Owners of the NFL’s 31 other teams unanimously approved the sale of the Washington Commanders to a group led by private equity billionaire Josh Harris, who agreed to pay $6.05 billion for the team’s scandal-plagued owner, Daniel Snyder.
The figure surpassed the previous highest price paid for an American sports team at $4.65 billion last year, when a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton paid for the Denver Broncos. The commanders’ transaction is expected to close for the first time on Friday. Snyder bought the team in 1999 for $800 million.
“Josh will be a great addition to the NFL,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement announcing the vote, “and I know his commitment to success on the field.
The vote, taken at an ad hoc, one-day meeting in Minneapolis, would allow Harris and his team to take control of one of the league’s fundamental franchises, which has suffered years of on-field losses and chaos under Snyder. Harris has a track record of improving the standings of the other professional teams he has owned, the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
Harris and his team are focused on improving the team’s tarnished image and exploring options to repair or replace FedEx Field, the team’s home since 1997. It owns land in Maryland and Virginia where its training facility is located. But many NFL team owners want to build a new stadium in the District of Columbia.
“This franchise is part of who I am and who I’ve become as a person,” said Harris, who grew up rooting for the team in nearby Chevy Chase, Md. “A new era of Washington football is here.”
Harris and his investment team, which includes entrepreneur and philanthropist Mitchell Rales and retired NBA star Magic Johnson, will have their hands full. During Snyder’s 24-year tenure, the team made the postseason just six times, winning two playoff games. A once-dominant franchise that won three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s, attendance plummeted to a league low as losses mounted, its stadium fell into disrepair and its owner alienated fans and sponsors with his brilliance.
From the moment he bought the Washington franchise in 1999, Snyder overshot his salary cap and insisted on keeping the franchise with the team, even though many Native American groups considered it racist. The team changed its name to Commanders in 2020.
In 2020, the NFL launched an investigation into reports of widespread sexual harassment in team offices. After investigating the claims, Goodell fined the team $10 million but, under pressure from Snyder, did not release the league’s findings. The decision prompted members of Congress to launch their own investigation, which uncovered allegations of harassment and financial fraud.
In a 79-page report to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, with the help of the NFL and Goodell, Snyder suppressed evidence that he and other team executives sexually harassed women who worked on the team over two decades.
The committee said Snyder made extraordinary efforts to stop investigations into him and his team. These efforts included his attempt to pay former employees “hush money” to keep them from discussing their experiences, refusing to release a woman from a nondisclosure agreement after he settled a sexual misconduct claim against Snyder for $1.6 million, and using private investigators and leaking emails threatening former employees to reduce interview requests.
The league hired former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to investigate the allegations uncovered by the committee. White’s statement was released following the league’s approval of the sale.
During his 17-month investigation into the team, White found that Snyder sexually harassed a former cheerleader and a woman who was a marketing employee, and proved that the team intentionally withheld roughly $11 million in revenue that should have been shared among the league’s 32 teams.
The investigation could not conclude or rule out that Snyder directed or participated in this revenue-shielding, but “at the very least, he was aware of some effort to reduce revenue sharing.”
The league fined Snyder $60 million.
Snyder asked the NFL to indemnify him from pending and possible future legal disputes, but received no such protection.
Over the years, Snyder controlled a majority stake with a small group of relatives and friends and three limited partners, including FedEx chairman Fred Smith. In 2020, partners accused Snyder of mismanaging the team’s finances. Sneijder accused them of leaking damaging information about him and a toxic work culture in the board’s office that forced him to sell the club.
Owners of the NFL’s other teams, hoping to bury the messy dispute, waived Snyder hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt to buy out his partners for $875 million.
As the team founder and Snyder became mired in scandals, owners began to think of ways to get him out. In October, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay became the first owner to publicly say that Snyder should leave the league. Two weeks later, Snyder said he had hired bankers to explore selling the club.
Snyder was eager to find a buyer willing to pay $7 billion, but eventually settled on Harris, who brought in a dozen investors to join the bid. The league’s finance committee, which vets applications for teams, was uncomfortable with the amount of debt Harris used to finance the purchase. But Harris leveraged his personal wealth to guarantee some of that debt.
The finance committee informally voted to approve the purchase plan on Monday, paving the way for a full rights vote on the transaction on Thursday.
Although Snyder does not own the team, the investigation into allegations of financial misconduct by the generals continues in the Eastern District of Virginia. Harris also had to overcome Snyder’s strained relationship with local politicians, many of whom were angered by his reluctance to abandon the team’s longtime name. For years, lawmakers in the district and on Capitol Hill have not considered allowing Snyder to build on the site of RFK Stadium.
With Snyder out, that opposition may be softer. In December, Goodell spoke with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, who needed federal support because the National Park Service controls the 190-acre site.