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The Josh Harris honeymoon with Washington fans is off to a great start

Survey results

New Commanders Owners FEDEX Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There were no real surprises in the results of the recent HH survey asking readers to grade Josh Harris on his first several days as the owner.

Eighty-three percent of fans gave him an “A” or an “A-plus” for the start of his tenure as the general partner of the Commanders’ ownership group. Ninety-eight percent gave the new boss at least a “B”, and nothing below a ‘C’ was registered in the final poll results.

The response to the change in ownership reflects the long pent-up frustration with the previous owner and the hope for a return to relevancy — or even more than that.

In truth, it would have been hard for any new owner to look bad or screw up the transition in light of the previous 24 years, but I think there is a broad feeling that Josh Harris and his partners have struck just the right note with every move they’ve made so far.

Harris kept his public comments short on the day that the owners voted to finalize the sale, but he stressed his DC-area roots, his excitement at taking on the responsibility of NFL ownership in Washington, and his crucial observation that ‘being a fan is not enough’, since the last guy was a fan too.

The following day, Friday, at the ‘pep rally’, Josh Harris demonstrated his enthusiasm very publicly:

The resounding chant of “Thank you Josh!” provided a poignant counter to the chants that had been echoing around football stadiums recently regarding the local NFL franchise owner.

Harris was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article this week; he talked about the failed bid to buy the Denver Broncos last year, and how it now feels to take over in Washington:

“It a hundred percent feels like a blessing in disguise,” Harris said, from Minneapolis. “I mean, listen, Denver’s a great franchise, and I’m happy I got to go through that. But at the end of the day, my deep connections to this city are so much stronger. We got a chance to do diligence, and one of the days we went into FedExField and we saw all the legends’ names. And I was with my team that had been with me for the Broncos, I was like, God, you got Art Monk and Darrell Green and Joe Gibbs and John Riggins.

Usually, there are hard-to-avoid traps lurking for billionaires buying sports franchises. And Harris knows it, because he had to confront those both as an NBA owner and an NHL owner, and as he sees it that experience should better equip him not to let such situations lead his team into a ditch.

“Certainly, I think a lot of people who are great businesspeople, or are great at something else, come in to owning sports teams, they believe just because they’re smart and they’re knowledgeable fans that they can start making player decisions, and they make mistakes,” he says. “My learning on that side has been to attract and retain the best possible, in this case, football talent, and to watch, to learn, to listen. To not come in and just think because you’re a great fan you know what’s going on.

“That’s what we intend to do. I think the other thing that people don’t realize, unless they’ve been through it, business is very transactional—it’s about building value, building a company. In sports, you’re a steward for a city, and it’s very emotional. It’s not about money. It’s about much more intangible things.”

Interestingly, Josh Harris and his partners have leaned heavily not only into the team’s history, but also the team’s previous moniker. The new boss has not been shy about referring to growing up as a Redskins fan or discussing Redskins players. Here on Hogs Haven, where we also embrace the team’s past along with the present, this seems to play pretty well with fans. Of course, it has in its own way added fuel to the rebranding discussion — something that apparently isn’t going to go away anytime soon, no matter how many times Harris repeats that it’s not a current priority.

What is a priority is the need for a new stadium. and the ownership change has completely changed the landscape with respect to that topic. A year ago, local politicians were running for cover and shutting down any talk of using public funds to support the Commanders franchise. Personally, I think this inability to deliver a stadium is what led the NFL to push hard for a sale of the franchise.

Since the sale, the tide has reversed — politicians are tripping over themselves to sell the idea that their particular locality should be the future home of the team.

Josh Harris seems to be effectively putting himself in the catbird’s seat with respect to planning the next stadium

But Harris also knows that he can’t wait 5 years to deliver a new stadium experience to the fans. While he can’t deliver a new stadium this year or the next, what he has said he plans to do is put an estimated $230m into facilities maintenance & improvement and fan experience upgrades at FedEx Field.

So far, fans seem to be responding. The turnout for the first few days of training camp have been strong, with an atmosphere that hasn’t been matched since Robert Griffin’s rookie season of 2012. Also, ticket sales for the 2023 season have been brisk, with a reported increase of more than 4,000 season ticket holders, and an anticipated sellout for the opening day game against the Arizona Cardinals on September 10th.

The Harris ownership group includes local businessman and philanthropist Mitchell Rales (among others) and the dominating celebrity of former-NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Both spoke to the crowd at last week’s pep rally, and both clearly add to the luster and appeal of the new team ownership.

The common theme of the ownership group was winning — something that we haven’t seen enough of with the Redskins, Football Team or Commanders for the past three decades, and something that the new owners will have to deliver on sooner rather than later. The business of building a winning culture here will likely involve some tough decisions, but for the moment, Josh Harris has been able to talk of what he will give to the process — time, money, attention and expertise. He has a reputation for being willing to invest into his sports teams (the 76ers and Devils in the NBA & NHL) and made his fortune investing in distressed assets — a description that fits the Commanders. For the moment, that commitment, along with his enthusiasm, local roots, lifelong love of the team, and the desire of fans for change of any kind combine to create a wave of warm feeling and kinship between owners and fans.

Some honeymoons involve a weekend drive to the Catskills. Others are more like a month-long cruise around the Caribbean or a long meandering visit to Europe. If the first week is any indication, Josh Harris and his partners are likely to enjoy a long and pleasant welcome in the DMV, but the duration of this honeymoon will ultimately be decided by the results on the field since, in sports, winning is the only thing that truly matters.

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