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Mystics' Owner Experiences the Ups and Downs

Mystics owner Sheila Johnson, hosting the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, says she has a long-term vision for the franchise's future.
Mystics owner Sheila Johnson, hosting the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony, says she has a long-term vision for the franchise's future. (By Jonathan Fickies -- Getty Images)
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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.

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"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.

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