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Owner Josh Harris at the Philadelphia 76ers-Brooklyn Nets playoff game.

Billionaire Josh Harris Is Expanding Sports Empire in His Post-Apollo Life

The addition of the Washington Commanders would be the crown jewel in Harris' sports empire.

(Bloomberg) -- It was only two years ago that private equity titan Josh Harris appeared to be stepping back from deal-making, moving on after Marc Rowan was picked to succeed Leon Black atop Apollo Global Management Inc.  

“It is time for me to start the next chapter of my career, where I will focus full-time on the platforms I’ve created outside of the firm,” Harris said at the time. That included his Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which he runs with Blackstone Inc. executive David Blitzer.

Yet when Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea FC went up for sale last year, Harris’s group made the final round, but the English Premier League club went to Todd Boehly, who had backing from private equity firm Clearlake Capital. The NFL’s Denver Broncos hit the market around the same time, and Harris was again involved, but was outmatched by Rob Walton’s $59 billion fortune. 

With the Washington Commanders, Harris made sure another mega-billionaire wouldn’t beat him out.

A group led by Harris is close to a deal to buy the NFL franchise for $6 billion, a record amount for any professional sports team. Serious rivals including Jeff Bezos, the world’s third richest person, weighed bids but ultimately dropped out.  

The deal has yet to be executed and could still fall through, and any agreement would also need approval from other owners. Still, should it be finalized, it would add a crown jewel to his sports empire and put Harris in rarefied air among the billionaire class.  

“This is a major advance for Josh Harris,” said Marc Ganis, co-founder of Sportscorp, a Chicago-based advisory firm. “They learned a lot from the experiences that were not successful. Maybe the most important they learned is you have to pay up — there are no bargains.”

A spokesperson for Harris declined to comment.

Harris, 58, has an estimated net worth of $7.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. A former wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania who went to high school in Washington, the majority of his fortune is derived from shareholdings and earnings at Apollo, but he has owned sports franchises for more than a decade. He has also built his own investment firm, 26North Partners. 

Through Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the duo have stakes in the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Individually, they also own stakes in Crystal Palace FC of the English Premier League and the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers — the latter they will have to sell should they finalize the Commanders purchase.

Philadelphia 76ers

Harris bought the 76ers in 2011 for $290 million, with the team in rebuilding mode for the first five years. The mantra for Philadelphia fans: “Trust the process.”

For a while, the outlook was grim. The team finished 10-72 in the 2015-16 season, the third-worst NBA season in league history.

But with the addition of star center Joel Embiid, performance began to turn around. The 76ers have made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons and finished third in the Eastern Conference this year.

The 76ers have now sold out more than 225 straight home games and built one of the NBA’s largest season ticket bases at 14,000, up from 3,500 in 2011.

“He and Blitzer have been exceptional owners,” Ganis said. “They took an NBA team that was in a great market but that was almost irrelevant, and turned it into a team almost as relevant to Philadelphia as the Eagles.”

Read more: Josh Harris Revels in Philly ‘Swagger’ With Super Bowl in Sight

Harris said in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year in Philadelphia that he’s been a fan of the team since his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania decades ago.

“This is a city that holds you accountable,” Harris said. “If you do it for them, they come out for you.” 

Hockey, Soccer

Two years later in 2013, Harris bought the Devils hockey team from former Lehman Brothers executive Jeff Vanderbeek — along with the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. 

One of his first orders of business: fending off speculation that he would move the 76ers across state lines, after the NBA’s Nets shifted to Brooklyn.

The Devils haven’t had as swift a turnaround as the 76ers. While the team clinched a playoff spot this year, the past four seasons have had losing records and the franchise, which won the Stanley Cup in 1995, 2000 and 2003, has never advanced past the first round of the playoffs under Harris-Blitzer ownership.

Still, Harris has helped cement the Prudential Center as a top events destination. It ranked fifth in Pollstar’s ranking of gross income, the highest since it opened in 2007.

As for Crystal Palace: Harris bought an 18% stake in 2015. The team has managed to remain in the Premier League and not get relegated — a feat in itself — but has never reached the upper echelons.

NFL Ambitions

There are few precedents for the type of sprawling sports empire that Harris is on the verge of commanding, though it’s becoming increasingly prevalent among the ultra-rich. 

Stan Kroenke and his family are arguably the closest comparison. Worth $14.9 billion on his own, Kroenke owns the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, Arsenal FC in London, the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids. Together those holdings make up the vast majority of his fortune. 

His wife, Ann, is the oldest daughter of James “Bud” Walton, co-founder of Walmart Inc., and has a net worth of $6.5 billion, according to Bloomberg’s wealth index.

Another billionaire who has purchased multiple sports franchises is in the Commanders’ backyard. Ted Leonsis, founder of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and is in the running to buy the Washington Nationals baseball team.

Harris’s group includes NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson and fellow billionaire Mitchell Rales, who lives just outside of Washington. Harris is buying into the team as an individual.

If the deal crosses the finish line, Harris and his team will have plenty to do. The Commander’s stadium is antiquated, and the well-documented culture under current owner Dan Snyder needs an overhaul. 

“The most important thing — they’re sports fans,” Ganis said. “That matters.”

--With assistance from Amanda Gordon.

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