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Mystics' Owner Experiences the Ups and Downs

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sheila Johnson knows that owning a sports team feeds the ego in ways that almost no other wealthy endeavor can. She has watched male owners, smoking cigars as they sit in their owners' boxes, basking in the adulation of fans and enjoying the accomplishments of the players on the court. Then, of course, there is the winning. Nothing beats the feeling of success.

"It's a power trip," she said. "I mean, you feel it. You can really feel it. I have to say for the first few years, I felt it. Then reality set in."

She laughs. "The honeymoon period is over."

As her fourth season as managing partner and president of the Washington Mystics winds down, Johnson, 59, has watched in frustration as once again her team under-performed. Under her leadership, the Mystics are 59-71, including 10-20 this season. Only once during her watch have they made the playoffs. She's gone through three coaches in less than four seasons, including firing Tree Rollins on July 19 and replacing him with Jessie Kenlaw.

During the month-long break for the Olympics, Johnson felt compelled to hold a teleconference with reporters and declared a new era of accountability for the team. The Mystics have dropped their four games since then, eliminating them from the playoffs and guaranteeing a losing season for the eighth time in their 11 years.

These failings, however, are merely a continuation of the mediocrity and turmoil that has plagued the franchise for more than a decade. During their history, the Mystics have lost regularly (74 games below .500), switched coaches frequently (10 and counting) and missed the playoffs often (just four appearances).

"I didn't expect, honestly, how hard it was," Johnson said. "When you buy a franchise, they tell you everything's wonderful. When you start peeling away the layers, you understand the amount of work that hasn't been done to really make the team as successful as it should be. That was very naive on my part."

Johnson became the first woman to own a stake in three professional sports teams -- the Washington Mystics, the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards -- when she joined Lincoln Holdings LLC. She is also the only woman to own a stop on the PGA Tour. Her Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club near Tampa will host the Transitions Championship starting next year.

After Johnson bought into Lincoln Holdings, Ted Leonsis, chairman and majority owner of the group, and his 10 partners appointed her to oversee the Mystics' basketball and business operations. Taking over the team two games into the 2005 season, Johnson had little on-the-job training nor did she have many resources to work with.

Once Lincoln Holdings took control of the Mystics, the infrastructure that had been in place for both the Wizards and the Mystics -- including the marketing department, ticket sales representatives, corporate sponsorship accounts -- disappeared.

"I had nothing. I didn't even have a towel," Johnson said. "I really had to start from scratch."

When the WNBA began in 1996, all of its teams were owned by the NBA, and NBA owners contributed financially to running the league even if they didn't have a team in their market. (For instance, Milwaukee, which has never had a WNBA team, had to pay a share just like New York, which had a team.) In 2002, the NBA Board of Governors restructured the WNBA, allowing for independent owners. Each team was sold either to its NBA affiliate or to a non-NBA owner. Half of the WNBA teams, including the Mystics, are now independently owned.

Though independence cost the Mystics the Wizards' assets, Johnson continues to believe it is for the best in the long run.

"Before, we were like the dirty rag at the end of the season, especially if the [NBA] teams went into the playoffs or won the championship," Johnson said. "The bedraggled NBA staff was going, 'Okay, now we're in the WNBA season, blah, blah, blah.' They wanted to be on vacation, and that's what you felt."

The short-term effects of independence, however, were damaging for the Mystics. Johnson had to scramble to put together the resources and the front office to run a WNBA team. Not everyone she hired initially worked out. But over time, she assembled a group that she believes has the Mystics headed in the right direction, though the results haven't yet borne out her confidence in the group.

Attendance, which fell to 7,788 fans per game in 2007, has climbed to 8,995 this year, but remains far below the 12,615 the team averaged the season before she took over. (A substantial number of the tickets that year were given away.) For the first time since Johnson took over, the Mystics have experienced growth in revenue generated. (The team declined to release actual numbers, but said sponsorship has increased 26 percent.)

"Since I bought the team I've been on a learning curve," Johnson said. "I've made some mistakes in the beginning and I think that right now on the business side we have really nailed it. . . . [Chief operating officer] Greg Bibb has done an unbelievable job of really getting our franchise together on an administrative level. We now have accountability as far as ticket sales. We have accountability as far as sponsorship. He's making everyone accountable in the [front] office.

"I think for the first time I've got a leadership team in there that really knows what they're doing and I can kind of step back and let them run it now. Whereas I was so involved before, and not having the right leadership team was a problem."

Leonsis knows what Johnson is going through. He went through it himself as owner of the Capitals. He and Johnson have had many long talks about what it takes to be a team owner.

"There's no sports ownership for dummies book," he said. "I made all the same mistakes. You fall back on what you know in other careers and businesses."

But he said he has been impressed with how well Johnson has learned from her mistakes.

"On the business side, she's doing very well," he said. "She's a great executive owner."

Now that the business side of the organization is taking off, Johnson is turning her attention to the basketball side. In the conference call, Johnson talked about changing the culture of the team and of winning championships. She spoke of her commitment to making the Mystics one of the best franchises in the WNBA.

But to put a quality team on the floor, Johnson knows she needs talented players. She believes the Mystics took a step in that direction when they traded Taj McWilliams-Franklin, their most consistent player this season, to the Detroit Shock for two unproven players. She said the picks the team received in that trade as well as the trade for DeLisha Milton-Jones earlier this year will be used to assemble a roster of what she terms "world-class athletes."

"From this point forward my basketball people will take a long-range view on winning and any one of them who is not on board with that, any one who is either incapable or unwilling to build the type of organization that can consistently compete for championships will find him or herself no longer a part of the Washington Mystics family," she said. "I realize that this may sound a little like tough talk, but frankly, it's more than that. . . . It is now time for action, and that's exactly what we intend to do: to stop promising and to start the long, hard process of building a winner."

Johnson is extremely competitive and, in that sense, similar to most owners in that she wants to win very badly. But in other respects she differs from her male counterparts. It is equally important to her to be someone her players can emulate as it is to field a successful team. Johnson takes her position very seriously, encouraging her players to consider opportunities beyond the basketball court. Nothing would please her more than to see one of them one day join her in the ranks of female sports team owners.

"I'm most proud of really being a team owner and being able to somehow influence these women," she said. "I'm just hoping, even if one of them came back to me in 10, 15 years from now and said, 'You made an impact on my life,' I'd be happy. That's the other side of it. I really want to be a role model for them."

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