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For the Washington Commanders and their fans, new owner Josh Harris represents hope

Washington hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season, when Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs was in his second stint as the team’s coach

Washington Commanders NFL team fans participate in a pep rally to celebrate the purchase of the team at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023. The Harris group is paying $6.05 billion for the Commanders, a record sales for a North American sports franchise.
Washington Commanders NFL team fans participate in a pep rally to celebrate the purchase of the team at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023. The Harris group is paying $6.05 billion for the Commanders, a record sales for a North American sports franchise.SHAWN THEW (EFE)

Josh Harris kept his remarks brief when he took the stage at a pep rally at FedEx Field. He didn’t have to say much. Eventually, the crowd of Washington Commanders fans began chanting: “Thank you Josh! Thank you Josh!”

They used to have parades around here for Super Bowl titles, but for now this cathartic scene Friday will suffice. After a quarter-century of ineptitude on the field and embarrassment off it under owner Dan Snyder, Harris and his group offer Washington a chance at a fresh start. Few football towns have ever needed one more.

Owner of the Washington Commanders NFL team Josh Harris responds to a question from the news media during a press conference at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.
Owner of the Washington Commanders NFL team Josh Harris responds to a question from the news media during a press conference at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.SHAWN THEW (EFE)

“We’re going to draw you guys back in,” Harris told the crowd. “We look forward to meeting you in the community, we look forward to being a part of this community. I’m so glad I’m back.”

NFL owners approved the sale of the Commanders on Thursday to a group led by Harris, who grew up in the Washington area as a fan of the team. Back then, home games were a famously tough ticket at RFK Stadium, but empty seats became common at FedEx Field as the franchise become one of the most dysfunctional in sports.

Washington hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2005 season, when Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs was in his second stint as the team’s coach. If Gibbs was hyperbolically treated as a savior when he returned, Harris is being greeted as a liberator. Some fans wore shirts Friday that said: “I Survived The Snyder Era.”

For their part, Snyder and his wife, Tanya, released a statement Friday congratulating Harris and his group and expressing gratitude toward the fans.

“Being stewards of this historic organization for the last quarter-century has been the privilege of a lifetime,” they said. “When we purchased the team nearly 25 years ago, Dan was quoted as saying, ‘I’m a fan. A huge fan. It’s that simple.’ That is as true today as it was then.”

Harris, who also co-owns the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, has plenty of work to do with the Commanders. Will he change the team’s name again? And what direction will he take the team’s effort to secure a new stadium?

He didn’t offer many specifics Friday. Before speaking to the crowd outside, he and his ownership group — which includes Magic Johnson — were introduced at an indoor event. Harris briefly took questions from reporters, saying his immediate priority is improving the fan experience at the team’s current venue.

“Right now, that’s going to be things like ingress and egress and food,” he said.

FedEx Field, which sits right next to the Capital Beltway, has been plagued by traffic issues, and there was even a railing collapse last year after a game against Philadelphia in which fans fell onto the field.

Washington Commanders NFL team fans and cheerleaders participate in a pep rally to celebrate the purchase of the team at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.
Washington Commanders NFL team fans and cheerleaders participate in a pep rally to celebrate the purchase of the team at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.SHAWN THEW (EFE)

“We’re going to throw a party every other Sunday, and when you have guests in your house, you treat them well,” Harris said. “You don’t have couches that are broken, you don’t have TVs that aren’t working. So we’ve got to get after all that, and that’s what we’re focused on right now.

“As far as the stadium experience, long run, we would love to have a stadium where the opposing players fear to come, and our fans love to come, and our players love to come and feel welcome. That’s what I experienced at RFK.”

There were plenty of familiar faces at the stadium, including current standouts like receiver Terry McLaurin and defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.

“I can honestly say I’ve waited seven years to see the fan base like this,” Allen said. “I don’t think people understand how serious this community and this fan base is about football.”

Owner of the Washington Commanders NFL team Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (C) looks on during a press conference at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.
Owner of the Washington Commanders NFL team Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (C) looks on during a press conference at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, USA, 21 July 2023.SHAWN THEW (EFE)

Stars of the past like Darrell Green and Doug Williams — and Gibbs, who coached them — were also seated up front at the news conference.

“I think this group is focused on winning — putting together an organization and then a team that everybody can get behind,” Gibbs said.

The team was known as the Redskins until 2020, when it dropped the name, which is considered a slur against Native Americans. It went by the Washington Football Team for two seasons, and fans have been slow to embrace the Commanders name. Asked about a name change, Harris said it depended on “how the city feels,” but he did not include it among his immediate priorities.

Johnson pointed out that he has an interesting connection to Washington football. Jack Kent Cooke owned the Los Angeles Lakers before selling them in 1979, the year Johnson was drafted. Cooke was Washington’s owner when the team had its three Super Bowl-winning seasons in 1982, 1987 and 1991.

“I don’t invest in sports teams for ego, I invest to win,” Johnson said. “We want to change everything that has happened to this franchise. We see the winners in the front row. Not only did they win Super Bowls, they also made the community great, and we want to invite the community to be a part of what we’re building here.”

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