Business

First Black Woman to Own Pro Sports Team

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Ed Gordon talks to the first African-American woman to own a professional sports team, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson. She is now co-owner of the Washington Mystics women's pro basketball team, plus now has an interest in NBA's Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals pro hockey team.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Sheila Johnson has made history, becoming the first African-American woman to to own a stake in a pro sports team. The billionaire and co-founder of Black Entertainment Television is now the co-owner of the women's basketball team the Washington Mystics. As part of her historic business deal, she also has interest in the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals, both owned by business mogul Abe Pollin. Johnson says her decision to become new Mystics managing partner and president was a simple one.

Ms. SHEILA JOHNSON (Co-founder, Black Entertainment Television): The reason why I did it is because I was asked. I absolutely had no intention of buying into a team. I never even thought about it. And one day I got an incredible call from Abe Pollin's office and Susan O'Malley, and they asked that I come down and meet with them, which I did. And they said, `You know, we'd like you to own the Mystics.' And I said, `Why me?' They said, `You're the only one that we really would like to have this team, you know.'

And it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime offers that is never, ever presented to anyone, especially a woman. You know, this is an old boys' network, let's face it, you know. And so they told me to think about it, and so I went back to my advisers, and they go, `Why in the world do you want to own a team?' you know. I don't know. So then I said, `You know, again, it's an offer. I don't think I can turn it down.' I said, `Guys, let's make it work, but let's do it in a way that is really going to be--where it makes sense financially.'

GORDON: Obviously so many people familiar with you through the days of Black Entertainment Television when you and Bob Johnson co-created that network. Do you ever sit back and think about those days and, in doing so, do you do so fondly?

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, I have mixed feelings about it all. It was a lot of hard work. We worked in the trenches together in the very early times. There were a lot of great things that BET did and there were some things, you know, that were painful. But all in all, I'm glad we did it. I think BET conceptually was probably one of the best ideas that ever came along. And I think that we definitely filled a void that needed to be filled.

GORDON: Is there ever a time--and in full disclosure, most people know that I worked for years and years with BET and have known you for a long time now. Do you ever wince at articles when you read, `Bob Johnson, founder of BET'--do you ever think that you don't get enough credit for starting or helping to start the network?

Ms. JOHNSON: I honestly don't think BET would be there if it weren't for the sacrifice that both of us have made. I mean, there's no question about it. And I think it takes a strong partner to really help the other along. And I have always, because it was the way I was brought up and the way a lot of women were brought up back then, you always stay in the background. You always make the man look good. And I think as things moved along and I started really getting out there, especially with "Teen Summit," which I thought was enormously successful, as people started to see that, you know, I was really putting a lot of sweat equity into this network. And there are times when I do wince about it and I get angry about it for different reasons because I worked hard at this and I did pour my heart into not only BET but into Bob and trying to make him what he is. And things don't work out sometimes, but as I said, I don't regret anything that I've done because it's made me the person I am now.

GORDON: You were--and Oprah has joined you in this very exclusive club, though--the first African-American female billionaire in this country, and that came about with the sale of BET to Viacom. With that came a tremendous amount of responsibility. Were you ready for it, and what was the hardest part of that?

Ms. JOHNSON: I wasn't ready for it, but I was happy that it happened. The downside of it is you then become just open to everybody coming to you with their hands out. You have to be more aware of people that you bring inside your circle. Bottom line, when you are in that category, you've got to be very careful.

GORDON: As a working woman and a mother, how difficult has it been for you to balance the two? Obviously easier because of what we talked about, the wealth, than perhaps a single mother, but it is always difficult to strike a balance between business and raising, as you did, two children.

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. I used to believe in balance. I don't believe in balance anymore 'cause it is impossible to balance. The only way that I can do it is I always put my children first. There is no question that I've got to put them first. I am very aware that I want them to grow up to be balanced, wonderful human beings, and if I fail at that job, I've really failed at life, 'cause nothing else matters.

GORDON: You're an accomplished photographer. You're now an owner of a sports franchise and a number of teams within that umbrella. You also own a resort and spa in Virginia. I'm curious about the drive and where that came from.

Ms. JOHNSON: I have--as my mother keeps telling me, I was like this from the day I was born. She said I was the child that never took a nap. I could never sit still. I don't know what drives me, but I just know that when I get bored, you better watch out. I am a catalyst. I'm a visionary. When I see things that need changing, I do it. When I see things that need to be created or built, I do it. There is just something within me that prompts me to do the things that I do.

GORDON: Well, Sheila Johnson, we thank you for your time. Good luck with everything that you have on the plate, and we know there's more to come. And...

Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.

GORDON: ...it was a pleasure talking to you today.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, thank you, Ed, and good luck to you.

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