
A big part of Washington’s problems over the past 25 years, predating Snyder, stems from the quarterback. The franchise has started 34 quarterbacks since it last won the Super Bowl at the conclusion of its 1991 campaign. In Rivera’s first three seasons, eight quarterbacks started at least one game. A different quarterback has started each of the past five season openers. This year will make it six.
The team has drafted four quarterbacks in the first round since 2002: Patrick Ramsey (2002), Jason Campbell (2005), Griffin (2012) and Dwayne Haskins (2019). None became the long-term starter. The Commanders have traded for veterans such as Mark Brunell, Donovan McNabb, Alex Smith and Carson Wentz. None was the answer.
Washington ranks 24th in the NFL in total QBR since 2000, 29th over the past 10 years and 31st over the past five seasons.
Too often, according to multiple former and current team sources, Snyder inserted himself into quarterback decisions. Whether pushing for a trade, free agent signing or draft pick, his fingerprints were often on the moves — sometimes going against the recommendations of football decision-makers.
“The owner needs to immediately sort of communicate, ‘I’m not the football person here. I will hire the best possible people and give them total autonomy to build a winner for all of you and me,'” Sheehan said.
In part because that didn’t happen in the past, Washington’s quest for a quarterback hasn’t ended. During the fall, Rivera caused a minor firestorm when asked the difference between the Commanders and other teams in the division. He answered with one word: quarterback. He meant that the other teams had more stable quarterback situations.
If the Commanders ever find that, it would help any new owner.
“The truth is, this is a quarterback-driven league,” Rivera said in October. “The teams that have been able to sustain success, they’ve been able to build it around a specific quarterback.”