Taking A Shot In New Arena: Sheila Johnson, Washington Mystics Owner Is Accustomed To Being A Groundbreaker

By Milton Kent and Kate Crandall
Updated: July 22, 2005

Sheila Johnson

WASHINGTON – MCI Center, normally crackling with excitement and buzz during Washington Mystics games, was as quiet as a school library in July during a game with the Charlotte Sting last month when a clamor arose.

The chant, “Let’s Go Mystics, Let’s Go,” wasn’t so unusual, but the point of its origin, one of the normally sedate luxury boxes on the mezzanine level, was odd.

Strange, too, was the source of the cheering, a woman in a salmon-colored business suit. But who could blame Sheila Johnson, the first black cheerleader at the University of Illinois, for getting a little rowdy at a Mystics game?

After all, she does own the team.

“I tell everybody that comes into the [owner's] box, ‘You’d better be ready to cheer for the Mystics, or you’ll have to go,’ ” said Johnson recently with a chuckle.

Johnson, widely believed to be the first African-American female billionaire, has used her wealth, amassed from the creation of Black Entertainment Television, to break into the old-boy network on a number of fronts.

Through her Sheila Johnson Foundation, she has made it possible for inner-city students to attend some of the nation’s best colleges. Johnson is also building a spa in toney Middleburg, Va., over the vocal opposition of some of her well-heeled neighbors.

Johnson’s most visible move yet, however, was her May 24 purchase of the Mystics, which already has been approved by the WNBA, making her the first African-American woman to hold a controlling interest in a professional sports team.

Johnson, a longtime Mystics season-ticket holder, said she was approached to buy the team by Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who had owned the Mystics since their inception in 1998.

She checked with her financial advisers about the viability of the Mystics in particular and the WNBA, which has seen three teams fold and two others relocated in nine years of existence.

“They [her financial advisers] looked at me and said, ‘Is women’s basketball going to be around for a while?’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘This could be the opportunity of a lifetime as a turning point in women’s basketball. You know what, guys? When you are given an offer like this, you don’t want to turn it down. You want to make it work.’” Pollin, who is recuperating from heart bypass surgery, could not be reached for comment. However, at a news conference on the day of the sale, Pollin said, “We think it’s time for an African-American woman to own a WNBA team. We sought her out. We think she’s perfect to run a team. I would not have sold this team to anybody else.”

The sale, which came unexpectedly, has nonetheless gone over well with the Mystics players, who are accustomed to transition, with seven different coaches in their eight seasons.

“We didn’t hear any talk about it,” said Mystics forward Murriel Page, the only player still on the roster from the first season. “Mr. Pollin has been the owner since I’ve been here. There’s always a coaching change, not an ownership change, so it was a big surprise.”

Indeed, Pollin and Johnson have a five-year business relationship through her presidency of the Washington International Horse Show, held annually at MCI Center, which Pollin owns.

Doesn’t work out Pollin rebuffed Johnson’s ex-husband, media executive Robert Johnson, who offered to build a downtown Washington arena in 1995 if Pollin would sell him a piece of the NBA franchise then known as the Bullets.

Eventually, Robert Johnson, from whom Shelia Johnson was divorced in 2001, became the owner of both the expansion Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA and the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA.

Sheila Johnson said she didn’t consider the twist that Pollin was willing to sell a piece of his empire to her less than a decade after he turned down her ex-husband.

“I don’t think there was anything malicious about it with Abe,” Sheila Johnson said. “I’ve known Abe as long as Bob has known Abe. He just really saw this as a great fit. I feel very flattered that he did.”

To buy the Mystics, Sheila Johnson had to purchase an equity stake in Lincoln Holdings, the group headed by AOL executive Ted Leonsis, which purchased the Washington Capitals and a 45 percent share in the Wizards and MCI Center five years ago.

Johnson’s purchase of stock in the Capitals and the Wizards awaits approval of the NHL and NBA, respectively.

Pollin on board Susan O’Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, Pollin’s holding group, said Johnson fit the bill for what the 81-year-old Wizards owner wanted to accomplish.

