Mystics owner gives back

Updated: February 22, 2007, 4:07 PM ET
By Miki Turner | Special to ESPN.com

Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson studies pro sports. Not so much the X's and O's of the WNBA, but the people who run professional teams, how they do it and how they reach the top.

With a private jet at her disposal, she'll pop into Dallas to chat with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, or to Sacramento to mix it up with the Maloofs, who own the Kings and Monarchs, or even to this year's Super Bowl in Miami, where she was inspired by Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, the first African-American coaches in the Super Bowl.

"I loved it," Johnson says. "I was there. It was historical and they set the bar so high. They're both Christian coaches, to see the pictures in The New York Times of the coaches and their teams praying together really kind of sent chills through my body. I was very touched, not only because we had two African-American coaches for the first time and because Tony was the first black coach to win the Super Bowl, but the fact that they had such a strong moral compass. That's really lacking now."

That's one reason Johnson says it's important to celebrate the achievements of African-Americans this month -- and every other month.

Sheila Johnson
Steve Helber/AP PhotoJohnson, a co-founder of BET, used part of the money from the sale of the network to buy the WNBA's Washington Mystics in 2005.
"There are so many prominent African-Americans out there who have really given back to our country and really made an enormous impact in all fields -- in education, sports, entertainment, you name it," she says. "Our efforts are always underestimated, they're never out there. It's almost like we've become invisible. And as more minorities come into the country, if we don't continually be proactive in getting our successes out there, we will be totally undermined by media, undermined by journalists. We have to constantly fight to make sure that we are recognized for whatever we do."

There's no doubt that the former cheerleader from Chicago with a degree in music doesn't like to lose. Her life has been a series of successes, most notably beginning with the dream she and ex-husband Bob Johnson had of starting a television network catering to the programming interests of African-Americans. They called it Black Entertainment Television (BET). And while the network is still thriving, the Johnsons, who divorced in 2002, sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001.

Bob Johnson took part of his $1.5 billion and bought the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and WNBA's Charlotte Sting. Sheila Johnson, who became the country's first African-American female billionaire, took part of her money and bought the Mystics in 2005. She is president and managing partner of the team. In a separate deal with Abe Pollin, chairman of the Washington Sports and Entertainment Group, Johnson also got a piece of the NBA's Wizards and the NHL's Capitals.

"Nothing is impossible with her," says Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation. "She's this very up, very enthusiastic, very quick and very 'why not' kind of person. She hires great people, she surrounds herself with people who know what they're doing and she's a good businesswoman. Having that combination and having a passion for what you're doing is pretty unbeatable."

Although the Mystics were generally atop the WNBA in attendance, buying the team was risky. Washington hadn't had a winning season since 2002. But Johnson was convinced she could make it work. She had a big heart, big-time friends -- Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt was hired as a consultant -- and an even bigger checkbook.

The Mystics went 16-18 in Johnson's first season and 18-16 last season. As Johnson, 56, approaches her third season, she acknowledges there are difficult challenges ahead. That was one of many things she talked about when ESPN.com finally tracked her down a few days after she had strutted down a runway in a dazzling red dress, along with First Lady Laura Bush and other celebrities, at the Heart Truth's Red Dress Collection Fashion Show to raise awareness of heart disease.

The one thing that remains constant about her job is, "That it's probably the hardest business out there," Johnson says with a sigh. "And the reason why it's so hard is trying to convince corporate sponsors and fans that we've got to support women in sports. It's a very difficult task because for some reason people, and even fans, don't believe in the product. They say they do, but when it comes to putting their money where their heart is, it's not there."

Johnson was honored for her philanthropy during the NBA All-Star Weekend. She spoke of the pressures of being a trailblazer, her own inspirations, the significance of this year's Super Bowl, postgame meals, the importance of celebrating Black History Month and the hardships of being a team owner without having the comfort of the NBA umbrella.

