July-August 2015 | Featured Article

Q&A with the Owners of the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Washington Kastles

Boyhood friends in Chevy Chase, Josh Harris and Mark Ein have gone on to become sports team owners.

Josh Harris and Mark Ein have lived parallel lives. Ein’s dad was a physician, Harris’ an orthodontist. The pair, who are both 50, grew up around the corner from each other in Chevy Chase, played soccer together as kids, were in the same class at the University of Pennsylvania, worked on Wall Street in their early 20s at competing firms, and then went on to Harvard Business School.

Harris, the co-founder and senior managing director of Apollo Global Management, and Ein, founder and CEO of Venturehouse Group and chairman of Kastle Systems and Lindblad Expeditions, have made fortunes in business. Today, however, they’re famous because they own sports franchises. Harris, who lives in New York City, is the principal owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. Ein, who lives in McLean, is the founder and owner of the five-time World Team Tennis champion Washington Kastles.  
The friends, who have remained close after all these years, sat down recently for an interview with Bethesda Magazine.

 

Where did you meet?

Harris: We met in second grade at Rollingwood Elementary, and then we played on the same select soccer team, the Chevy Chase Chargers. We went through eighth grade together. Then I went to The Field School and Mark went to B-CC.

 

Which one of you was the better athlete?

Ein: The soccer team was the center of our lives from second grade through sixth grade until our coach moved away. We were both the short, scrappy guys. It was two seasons, spring and fall, so it was pretty intense. We lived around the corner from each other—I lived on Rolling Road and Josh lived on Brooklawn Terrace—and we would hang out after school. We had basketball hoops in our driveways, but we would go play basketball, baseball and soccer at the playground at Rollingwood or at Candy Cane City.

Harris: We both went to Camp Inverness in Potomac. I remember woodworking and playing tetherball. And both of our families belonged to CCRA [Chevy Chase Recreation
Association] pool.

 

Were you both big fans of D.C.’s teams growing up?

Harris: I went to the opening of the Capital Centre in 1973. My dad and I walked through a ravine because the parking lot wasn’t quite finished, and my dad fell and hurt his rib. We were original season-ticket holders. It was great for me that we had our own team. And growing up in Washington, you were a Redskins fan.

Ein: Like Josh, I grew up rooting for the Redskins and the Bullets, but I was also a ball kid at the Evening Star summer tennis tournament.

 

Did you two ever fight?

Ein: In fifth grade, the school bully set Josh and me up for a fight in front of the whole school. That’s the only fight I’ve been in during my whole life. It wasn’t really a fistfight. Josh jumped on my back and I carried him around.

Harris: There might have been a few punches thrown, but there was no damage done. I remember that his father called my father, who drew a face on a punching bag and said, ‘If you ever want to hit someone, hit this.’


Harris and Ein in eighth grade. Photos Courtesy of Mark Ein

Did you remain friends when Josh left for The Field School?

Harris: We lost touch in high school, but we had already started to hang out with slightly different crowds. I was on the wrestling team, and maybe for a while I wasn’t in the best group.

Ein: I wasn’t mad at Josh for leaving. I was already playing soccer and tennis, so we were going in different directions.

 

Did you each choose Penn without the other knowing?
Harris: We found out that we were both going to Penn the summer before college, and we started hanging out again. We never roomed together at Penn, but we would hang out a lot. I was in Phi Delta Theta and he was in Sigma Alpha Epsilon. We were in a lot of the same classes, and we would play basketball together and intramural soccer and hang out at [off-campus bars] Doc’s and Smokey Joe’s.

 

How did you both end up studying business?
Ein: I had an accounting class at B-CC that I enjoyed. I always gravitated towards business, but when you grow up in Chevy Chase, you’re not focused on it. Then you get to Penn, and all the kids’ parents worked on Wall Street and you’re so behind. I didn’t even know what Goldman Sachs was until my junior year. I thought it was a department store. So many of the Wharton kids’ parents work in that world. I feel really fortunate that I found business; that it wasn’t just what everybody in our community did. You’re also passionate about other things when you grow up in Chevy Chase, Bethesda or Washington. You’re mindful of what’s going on in the world, and you want to make a difference with your resources and your time.

