Owners of 31 other NFL teams have unanimously approved the sale of the Washington Commanders to a group led by private equity billionaire Josh Harris, agreeing to pay scandal-plagued team owner Daniel Snyder a record $6.05 billion.
The figure surpassed the previous record paid to a U.S. sports team, the $4.65 billion paid last year to the Denver Broncos by the group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton. The deal with the commander is expected to be formally completed 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 results of the vote.
The vote, held at an ad hoc one-day meeting in Minneapolis, will allow Harris and his group to take control of one of the cornerstones of a league that has endured years of on-field losses and off-field turmoil under Snyder. Harris has a track record of improving the standings of other professional teams he owns, including the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
Harris and his group will focus on improving the team’s battered image and will explore options for restoring or replacing the team’s home ground, FedEx Field, since 1997. The franchise owns land in Maryland and Virginia, where the training facility is located. But many NFL team owners want new stadiums built in the District of Columbia, where the manager has played for most of the team’s history.
“This franchise is who I am and part of who I am,” said Harris, referring to growing up rooting for the team near Chevy Chase, Maryland. “A new era in Washington football is here.”
Harris and his investment group, which includes businessman and philanthropist Mitchell Lares and retired NBA star Magic Johnson, will have their hands full. In Snyder’s 24-year tenure, the team made the postseason just six times and won two playoff games. The once-dominant franchise, which won three Super Bowls in the 1980s and ’90s, has lost more, its stadiums are in disrepair, its belligerent owners alienating fans and sponsors, and attendance levels plummeting to league lows.
Almost from the moment he purchased the Washington franchise in 1999, Snyder clashed with the league and other owners over his disregard for the salary cap and his claim that the team retained the original name and logo it had when it moved to Washington, despite what many Native American groups considered it racist. Changed team name to Commanders in 2020.
In 2020, the NFL also launched an investigation into reports of widespread sexual harassment in team offices. After investigating the allegations, Goodell fined the team $10 million, but under pressure from Snyder, the league did not release the findings. The decision prompted lawmakers to launch their own investigation, uncovering further allegations of harassment and financial fraud.
In a 79-page report, the House Oversight and Reform Committee said Snyder, with the help of the NFL and Goodell, covered up evidence that he and other team executives had sexually harassed women who had worked for the team for more than 20 years.
The commission said Mr. Snyder made an unusual effort to delay the investigation against himself and his team. That effort, according to the report, included trying to pay a former employee “hush money” not to talk about their experiences, refusing to release a woman from a confidentiality agreement after settling a $1.6 million sexual misconduct lawsuit against Mr. Snyder, and using a private investigator and leaking emails to intimidate a former employee into declining an interview request.
The league has hired former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White to investigate the allegations uncovered by the commission. White’s report was released following the league’s approval of the sale.
During his 17-month investigation into the team, White discovered that Snyder had sexually harassed a woman who was the team’s former cheerleader and marketing employee, substantiating claims that the team intentionally withheld about $11 million in proceeds that would have been split among the league’s 32 teams.
The investigation was unable to conclude or rule out that Mr. Snyder directed or participated in this income shielding, but “at least he was aware of certain efforts to minimize income sharing.”
The league fined Snyder a record $60 million.
Snyder asked the NFL to absolve him of liability in unresolved and potential future legal disputes, but received no such protection.
Over the years, Snyder controlled the majority stake with a handful of relatives and friends, as well as three limited partners, including FedEx Chairman Fred Smith, who owned the remaining 40 percent of the club. In 2020, partners accused Snyder of mismanaging the team’s finances. Snyder accused them of leaking harmful information about a toxic work culture in his and the team’s offices as a means of forcing the sale of the club.
Owners of other NFL teams have released Snyder from incurring hundreds of millions of dollars in additional debt to buy its partners for $875 million, hoping to bury the nasty dispute.
With the team falling apart and Snyder embroiled in scandal, the owners began to consider ways to get him out. In October, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay became the first owner to publicly say Snyder should leave the league. Two weeks later, Snyder said he had hired a banker to consider selling the club.
Mr. Snyder wanted to find a buyer willing to pay $7 billion, but eventually settled on Mr. Harris, who put a dozen investors in the bid. The league’s finance committee, which scrutinizes the team’s application, was displeased with the amount of debt Harris paid for the acquisition. Harris, however, plowed more of his personal fortune into insuring some of his debts.
The finance committee held an informal vote on Monday approving the proposed acquisition, paving the way for full owners to vote on the deal on Thursday.
Although Snyder no longer owns the team, an investigation into allegations of financial misconduct by coaches continues in the Eastern District of Virginia. Harris will also have to overcome Snyder’s strained relationship with local politicians, many of whom were furious at Snyder’s long-standing reluctance to give up his team name. For years, district and Capitol lawmakers did not consider allowing Snyder to build on the grounds of RFK Stadium.
With Snyder gone, that resistance may weaken. In December, Goodell met with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, who needs federal help because the National Park Service manages the 190-acre property.