Earlier this week, a milestone was met and I completely forgot about it until a few days later. Ten years ago, the New Jersey Devils franchise underwent a significant change: new ownership. It was on August 14, 2013 that the NHL Board of Governors approved the sale of the New Jersey Devils to Josh Harris and David Blitzer, owners of the Philadelphia 76ers. The announcement was made on August 15. The deal was reportedly for $320 million and it included the operating rights to the Prudential Center. This means that it has been a decade of ownership by Harris and Blitzer, which is now under the Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment since HBSE’s founding in 2017 along with the 76ers.
With the decade milestone now being hit, it is a good time as any to ask the question: Has ownership under Harris & Blitzer been good for the Devils? The answer, to me, is very simple: Absolutely. Why? That will take some explanation as there are multiple reasons.
My post back in 2013 was definitely written at a time where there was plenty of chatter about the Devils. Jeff Vanderbeek was the previous owner and he was fairly well liked. But he was a multi-millionaire in what was becoming a sports world where top franchises needed billionaires. The financial issues came as a head as debts and outstanding loans amounted. It caught the attention of one Josh Kosman, who incidentally kept pushing the rumor that Nelson Peltz was going to buy the team. As much as Kosman was wrong about Peltz, he was right about the financial strains that led to the sale.
What was surprising about this was how quick it happened. Andrew Barroway did provide $30 million and had a month-long window to purchase the team. But a deal just could not be done. Harris and Blitzer, who were then just owners of the 76ers, saw the opportunity and jumped right into hockey. That the sale included Devils Arena Entertainment, which ran other events at the Prudential Center, likely helped their interest. Harris and Blitzer swooped in after that window expired and made the deal for the reported $320 million. Vanderbeek would be kept on initially as a minority shareholder, but he would move on.
Harris was the leader of the group that bought the Devils and Blitzer was a minority shareholder too, but the two have been the primary points of contact. They are a partnership, which has been further codified under the HBSE group that was formed in 2017 for the 76ers and Devils along with other brands and organizations the duo invested in. A good reminder of the two being the main ones in charge was when Fitzgerald was given the GM job full-time - announced at the same time Lindy Ruff was named head coach. Blitzer attended and spoke at length during the online press conference, stating he was also representing Josh Harris.
Since 2013, Money Clearly Has Been Spent on the Team
The hockey team has underwent a lot of necessary changes. I covered a lot of the last decade in this series of posts, which you may peruse at your leisure here. At a high level, Lou was kicked upstairs and then left for Toronto, Ray Shero took over as GM, the team re-built, returned to the playoffs in 2018, crashed and burned, Shero’s assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald has took over as GM, the team re-built once more, and returned to the playoffs in 2023. The recent times were good and very welcomed after a lot of rougher patches.
That is what happened on the ice at a high level. Also at a high level: Quite a bit of money was spent. Harris and Blitzer took on and resolved the debts and loans, and as I understand it, that included Barroway’s $30 million. There has not been one issue involving money not being paid out, or at least not one that has been escalated to the public. Harris & Blitzer have not been idle owners.
Look at the arena, for example. Changes at the Rock included adding in LED ribbons around the bowls, replacing the center jumbotron with the largest indoor screen in the world, reducing the capacity to include more luxury seating (e.g. loge boxes), a museum about the Grammy Awards that ran from October 2017 to June 2023, and a statue dedicated to Martin Brodeur outside of the Lafayette Street entrance by the practice rink. While Prudential is still the named sponsor of the arena, the practice rink has changed names a couple of times and is now the RWJBarnabas Health Hockey House. The Rock may be starting to get up there in age in a little bit - it will turn 16 this October - and renovations will probably be discussed in the future.