Harris: My dad, who was an orthodontist, never pushed me to go into the medical field. I had been accepted into The College of Arts and Sciences, not Wharton, but freshman year I really liked economics and statistics, so I transferred to Wharton. I didn’t even tell my parents at first. They were shocked, but they were supportive. They thought I was going to be in liberal arts, but I had found something that I was really interested in.

Ein: I had started in The College, too, but when I was looking in the course catalog at what classes I wanted to take sophomore year, they were all business classes, so I transferred to Wharton.

 

What did you do during your college summers?

Harris: I had a lemonade stand the summer after my freshman and sophomore years at Penn. I became a partner with an older gentleman in a business called Lemon Squeeze that had stands at the National Zoo and other places. It was his concept and he funded it, but I managed it. Before that, I had had paper routes, so I guess I was always inclined towards business.

Ein: I worked at GW hospital during my college summers because my dad, who was a physician, thought my brother and I should be exposed to it, but he was fine with us not going into medicine. I had a soda machine business with two friends at Penn.
We bought the business from some guys before us. They had maybe two machines, and we added three more. We also did bulk sales to fraternities. We sold it when we graduated.

 

You both went right to Wall Street afterward. That’s just what everyone from Wharton did, right?

Harris: We wound up working right down the street from each other on Broad Street. I was at Drexel Burnham Lambert, and Mark was at Goldman Sachs. You took a job with an investment banking firm because it was an entry into finance. You work a crazy amount of hours, but you get a crash course in analytics and finance. I thought that was something worth going through.

Ein: We were sharing one-bedroom apartments with other guys. We lived pretty close to each other. We were working 100 hours a week, and we’d meet up after work or on weekends. We also shared beach houses together on Long Island.

Harris: After two years at Drexel, I went to Harvard Business School. That was the only school I applied to.

Ein: Harvard was also the only business school I applied to [two years later]. I said that if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t go to business school.

It’s almost like the two of you are twins; you’ve done so many of the same things over the years.

Harris: It is a little strange if you start talking about it.

 

So how did you decide to buy sports franchises?

Ein: Ted Leonsis was a very influential guy for me in thinking about doing this, and wonderfully helpful when we got started, as the Lerners have been, too.

Harris: Mark, as much as anyone, convinced me to buy a team.

Mark owns one team in his hometown. Josh, how do you manage two teams in different markets, one of which is about 90 minutes from your home in New York City?

Harris: It’s very easy. There are certain conflicts, but I’m probably at half of each team’s home games and some more on the road because they play in the New York area a lot. I go to a lot of games.

Ein: I could see owning franchises in other sports. Josh and I have talked about doing this together. The thing I struggle with is doing it somewhere else. If it’s not in your hometown, it’s harder to make an impact. I love what I do. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve become really good friends with my players. It’s difficult when you can’t re-sign some of them, but you get through it.

 

What’s your relationship like with the fans?

Harris: Philly fans are very passionate about sports, but they’re also smart. They believe in grit and passion and bringing it every night, and that’s the way we run our teams. So even though we’re going through some rebuilding, we’ve connected with the fans a lot, and they’ve been really supportive. You need to be transparent and smart and have a plan, but ultimately it’s about winning. Philadelphia hasn’t had an NBA championship team since 1983. The fans want to win, but people way more often than not say, ‘Really appreciate what you’re doing. Keep it up.’ But you get criticism, sure.

