Mystics' owner embraces challenge of selling game

MIDDLEBURG, Va. -- Northern Virginia's "horse country" is located about 40 minutes outside Washington, D.C. The towns, located on or off U.S. 50, are all picture-perfect postcard scenes of antique shops, quaint eateries, boutiques and homes dating back to the 1800s.

If it's peace and tranquility you're looking for, you'll find it out here.

And this is where Sheila Johnson, owner of the Washington Mystics and part owner of the Washington Wizards and Capitals, works and chills. Even though Johnson's official residence is in Arlington, Va., where her husband is a sitting judge, America's first African-American female billionaire runs her empire from Salamander Farms, which is located about seven miles from the center of town.

Johnson's sprawling 200-plus acre estate includes an office complex, several barns to house her show horses, and a main house that is currently undergoing extensive renovations.

"So, what do you think?" Johnson asks she walks into a room filled with equestrian trophies and ribbons won by her daughter, Paige. "How do you like it out here? This is like a decompression zone. I just love it so much."

Methinks she done good. All that's needed to complete this surreal scene is the Von Trapp family.

Serenity, however, don't come cheap. An apparent subscriber to the multiple streams of income theory, Johnson is COO of Salamander Hospitality, a company that oversees her other business ventures, including an upscale chef's market in Middleburg, her farms in The Plains, Va., and Palm Beach, Fla., the resort spa she's currently building in Middleburg, and another market set to open in Palm Beach soon.

The vast majority of her wealth, however, stems from her involvement with Black Entertainment Television (BET). Just more than 25 years ago, Johnson and her ex-husband, Bob Johnson (now owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and the WNBA's Charlotte Sting), co-founded the network, which caters to the interests of African-American viewers. The Johnsons, who divorced three years ago, sold BET to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion.

Although BET is often credited for bringing hip-hop into the mainstream, Johnson, a
former music teacher, became fed up with the way some rap videos glorified violence and degraded women. So it's no wonder now that she uses every opportunity -- including buying a WNBA team, the Washington Mystics -- to celebrate women.

"Getting to know these women, really getting to know them has been the most rewarding part of this experience," said Johnson, who was asked by Abe Pollin, chairman of the Washington Sports & Entertainment group (Wizards and Capitals) to buy the franchise. "Seeing the talents they have not only on the court but off the court, as well. I mean, they do a lot more than just play basketball. They're probably the most beautiful creatures I've ever seen. I'm looking forward to the next season to getting to know them better."

With her first season behind her, Johnson realizes there are still significant hurdles to overcome. The Mystics, like most WNBA teams, still need to make more money. And there are still salary issues, subpar locker room facilities and other inequities that continually plague the league.

But that's OK. Johnson, who was recently named the second most powerful woman in sports behind Maria Sharapova by foxsports.com, is a lifelong sports fan and a woman who never met a challenge she didn't like.

Historically, the Mystics have always been among the top teams in the league in attendance, but they haven't had a winning season since 2002. That year they were 17-15 during the regular season, falling to the New York Liberty in the conference finals, 3-2.

Chamique Holdsclaw, who was the team's No. 1 pick out of Tennessee in 1999, led the team in scoring for five of her six seasons in the District, but she alone couldn't save a franchise that concluded its inaugural season in 1998 with a dismal 3-27 mark. Reportedly, the frequent losses contributed to Holdsclaw's emotional struggles in 2004. The former Tennessee All-American, who won 131 games and lost just 17 in college, left the Mystics after playing in 23 games that season, resurfacing months later in Europe. Last season, she was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks for DeLisha Milton-Jones.

The Mystics, like their new owner, remain in somewhat of a transitional period. They finished 16-18 under first-year head coach Richie Adubato, the franchise's ninth coach in eight years. And, although Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was retained as the team's consultant when Johnson took over last season, Summitt won't be back because of budgetary constraints. "That was a sacrifice we had to make, and we're just going to have to do the best we can," Johnson said.

Though the roster includes popular All-Star Alana Beard, there are no legitimate superstars on the current roster. Johnson is currently working on a variety of marketing plans to boost her team's visibility. She recently shot a commercial encouraging fans to "come out and experience the magic." She is also setting up meetings with potential corporate sponsors.

"The challenge is selling the game … convincing everybody out there that women's sports need to be valued more," Johnson said. "That's been lacking because we haven't been able to market the sport where corporate sponsors want to step up to the plate and be a part of this. We have an incredibly solid and loyal fan base, and that's something I want to build on. I want to double our attendance. I want everybody to come. I want more fathers to come with their daughters.

"This is the purest form of basketball you've ever seen, and it's an exciting sport. I think it's great to see these women play. Our young athletes need our help, and I swear I'm going to step up to the plate to do it."

If Johnson, who grew up in Chicago, sounds like a cheerleader, that's because she used to be one. Her rah-rah spirit is so infectious that by the end of our interview she had me convinced that her rebel yell should and will be heard far beyond Middleburg and the MCI Center.

"I think the WNBA has a good future," Johnson said. "I think [WNBA president] Donna Orender is really working hard to change the face of the WNBA, and so am I. I know it's been tough, but even when the NBA started, it was in the same boat.

"I'm asking people for patience. Give us time. Let us figure it out. I think we're on the road to success. I really do."

A billion dollars says she might just be right.

Miki Turner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at dmiki@aol.com.