Owners of the 31 other NFL teams unanimously approved the sale of the Washington Commanders to a group led by Josh Harris, the private equity billionaire, who agreed to pay a record $6.05 billion to Daniel Snyder, the scandal-plagued owner of the team.
The figure surpassed the previous high price for an American sports team, the $4.65 billion that a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton paid last year for the Denver Broncos. The Commanders transaction is expected to formally close as early as 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, adding, “I know he has a commitment to winning on the field, but also to running an organization that everyone will be proud of — and making positive contributions in the community.”
The vote, made at an ad hoc one-day meeting in Minneapolis, will allow Harris and his group to take control of one of the cornerstones of the league’s franchises, which under Snyder have endured years of losses on the field and bouts of chaos off it. Harris has a record of improving the reputations of the other professional teams he owns, the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA and the New Jersey Devils of the NHL.
Harris and his group will focus on improving the team’s tattered image as well as exploring options to repair or replace FedEx Field, the team’s home since 1997. The franchise owns land in Maryland and Virginia, the site of its training facility. But many NFL team owners prefer that the Commanders build a new stadium in the District of Columbia, where the team has played for most of its history.
Harris and his investment group, which includes real estate mogul Mitchell Rales and NBA star Magic Johnson, will have their hands full. During Snyder’s 24-year tenure, the Commanders made the postseason just six times, winning two playoff games. The once-dominant franchise, which won three Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s, saw attendance drop to league lows as losses mounted, its stadium fell into disrepair, and its owner alienated fans and sponsors with his belligerence.
Almost from the moment he bought the Washington franchise in 1999, Snyder butted heads with the league and his co-owners over his violation of the salary cap and his insistence that the team retain the original name and logo the franchise had when it moved to Washington, even though many Native American groups considered it racist. The team changed its name to the Commanders in 2020.
In 2020, the NFL also began an investigation into reports of widespread sexual harassment in the team offices. After investigating the claims, commissioner Roger Goodell fined the team a record $10 million, but under pressure from Snyder, the league did not release the results. The decision prompted members of Congress to begin their own investigation, which uncovered more allegations of harassment and financial fraud.
The committee said Snyder went to extraordinary lengths to stop investigations into him and his team. The efforts, the report said, included his attempt to pay former employees “hush money” to not discuss their experiences, the refusal to release one woman from her nondisclosure agreement after she settled a sexual misconduct claim against Snyder for $1.6 million, and the use of private investigators and leaked emails to intimidate former employees into declining interview requests.
The league hired Mary Jo White, a former federal prosecutor, to look into the allegations uncovered by the commission. White’s investigation was released following the league’s approval of the sale.
Snyder asked the NFL to indemnify him from liability in outstanding and possible future legal disputes, but received no such protection.
For years, Snyder controlled a majority stake with a small group of relatives and friends, as well as three limited partners, including Fred Smith, the chairman of FedEx, who together owned the remaining 40 percent of the club. In 2020, the partners accused Snyder of mismanaging the team’s finances. Snyder accused them of leaking damaging information about him and the toxic work culture at the team’s front office as a way to force the sale of the club.
Owners of the other NFL teams, hoping to bury the messy dispute, gave Snyder a waiver to take on hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt to buy out their partners for $875 million.
With the team collapsed and Snyder engulfed in scandals, the owners began to consider ways to force 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 a sale of the club.
Snyder wanted to find a buyer willing to pay $7 billion, but he ultimately settled on Harris, who brought in more than a dozen investors to join the bid. The finance committee of the league, which examines applications for teams, was uncomfortable with the amount of debt that Harris used to finance the purchase. But Harris built up more of his personal wealth to guarantee some of that debt.
The finance committee voted informally on Monday to approve the purchase plan, paving the way for full ownership to vote on the transaction on Thursday.
While Snyder no longer owns the team, an investigation into allegations of financial improprieties by the Commanders continues in the Eastern District of Virginia. Harris will also have to overcome Snyder’s rocky relationship with local politicians, many of whom were angered by his reluctance to abandon the team’s longtime name. For years, legislators in the District, and on Capitol Hill, would not consider allowing Snyder to build on the site of RFK Stadium.
With Snyder gone, that resistance might soften. In December, Goodell spoke with DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who needs the support of the federal government because the National Park Service oversees the 190-acre site.