A new era for the Washington Commanders

Josh Harris, Mitchell Rales and Mark Ein inked the $6.05 billion deal for the team earlier this summer

Cities and their pro sports franchises are braided together in complex, often emotional ways. Think of the Cubs faithful at Wrigley Field in Chicago suffering through more than 100 summers of their discontent before finally celebrating a World Series championship in 2016. Or the Packers cheeseheads braving zero-degree weather at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. 

The special bond between city and team, however, can unravel as a result of questionable management, the love affair faded, as it has for the Washington Commanders. But the new ownership team — Josh Harris and his fellow Jewish investors Mitchell Rales and venture capitalist Mark Ein — can remember the franchise’s glory days of Sonny Jurgensen’s long bombs and John Riggins’ bruising runs. And the three — diehard fans of the burgundy and gold — are determined to bring back those winning seasons, and thereby transform a D.C. sorely in need of something to rally around. 

“Sports teams are a means to unite communities and make an impact,” Harris said in a statement to Jewish Insider. “That’s a value all of us in the Commanders ownership group share. We are excited to build a winning culture, and for the potential of this team to unite and rally fans to help make a positive impact in Washington and throughout the region.” 

Harris, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., is already co-owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Last month, his group, which includes fellow Jewish investors Mitchell Rales and venture capitalist Mark Ein, closed on the $6.05 billion purchase of Washington’s troubled football team. That sale price set a record for an American sports franchise.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – APRIL 15: Owner Joshua Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers reacts against the Brooklyn Nets during Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at the Wells Fargo Center on April 15, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“NFL teams come up once in a generation,” Harris told Sports Illustrated. “So it really got real for me when the process was announced. I’m a man of faith, I’m Jewish and I would call this bashert” – the Yiddish word for destined. “The fact that I was able to end up owning, being part of and stewarding for this city, my hometown franchise, in the NFL, is something I never could’ve imagined in my wildest dreams. I’m humbled. It’s like I’m on some greater mission that I don’t understand.”

Harris and Ein, lifelong friends, grew up a few blocks away from each other as kids and were kindergarten classmates. They both attended the University of Pennsylvania and later Harvard Business School.

According to the Washington Post, when Harris announced he was stepping down from his private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, he wanted to do more in sports and to expand his family’s charitable foundation, Harris Philanthropies. That led to Harris and Ein meeting with Rales, who grew up in Bethesda, Md.

Philanthropic work

One of Harris’ philanthropic initiatives is a partnership with the Israeli charity Sha’ar Shivion – which translates to “tying goal” but is known in English as The Equalizer. Harris had approached the group’s founder, Liran Gerassi, to ask for help in organizing basketball teams for Israeli underprivileged youth. That led to a program that combines STEM education with hoops, called the 48ers – a reference to the founding year of Israel that plays on the 76ers name. It was established as part of a bar mitzvah project for Josh Harris’ son Stuart. Harris and his wife Marjorie Harris are longtime supporters of Israel.

“We believe deeply in the power of sports in transforming lives, and it is rewarding and humbling to see the positive impact that the 48ers has had on youth in Israel, particularly those in underserved communities,” Harris told The Times of Israel last year. “From Philadelphia to Israel, we’re excited to be part of this campaign that provides children with resources and support to help them thrive.”

The 48ers started out with a mission to integrate Ethiopian-Israeli youth in the neighborhood of Talpiot, but has expanded to 25 teams across the country. Following the 2021 ethnic clashes in cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations, The Equalizer started working to reduce tensions between these communities. Since 2015, Josh and Marjorie Harris have given more than $1 million to the 48er project, Josh Harris said.

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 01: L-R: Rich Kleiman, NBA player Kevin Durant, Marjorie Harris, her husband, new Washington Commanders minority owner Josh Harris, and Mubadala Citi DC Open Chairman Mark Ein watch the Frances Tiafoe and Asian Karatsev match during Day 4 of the at Rock Creek Tennis Center on August 01, 2023 in Washington, DC.

“We decided we wanted to do something to help the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem and the whole country, and we thought using the power of basketball would be a great tool and a great avenue,” Marjorie Harris told eJewishPhilanthropy before a 48ers girls basketball tournament in Jerusalem this year, which Israeli First Lady Michal Herzog also attended.

“I have no doubt that thanks to this wonderful initiative,” Herzog said in a statement at the time, “hundreds, if not thousands, more girls in Israel will get to take part in sports, which are also educational and empowering, and this is wonderful news for the State of Israel, in general, and for its girls and women, in particular.”