"It's a real complex situation because most of the WNBA teams are owned by NBA owners," Johnson said. "Some of them love their WNBA teams and want to help them and then others don't. Those teams that are co-owned tend to have a better situation in the sense that they can share staff with the NBA team and corporate sponsorships. When teams go out like myself, Connecticut, Chicago, Houston and L.A., the reality check is now that we're on our own, we have to hire our own staff from a CEO to a sales and marketing team and that takes a lot of money. During the season it's anywhere from a $5 to $6 million operation."

Sheila Johnson
Nick Wass/AP PhotoSheila Johnson became the first black female billionaire in the United States. She says there are pressures and burdens that come with being a first.
The Mystics, who host the WNBA All-Star game July 15, are fortunate because they have an owner with deep pockets, and one who wants to see them succeed as players and as women. Before the season, Johnson tells her players how proud she is to own the team and how grateful she is to have them on her team. To show her commitment, she fought for three years to get them a new locker room because she found the existing one substandard. She also visits players in the locker room before and after games and caters the postgame meal.

"I take good care of my girls," says Johnson, who owns the gourmet restaurant that provides the meals.

And they appreciate it.

"Sheila Johnson has been such a positive influence to the organization and the team in so many ways," says Mystics guard Coco Miller. "She really makes everyone feel important as a person as well as an important member of the team."

Johnson's enthusiasm, commitment to raising awareness for the brand and ability to inspire others impress WNBA President Donna Orender, who says the league regularly talks with Johnson about issues such as improving its sponsorship base.

"Without a doubt, a woman of her accomplishment, her passion and her influences have brought a great deal to the league," Orender says. "In presenting her with one of her awards once I said here's a woman who really is in such high demand by so many different industries throughout the world. For her to choose women and women's involvement in sports -- particularly the WNBA --- I think speaks a lot about what the WNBA has to offer and also speaks a lot about the values of Sheila Johnson."

Johnson, now married to a judge in Arlington, Va., is humbled by that praise, but feels that the "jury is still out on me on whether I can make this work."

"It makes me feel good," Johnson says. "But I feel as though I haven't really done anything yet. You know, if you have money you can buy anything. It's making the product work. We had a great season last year. We got to the playoffs, but the attendance wasn't our best and that's a whole other set of circumstances. I still have a lot to learn about the business, a lot to learn about the game and I still have to learn how to get the best out of my players and make them have that passion and fire in their belly when they go up against the best."

Johnson can't deny that there are burdens and pressures that come with being a pioneer.

"Yeah, it's like you don't want to fail at what you're doing," she says with a slight chuckle. "You're constantly looking over your shoulder. More than anything I want to keep the team intact. I want to be able to bring in the sponsorship and this is going to be a constant struggle and I'm trying to figure out how to crack the code and make this all work."

Lopiano and Orender say, however, Johnson already has had an immediate and lasting impact on the game.

"She's making history," Lopiano says. "Unless your team was in the family and your father died and left it to you, you didn't get to be an owner. She's the first generation of women, who in their own right who are team owners and who are going to shape a franchise in their own image as opposed to letting the guys do it. I think she brings a lot of passion and her beliefs in women's sports to the party. The WNBA will be better for it."

Adds Orender: "I think what she does best, much like what the league does, is speak to possibilities and inspiration. And she's an unbelievably inspiring woman who is about passing that along to others."

Even when Johnson isn't in her locker room, luxury box, accepting awards for her charitable contributions, attending meetings for the various boards she sits on, overlooking plans for the resort/spa she's planning on building near her estate in Middleburg or jetting across the country to see a game, she's still working on ways to bring more attention to female athletes. She'll campaign until she feels they have received their due.

"What validates me is seeing results," Johnson says. "I want to make sure that I set goals for myself and I don't care what other people think out there. It's just that the end result is that I want to be successful at whatever I do.

"And if there's anything I want to instill in women, it's that they can never, ever give up in anything they do on and off the court."

Miki Turner is a freelance TV producer/writer in L.A. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.