Look at the Devils’ spending. Sure, there were some lean years with respect to the rest of the NHL when it came to player salaries. Given that the NHL has a hard cap, it is favorable for a rebuilding team to have as much space and flexibility as possible. Being capped out and bad is an awful place to be in. Just ask Vancouver. That said, even during those years in the proverbial wilderness, the Devils were willing to offer and/or take on some significant salaries. My favorite example is P.K. Subban. The Devils traded for P.K. Subban for what would be the final three seasons of his contract in 2019. That first season saw him paid out $10 million in salary and the final two seasons had him earn a $6 million signing bonus on top of a $2 million salary in each season. Cheap owners do not let management trade for someone still earning the peak money on a long-term contract someone else gave the player. Cheap owners also do not balk at some of the following lucrative contracts handed out by Lou, Shero, and Fitzgerald ever since Harris & Blitzer took over in August 2013:
- An UFA signing of Mike Cammalleri on July 1, 2014 worth $25 million over five seasons.
- Cory Schneider’s contract extension of $42 million over seven seasons on July 9, 2014.
- Andy Greene’s contract extension of $25 million over five seasons on July 30, 2014.
- A $23.25 million deal over five seasons to Kyle Palmieri on July 7, 2016.
- Damon Severson’s contract extension of $25 million over six seasons on September 11, 2017.
- An UFA signing of Wayne Simmonds of $5 million for a season on July 1, 2019.
- Acquiring and later signing Nikita Gusev for $9 million over two seasons on July 29, 2019.
- Nico Hischier’s huge extension on October 18, 2019 worth $50.75 million over seven seasons.
- An UFA signing of Dougie Hamilton for $63 million over seven seasons on July 28, 2021.
- An UFA signing of Tomas Tatar for $9 million over two seasons on August 5, 2021.
- Jack Hughes’ huge extension on November 30, 2021 worth $64 million over eight seasons.
- An UFA signing of Ondrej Palat on July 14, 2022 for $30 million over five seasons.
- Jesper Bratt being re-signed for $63 million over eight seasons on June 15, 2023.
- Timo Meier being re-signed for $70.4 million over eight seasons on June 28, 2023.
Whether or not these signings worked out, were overpays, or even underpayments is beside the point. Lou, Shero, and Fitzgerald have been given the resources to offer out big contracts to whomever they see fit. The Devils were a cap ceiling team last season and should be going forward. Even when they were re-building and closer to the floor, they were still paying out over $60-70 million per season just in player salaries alone. Harris and Blitzer have continued to provide the checkbook to their general managers to strengthen the team.
This also does not include the other changes that a bit less visible but just as important in the organization. Staffing, as fat as I can tell, has not been an issue. The team has two assistant GMs, one originally with Fitzgerald in Dan MacKinnon and one promoted to the role in Kate Madigan. The coaching staff has been expanded to include development coaches and skills development. Analytics - something Josh Harris has espoused with the 76ers - have been brought into the fold in New Jersey. First with Sai Okabayashi and Sunny Mehta (now with Florida) and now currently with Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane. There is likely even more with the Prudential Center and the Devils, but these were the ones that stuck out.
And even with ownership change, alumni have continued to be a part of the organization or welcomed back. Some serve roles with the team, such as Martin Brodeur as Executive VP of Hockey Operations (he spent a year on the business side of things, if I recall correctly); Scott Clemmensen as a director of goaltending development; Eric Weinrich as a player development coach; and Sergei Brylin as an assistant coach, who is celebrating 10 years of being a coach in the organization himself. Former players have been included on broadcasts and have re-visited the Rock over the years. This is notable as much as there has been some big changes under Harris & Blitzer, the organization still respects its history and its connection with the players that have been a part of the team. Something fans appreciate.
This is all to point out that as much as Harris & Blitzer and/or the Devils organization can be criticized for things, you and I cannot complain that they have not spent money or invested in the team and arena. They made a big deal to get the Devils and they have funded them quite well. Something that has continued since the team’s recent return to being Actually Good. Of course, even all of that cash splashed on the Devils pale in comparison to how much Harris and Blitzer have spent elsewhere.