In the United States, Harris Philanthropies supports medical research and technology integrations aimed at wellness and disease prevention, and helps afterschool sports programs in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. Josh and Marjorie Harris have also supported UJA-Federation of New York and AIPAC.

Marjorie Harris told eJewishPhilanthropy that when the couple purchased the 76ers, “we realized very quickly that it wasn’t just owning a basketball team. It was about making sure that you were giving back to the community, and that people really enjoyed and got behind their team. And so it became, in our minds, a responsibility, because it’s a community asset.”

Rales, meanwhile, told the Washington Post in 2018 that he was in the “capital reallocation business,” adding, “What I mean by that is we’re not leaving the Earth with any money. When we go, there’s not going to be money bestowed on children and grandchildren in any meaningful way. This is about reallocating the money we had the good fortune of making to other causes.”

This year, Rales donated $1.9 billion in art to the Glenstone Museum, the private art museum in Potomac, Md., that he co-founded with his wife, art historian Emily Wei Rales, where admission is free. Mitchell Rales, who was captain of the football and baseball teams at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School, is president of the National Gallery of Art’s board of trustees. Mitchell and Emily Wei Rales donated the blue rooster, Katharina Fritsch’s “Hahn / Cock” sculpture, to the museum in 2021. And in 2013, the Rales family donated $2.4 million to establish the Center for Families and Children at the Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services in South Florida, named for Rales’ parents.

Both Harris and Rales are on the Forbes list of “real-time billionaires.”

Ein serves on several charitable boards. He is the chairman of the DC Public Education Fund, which has raised $200 million of philanthropic support for D.C. Public Schools; and is a member of the DC College Access Program.

Ein, executive chairman of Kastle Systems and founder and owner of the Washington Kastles tennis team, purchased the Washington alternative weekly newspaper City Paper in 2018, telling Axios at the time, “I truly believe journalism is saving the world.”

Local roots

At an introductory news conference after the Commanders sale went through, Harris vowed, “We will work tirelessly to make you proud once again of this franchise like my family was when I grew up here. This is not going to be easy. My job is to deliver an organization that can win. It’s on me, and it’s on us up here.”

Later, he appeared at a rally at FedEx Field and referenced Washington’s glory days when he was a kid growing up.

“The Washington Redskins – not the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins – were the No. 1 franchise,” he told some 5,000 fans. “We need to get back to those days!”

On the stage behind him were Rales, Ein, investor Magic Johnson and the team’s head coach, Ron Rivera.

“It might take a little time, but, like, look at who we have up onstage,” he kvelled.

The day before, following the NFL owners’ vote unanimously approving the sale, Harris said he was “humbled” by the challenge of bringing a championship back to the city.

“I’ve had many sleepless nights, and I will have many sleepless nights,” he said. “I’m going to sweat this. I feel an awesome responsibility to the city of Washington. I know what I’ve got to give.”

Harris and Rales reminisced about their childhood experiences as Redskins fans with The Post.

ASHBURN , VA – JULY 26: L to R: Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann talks with the new Washington Commanders co-owners Josh Harris and Mitchell Rales during day one at the Washington Commanders training camp at Commanders Park on July 26, 2023 in Ashburn, VA.

“I remember literally going up and gazing up at Jack Kent Cooke [Stadium, now FedEx Field] and being like, ‘This is unbelievable,’” Harris said. “So, yeah, I was a legit real fan and lived through all those experiences and all those years … It’s part of my DNA. It’s part of who I am.”

“My dad dropped my three brothers and myself off at Friendship Heights bus station in Chevy Chase, and I started going to every game when I was 10 or 11 years old and never missed,” said Rales, who started the region’s first sports-talk radio station, WTEM, in 1992, with his older brother Steven. “I grew up with Sonny Jurgensen as my hero,” he said, referencing the Hall of Fame Redskins quarterback. 

The Commanders former disgraced owner, Dan Snyder, was also a childhood fan of the team, but the franchise failed to thrive during his nearly quarter-century as owner, making the playoffs just six times, and winning only two playoff games. Washington went 166-226-2 during the Snyder era, and attendance has plummeted in recent years. The team was last in NFL attendance in 2022.

“From decades of poor performance on the field to the long-running controversy over the team’s former nickname — not to mention an inability to secure a new stadium — Snyder was largely seen across the league as a man running a once-proud cornerstone franchise into the ground,” wrote senior Yahoo Sports NFL reporter Charles Robinson.

As if to drive home the contrast with Synder, Harris bought free beers for fans at the Bullpen outside Nats Park, where fans were already celebrating the change in ownership.

Frederic J. Frommer, a writer and sports and politics historian, is the author of several books, including You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals. Twitter

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