“He [Pollin] believes in the WNBA and loves his Mystics,” O’Malley said. “As part of his exit strategy, he wanted to make sure all of the teams were taken care of and that they stay in the Washington area. When he thought about the Mystics, he thought about Sheila and clearly he’s very happy with Ted owning the Capitals and as future owner of the Wizards.”

The money she used to purchase the Mystics came from her share of the $3 billion sale of BET to Viacom in 2000. Though Robert Johnson, who recently retired as chief executive officer of the channel, was the public face of the company, Sheila Johnson was very much involved in BET’s operation, as co-founder and executive vice president, as well as lining up loans in the channel’s early days.

In recent years, BET has been criticized in many circles for its airing of provocative music videos, often so borderline explicitly sexual that Sheila Johnson, in an interview on Washington’s WAMU-FM last month, said that “if you turn the volume down, it looks to me like porno.”

While acknowledging that the videos, in large part, made BET a financial success, thus aiding her own bottom line, Sheila Johnson points out that she attempted to raise BET’s stature through programming such as Teen Summit, a critically acclaimed forum for youth to speak candidly about issues such as drugs, teen pregnancy and AIDS.

Sheila Johnson has described her divorce from Robert Johnson as “degrading.”

Through a Bobcats spokesman, Robert Johnson did not respond to requests for an interview.

However, the settlement has given her a chance to break from the marriage and BET and start anew.

“I’m essentially rebuilding my life,” Sheila Johnson said. “I’ve been by my ex-husband’s side, helping to build a business. I’ve let him get a lot of credit.”

“And now, like a lot of women who go through this kind of traumatizing time, you either go one of two ways. You either fold up, shrivel up and disappear or you reinvent yourself and you get out there and keep going. I’ve never been a shrinking violet. I’m smart, I’m creative and I feel as though I have just as much to offer as I always have. Why should I fade into the woodwork? The opportunities are presented to me, and I am going for it.”

That’s always been her style, going back to her youth in suburban Chicago, where she became a concert violinist and the first African-American, male or female, to win a statewide violin competition.

Helping out Since her divorce, Johnson has become a major philanthropist, giving more than $15 million to a number of charities, including the United Negro College Fund and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. In just four years, Johnson has become the second-most active African-American philanthropist, trailing only talk show host Oprah Winfrey, according to Black Enterprise magazine.

And she has made her money work for her children. Johnson gave $7 million to build a performing arts center at her son Brett’s grade school, while the U.S. equestrian team has been a benefactor of Johnson’s generosity. That’s in no small part because her daughter Paige is a rising star in riding circles, with, her mother says, an outside chance at a spot on the 2008 Olympic team.

Johnson has set her sights on building a 120-room Salamander Inn and Spa on 320 acres, a part of the farm she and her children live on in Middleburg, about 45 miles from Washington.

Johnson’s plan was hotly contested in the pricey town, where former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke lived. However, she received approval two weeks ago in a 4-3 vote of the town council to develop the property, provided she builds a $4 million wastewater treatment plant and donates it to the town. The spa is expected to open in 2007.

“I’ve prided myself on being a visionary,” Johnson said. “I just really think that this is the right fit for the town. Not everybody feels that way. The ones that don’t feel that way is where the hate mail is coming from. No matter what I do, I’ll never be able to change their minds, but a large majority, 99 percent, do want this because something needs to happen.”

Wedding plans Besides revitalizing the Mystics and building the inn, Johnson’s got one more big life project on the dockets. She is getting married in September to William T. Newman Jr., the chief judge of the Arlington County, Va., Circuit Court.

The couple met more than 30 years ago when they were both members of the Negro Ensemble Company, acting in the play Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. They didn’t see each other for three decades until Johnson was getting her divorce.

The judge who approved it? Newman. After the case was finished, Johnson approached the bench to speak to Newman. They exchanged addresses and phone numbers and eventually began dating.

Newman said he was slightly surprised when Johnson told him that she was buying into the Mystics, but only because she said she had been looking for the right opportunity. He thinks she will make it just that.

“Her learning curve is going to be pretty significant, having never done this type of thing before,” Newman said. “But if enthusiasm and putting your all into it means anything, as well as surrounding yourself with the right people, she’ll be great. That’s what she’s doing. I think she’s really trying hard to build a group of people who have the wherewithal and knowledge. And she will put her time and effort into it. I assure you of that.”