Activity in Other Sports
When Harris and Blitzer bought the Devils, they were already owners of the 76ers in the NBA. As you may expect, owning a NBA team is an expensive venture in its own right. The 76ers have hired management to bring in Big Names, spent big money to keep said Big Names, and improve the organization to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference. That is far from cheap; especially since 76ers center and reigning NBA MVP Joel Embiid alone is starting to receive payment on a $213.2 million, four season contract in 2023-24. In fact, the 76ers total cap is estimated to be $193.659 million for next season. And this may pale in comparison to their ongoing venture with the 76ers: a new arena. Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Sixers - owned by HBSE - released new plans for their new arena, 76 Place in Philadelphia’s Center City. There are new renderings and housing plans. The arena was announced in July 2022 and the plan is still to open the new arena by 2031. Say what you want about the 76ers but Harris and Blitzer are not holding back on spending.
They also have not held back about getting into other sports. Since buying the Devils, Josh Harris and David Blitzer have dramatically expanded their sports ownership over the last decade.
First, HBSE is the holding company that was formally founded in 2017 by Harris and Blitzer. That is the group that oversees the 76ers, the Devils, and their respective minor league teams: the G-League’s Delaware Blue Coats and the AHL’s Utica Comets. About a year before their founding, Harris and Blitzer got into e-sports by buying Dignitas. After HBSE was founded, they bought Clutch Gaming and merged them with Dignitas under the parent company of New Meta Entertainment. Dignitas is still the team’s name and they have teams in League of Legends, Rocket League, and Fortnite. HBSE’s latest deal made with Joe Gibbs Racing earlier this year. The group purchased a minority stake and Joe Gibbs became a limited partner in HBSE. While I am not familiar enough with NASCAR, it appears the JGR team is looking solid with three of the top five spots in the Owner Standings right now. The holding company also owns investment and real estate ventures, but this is the extent of their sports ownership.
Second, while HBSE is the holding company founded by the duo, they also made some other purchases into sports teams outside of HBSE. Their biggest one was previously Crystal Palace. Harris and Blitzer each bought 18% of the team back in December 2015. They were in the English Premier League - the top league in England and one of the world’s best - then and Palace has remained a mid-table since then. While honors elude them, being in the EPL for 11 straight seasons is quite solid. That said, they only own a part of Crystal Palace. And they just a made deal to get into a far bigger sport: football.
The latest and largest deal made by Harris just happened last month. Josh Harris bought the NFL’s Washington Commanders from the infamous Dan Snyder. Harris led a group of investors in this massive $6 billion deal, which includes Blitzer and includes investors outside of HBSE. This is not their first taste of NFL ownership. (Or Harris’ first attempt to buy a NFL team.) Both Harris and Blitzer had 5% stakes in the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 2020. They sold those stakes in order for the bigger prize of outright owning Washington’s football team. A result that I am confident pleases Harris personally as he grew up in Delaware supporting them. Given how contentious and controversial Snyder was as the owner in D.C., Harris and the group only has to ensure FedEx Field is maintained, the field is actually maintained, and everyone acts professionally to surpass Snyder’s reign. It was a rather bad run by Dan Snyder, who unfortunately gets $6 billion for what happened under him. And put together a better management group to run the football team. It will not be easy as NFL owners are absolutely in the spotlight more often than they are in other sports, but Harris, Blitzer, and the other investors have a low bar to clear as of now.
Owning a NFL team alone is a massive achievement and responsibility. It also concludes Harris’ ownership stakes in sports. Blitzer, on the other hand, has been more active.
Third, David Blitzer has been involved in another sport: Baseball. Back in 2014, Blitzer was part of a group that bought 50% of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a AAA team in the New York Yankees system. This lasted until 2021 when they were made a part of Diamond Baseball Holdings. This and a failed purchase with Harris to buy the New York Mets did not deter Blitzer from baseball. In fact, he bought into a 25% share of the Cleveland Guardians in Major League Baseball in June 2022. More than just a minority stake in the franchise, he has an option to take a majority share of the team in 2028. He very well could take them over then but that will have to wait. Incidentally, with his ownership stake in the Guardians, Blitzer is the only American owner who has an ownership stake in a NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS, and NFL (then Steelers, now Commanders) team at the same time. He still does.
Not that Blitzer has been idle. Far from it. He clearly loves soccer beyond just Crystal Palace. Blitzer founded Bolt Football Holdings as well as Global Football Holdings. I am unsure if they are the same or remain as different entities; it is murky and I apologize for not being able to find out. Either separately, with a different group, or with these groups, here are the soccer teams that Blitzer owns or owns a part of:
- Real Salt Lake, which includes their B-team in the Real Monarchs, and their respective stadiums in January 2022. RSL plays in Major League Soccer and Blitzer made this deal with Ryan Smith, who owns the Utah Jazz. The first year of RSL under Blitzer and Smith saw them make the playoffs. This season’s team is just four points (a win and a tie) behind first in the Western Conference.
- Utah Royals, which will return to the National Women’s Soccer League in 2024. As with RSL, the Royals are owned by Blitzer and Smith.
- SK Waasland-Beveren in September 2020. They play in the Belgian Pro League, which is the second tier of Belgian soccer. They finished second last season, which is great. Unfortunately, promotion to the first tier in Belgium only goes to the first place team in the league. Which was RWD Molenbeek and they finished a point (a draw) ahead of Beveren. Who even had the tiebreaker in goal differential. Harsh.
- FC Augsburg in February 2021. Augsburg is in the German Bundesliga, the top league in Germany. Due to the league’s 50+1 ownership rule, Blitzer is not the sole owner. With 45% of the team, he has a lot to say in their business. Augsburg have been regulars in the Bundesliga since 2011-12 albeit in the second half of the standings. Good enough to compete, not good enough to push for European competition or a trophy.
- GD Estoril Prais in May 2019. They play in Portugal’s Primeira Liga and have been since the 2021-13 season. They have mostly been in the middle of the table. Good enough to compete, but quite a bit away from European competition.
- AD Alcorcón in June 2019. They play in Spain’s Segunda Division, literally the second division. They actually are coming back to it as they were relegated to the third tier in 2022. They won a playoff earlier this year and are now back in the Segunda.
- Brøndby IF in November 2022. Brøndby plays in Denmark’s Superliga and has the most history out of these teams in the portfolio. They have 11 Danish championships; most recently won in 2021. They won 7 Danish Cups, a national tournament, most recently in 2018. They are the only team out of Denmark to go to a semifinal in a European competition back in 1991 in the UEFA Cup. They finished fifth in the Superliga last season (they play a two-tier schedule and finished fifth in the championship round), played in the Europa League, and figure to contend for another year.
- ADO Den Haag in the Netherland’s Eerste Divisie, which is the second tier of Dutch soccer. A delightful bit of irony given Den Haag’s fans, uh, history of certain groups of people. Through Bolt, they were bought in November 2021. But as of five days ago, they are apparently being in negotiations to be sold to Eagle Holdings, which is led by John Textor. Textor owns 40% of Crystal Palace (along with Botafogo in Brazil, RWD Molenbeek in Belgium, and Olympique Lyonnais in France), the same team that Blitzer and Harris have a share in.
Clearly, Blitzer is into the sport and wants to be involved even if the team is not playing in their country’s top league. It makes me wonder if he is already looking at teams in other countries. His portfolio is missing some other big soccer countries like France and Italy. In addition to the myriad of leagues in other, lesser known European countries in the soccer world.
If that was not enough, you have Blitzer to thank in part for the return of SlamBall. Yes, SlamBall. The game that combines trampolines, tackling, dunking, and plexiglass boards? Blitzer was one of the big investors in the funding round completed in March 2023 that led to its return to ESPN this Summer.
Overall, Harris and Blitzer owns or has an ownership stake a lot of sports teams and sports-adjacent properties. So what?
There are two larger takeaways from this. One, Harris and Blitzer are absolutely movers and shakers. They do not just rest on their laurels and they seek to expand their holdings as they see fit. Despite how much they spend on salaries, assets, and other teams, this approach speaks to how they can keep doing this. This also gives me confidence that they will not pull back and reduce their support of the teams they own. They are clearly willing to pay the luxury tax in the NBA. It will be the salary cap that keeps the Devils from spending more on players, not the owners. This is not going to go away anytime soon.
It follows what they do or did for a living. Blitzer still works as a global head of Tactical Opportunities for Blackstone, one of the largest investment groups in the world. Harris was with Apollo Global Management, an equity firm focused on asset management which he co-founded. As I understand it, these are industries that dovetail into what it takes to be in team ownership these days. And both Harris and Blitzer have become incredibly wealthy from this work, which has only been multiplied by their holdings. Even if they are technically losing money on the teams season-to-season, being able to develop related assets - like the arenas they play in - or ultimately sell in the future will only further increase their wealth. I think this is why Harris and Blitzer has been so aggressive in getting into all of these teams. It is also why they have been so willing to keep funding and developing their original ownership stakes in the 76ers and Devils.
Two, all these stakes tell me that Harris and Blitzer clearly understand how sports ownership works in this day and age. I am sure Harris and Blitzer love sports and have their own ideas about them like any fan. But, from the outside perspective, they tend to be hands-off and just let management do as they see fit provided they meet their objectives. The ideal owner, in my opinion, needs to be incredibly wealthy, provide the resources, and largely get out of the way. It is a corporate approach to buy into a team, have someone be their representative as a team president or similar, and report in when necessary, such as approving a massive contract extension for a player. If they can connect with the fans, great; but, for the most part, just provide the money and resources and let the sports experts do their thing. If this means needing to own a whole lot of teams to ensure they do not focus on one or two to meddle, then great.
While most of the teams that Harris, Blitzer, and HBSE own have yet to find ultimate success since their purchases (Aside: I understand championships are valuable but owners are not the players or coaches or managers), the teams they own are stable, they are largely competitive, and at least with the 76ers and Devils, well-funded. They are also willing to be patient for a team to reach that level, as we have seen with the Devils. Harris and Blitzer were fine with Ray Shero tearing it all down and building it up. And even with giving him another chance after the team’s fall off after a 2018 playoff appearance. Instead of trying to find the best GM name that money could buy, they gave then assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald a chance as an interim. They took away that interim tag in 2020 and allowed him to re-build further when they could have justifiably fired him after terrible 2021 and 2021-22 season. The team rebounded (and honestly over-achieved at least a bit) to one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history in 2022-23, returned to the playoffs, took out Our Hated Rivals for their first playoff series win since 2012, and established themselves as contenders going forward. That looks great for Fitzgerald. It looks great for Harris and Blitzer to be patient with whom they were working with. It justified their spending and allows for even more, as we have seen with the recent extensions given to Bratt and Meier.
It’s Been Good
Ultimately, the ownership reign of Josh Harris and David Blitzer, through HBSE, has been good for the past ten years. The Devils do not have any financial issues that have escalated to public knowledge. They have been patient with New Jersey management and the team is now set to contend and hopefully make Petr Sykora’s prediction of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance within the next five years correct. They have provided plenty in terms of on-ice and off-ice improvements. All while spending quite a bit on the 76ers and dramatically expanding their sports holdings over the last decade.
As an additional point, one other important aspect of ownership is that the organization’s culture and perception often starts from the very top. This is true in many businesses as well as in sports. Look no further than Dan Snyder’s reign in Washington for an example of how it could go real bad regardless of Bruce Allen’s claim about the culture being “damn good.” In the case of the Devils as well as the other teams owned by Harris and Blitzer, this apparently does not seem to be an issue either. Which is very much a positive with as much attention bad behavior in sports deservedly gets. Unless I am missing something and for that I am sorry if I am. But this is an important point that further strengthens that the Devils have good owners even if they are involved in a lot of other fields. Now there is a good team to go with that.
Now I turn to you, the People Who Matter. What do you make of the HBSE’s ownership of the Devils? Has it been a good or bad thing for the Devils? What would you like to see from HBSE going forward? Do you care whether or not they own so many other teams and possibly seek to own more teams? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about HBSE, Harris, and Blitzer in the comments. Thank you for reading.