Ein: We have a really good fan base. People talk about how much the Kastles mean to their families and their kids. I’ve always loved tennis. When I started the team, it was really as a platform to give back to the community where I had grown up. We’ve won five championships, but our founding principles had nothing to do with winning and losing. They were bringing the city together and creating a center of fun activity, exposing the sport of tennis to a wider audience, and helping our local charitable partners. I wrote those down at the beginning, and those are still our four pillars.

I’ve learned a lot from sports that I’ve been able to take back to business. It’s all about culture and standing for something bigger than winning or losing. Our payroll is middle of the pack. We have good players, but we don’t have the best of the best. But people really care. It’s about representing your community, the name on the front of the jersey. The fans love it, the players take a lot of pride in it, and they win. During the [Kastles’ 34-match] winning streak [from 2010-13], we had 10 match points against us, and every time we found a way to win.

 

How does owning sports franchises affect your families?

Harris: I have five kids, and I think they’re all going to go in different directions. The minute I bought the Sixers, my oldest son took up basketball, and that’s all he wanted to do. He’s incredibly opinionated about basketball, so he has disagreed with some of our moves. His next-oldest brother, the minute I bought the Devils, took up hockey. Everyone knows where my kids go to school, but it would be different if I owned the Knicks and the Rangers. Mark and I were raised in upper middle-class families. My kids are growing up very differently, but we try to instill upper middle-class values in them: humility, hard work, a sense of purpose. We spend a lot of time on that. I’m a competitive guy, and what drives me is not really the next dollar, it’s about creating true excellence, either with the sports franchises or at Apollo. It’s about making them institutions that my family and the community can be proud of.

Ein: We’re about to have our first child, so we’re pretty far from those talks.

 

How often are you two in touch these days?

Ein: We go skiing together. We have been to multiple NBA All-Star Games and U.S. Opens together. We talk about business. We talk about sports. We talk about family. We talk about friends.

Harris: We can be in touch four times in a week and then not for a month, but I probably see Mark 20, 30 times a year. I was in his wedding. I consider Mark one of my closest friends.

 

Is there a downside to owning a professional sports team?

Harris: What’s been a little surprising to me is how long it takes to build truly elite franchises in these two sports. We’re doing it the only way I know how to do it, which is from the bottom up, brick by brick. We’re slowly creating something that I think will be truly elite. I can’t say when that will happen. There aren’t that many opportunities to improve your team.

There are trades, there’s free agency and there’s the draft. Your ability to impact the team takes a lot longer than you would think. There are 29 other owners that are really smart and really competitive.

When I run races in Philly, people recognize me, but it’s not invasive. Someone had a ‘Go Josh’ sign during the Philly marathon, and [the media] interviewed me afterwards. Owning a sports franchise is a public asset. You give up your anonymity and some privacy, but that’s the trade-off that you make. It’s a little bit of a political position.

We owned a $50 billion company called Lyondell Chemical. No one really cares about the price of polypropylene, but people care who’s going to be in the starting lineup for the Sixers on any given night. There’s a public interest in sports that transcends the level of economic impact because it captures people’s heart and minds.

Ein: The first year, when we didn’t win a lot and we would lose at home, the place would be dead. Winning wasn’t our first goal, but we learned that winning really helps to achieve those other goals. The best entrepreneurs are purpose-driven, mission-driven. They start things not to build a great business or get rich. They do it because they see a need in the world and they have an idea that they want to happen, to create something that they believe in. The analogy to sports is: The more you win, the more that you can have that other impact.

 

What has been the highlight for each of you as an owner?
Ein: My best memories are actually not when we won matches or championships. They are sitting in a stadium that we built and looking around at thousands of people from your community sitting with their kids, creating the same memories that Josh and I had as kids going to games with our parents. That’s so unbelievable.

Harris: My best memory so far has been when we were the eighth seed in the 2012 NBA playoffs and we knocked off the Chicago Bulls, who were the top seed. I jumped into the stands. The guy with his face painted red and blue grabbed me and it was tough to get out of there.

David Elfin is a Bethesda resident and the author of seven books on Washington sports.