Q&A: The Washington Commanders Sale Is Nearly Official. Now What?

July 17, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

On April 13, news first broke about longtime embattled Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder agreeing to sell the National Football League team to a group led by billionaire Josh Harris, already the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers and the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils.

The development was such a monumental moment in the D.C. area that one local brewery released a bitter beer called “Bye Dan” and, when a local sports talk radio host was surveying his audience for events to compare it to, he didn’t shy away from the most significant of milestones.

“Birth of a child?” asked Scott Jackson of 106.7 The Fan, which operates out of Manassas. “Marriage? Super Bowl win? What is it for you?”

The Commanders sale could become official as early as Thursday, when the NFL owners are reportedly scheduled to vote on the matter. If approved, the Harris-led group, which includes basketball Hall-of-Famer Magic Johnson, would buy the Washington franchise for $6.05 billion.

The vote would also formally end Snyder’s reign, a 24-year period that saw little on-field success (the Commanders haven’t won a playoff game since 2006) and a myriad of scandals, including a $10 million fine from the NFL in July 2021 after a league investigation of the organization deemed its workplace “highly unprofessional,” particularly for women.

Celebrating a change at the top can be warranted for Commanders fans, as they associate hope with Snyder’s exit. But for Harris and the new ownership group, it’s hard to ignore the immense pressure they face as both Commanders supporters and employees are likely to expect a vastly improved product.

The to-do list for the Harris group could range from the drastic, such as another rebrand (the franchise adopted the name “Commanders” in 2022 after two seasons as the “Washington Football Team” and 82 years as the “Redskins”) or finding a new stadium; to the common, such as staff changes.

UVA Today caught up with Jim Detert and Sean Martin, leadership and workplace culture experts from University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, to explore the challenges for Harris and company in the wake of Snyder’s departure.

Detert also holds an appointment in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

Q. When taking on an organization with some obvious warts, what should be first on a leader’s to-do list?

Martin: If we think that actual culture change needs to happen, that needs to start with putting real systems in place that are going to drive those cultural changes – rewards for the behaviors we want, sanctions for the things that we don’t; processes, procedures and other things that reflect the cultural values that we desire to have.

These systems would be a direct reflection of what the top leadership team believes is important. They could move a lot of merchandise, try to sell a lot of tickets, have a cool new logo, find a new stadium, but that’s all just revenue-driven. That’s nothing about culture.

Detert: I agree, and I’d add that you also have to assume that there’s going to be more turnover within the Commanders. If you have stayed after all of this nonsense, you may either suffer from learned helplessness and no longer have what it takes to truly be a highly proactive, world-class person, or you may be part of the problem.

In short, improved accountability mechanisms will likely also mean that some people still there are not going to have what it takes to behave the right way in terms of effort and/or the required behaviors. That they’ll find they still have some of the wrong people left in the organization.

Q. What would represent an early sign of productive change within the Commanders organization?

Detert: What’s going to be absolutely critical is not that they say the right things, but that they do the right things over and over and over. Some of them have to be symbolic moves, like some big shots get let go because they say and do the wrong things. And then it just has to be everyday behavior. What microaggressions do or don’t get called out? What type of people do or don’t get promotion opportunities?

Because, again, after 24 years of Snyder there are some people who are desperately waiting for this healthy new era to arrive. But there are also lots of people who say they don’t believe it anymore. “It’s just going to be a different version of bad, and this is all just talk.” So there are going to be tons of people watching every move that the ownership group makes for the first sign of, “Yeah, see, I told you it was all BS.” Call it what you will –  skepticism, cynicism, whatever – it’s going to be rampant in that organization right now, which means people will notice every inconsistency between this supposed new era of goodness and then what they see. And they’ll be hyper-alert to that.

Q. With the Commanders being such a public entity, they have to try to restore hope both internally to the team employees and externally to the fans. What’s the best way to do that?

Martin: With my MBA students, we have a case discussion about this kind of thing: It’s always better to start internally. First of all, you’re more likely to get the buy-in from everybody and have an actual organization that’s all pulling together. Then, you can show a united front to the external stakeholders.

A good metaphor for this is you have an apartment you’re trying to sell and you have a bunch of black mold growing on your wall. Somebody might come in and appraise your apartment, look at the black mold and go, “This apartment is worth $150,000.” Well, you could grab a roller and paint over all of this stuff and go, “Actually, it’s worth $250,000.”

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But you didn’t change anything. As soon as that appraisal is done, you’ll never sell your house because when people come for the showing, the mold will have grown back. This is what we’re talking about: It has to start with something that’s internal if you actually want to create a meaningful change, not just throwing Band-Aids on something to piece it through to the next year.

Q. Since the Snyder era seemed so toxic, could the Harris group have an extended honeymoon period with fans?

Detert: The Commanders have struggled on the field for long enough that this isn’t a 12-month horizon. It’s probably a solid three- to five-year horizon. To buy the time needed to make significant, lasting on- and off-field improvements, they should start with a compelling statement about this being a new beginning and how they have plans to rectify their stadium situation, their quality of play, etc.

Martin: A stadium announcement would be really nice, but even with something like that, I would still want to get my inside right before anything else. Now that doesn’t mean don’t do it until you’ve got everything perfect.  If you can walk and chew gum at the same time, go ahead. But expecting that [a new stadium deal] to be something that’s going to turn around your franchise’s fortunes is crazy.

Detert: In this case, given the history, there is something to be said for proactive announcements. Everything Snyder did was reactive to the news around him.

So I do think what the fans are probably desperate to hear is somebody actually tell them you’re getting a new stadium, you’re getting a new culture, you’re getting a new this or that. Not just because somebody has threatened us with legal action or something like that; how about just because it’s the right thing to do for you, the fan, or for our employees?

In that regard, I think some proactive positive moves will go a long way, because Snyder didn’t seem to do positive things proactively. Everything was reactive.

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications