Sheila Johnson will hop on her private jet tonight and fly to Uncasville, Conn., to cheer the Washington Mystics as they scrap for their playoff lives against the best team in the WNBA.
Johnson -- who carries the titles of president and managing partner -- believes her team can beat the Connecticut Sun and then return home to beat the Detroit Shock in the season finale tomorrow to qualify for the playoffs.
"We're going to go in and play the best basketball we can," said Johnson. "We can do it. I know we can. If we come up short, we'll start putting everything together for next season."
Johnson, 55, has exuded optimism since she purchased a share of the team in May, but the task of turning the Mystics into something more than just a niche in the Washington sports market will be a big challenge.
Though the team is on pace to lead the WNBA in attendance for the seventh time in eight seasons, attendance has dropped from an average of 12,615 fans per game in 2004 to 10,432 this season, according to the Mystics' figures. And both of those numbers are way down from the 2002 season when the Mystics said they averaged a franchise-high 16,202. Only 6,010 showed up for Tuesday's crucial game against the New York Liberty.
The arrival of Major League Baseball's Nationals hasn't helped attendance nor has the instability that has plagued the franchise since its inception in 1998.
Coach Richie Adubato, who has been in negotiations with Johnson for a contract extension for next season, is the eighth head coach in Mystics history; the team lost its most marketable player when seven-time all-star Chamique Holdsclaw was traded to Los Angeles in the offseason; and should the Mystics fail to win their final two games, they will post a losing record for the sixth time.
"The first thing we have to do is reach out to those 2,000 or so fans we lost from last season and get them back in the building," said Johnson, who plans to contact past season ticket holders. "Obviously, winning will help but I think we can do a better job of marketing this team. I think we can reach out to more fans and let them know that we appreciate them and once they come to a game, we want them to keep to coming back."
She has plans ranging from aggressive marketing to remaking the team's MCI Center locker room so that current players and potential free agents will "feel that they have a home."
A similar big-picture approach and attention to detail helped Johnson and then-husband Bob Johnson build Black Entertainment Television into a business that netted $3 billion when it was sold to Viacom in 1997.
When the Johnsons divorced in 2002, Sheila poured herself into new pursuits, including the Salamander Resort and Spa, which her company is building near her home in Middleburg; the Washington International Horse Show, of which Johnson is president; and various charitable works. Johnson said she was intrigued when approached about purchasing a share of the Mystics because she's always been a sports fan.
The deal became official when Johnson purchased between 6 percent and 7 percent of Lincoln Holdings, the Ted Leonsis-led, 11-member group that bought the Mystics and already owns the NHL's Washington Capitals. Lincoln Holdings also owns a 45 percent stake in the NBA's Washington Wizards, which makes Johnson the first black woman to be an owner-partner in three professional sports franchises.
Johnson's main focus now is the Mystics, who have endured an up-and-down regular season but remain in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite a recent five-game losing streak. Prior to Tuesday night's game against New York, Johnson took the unusual step of speaking to the team.
"We got into a really bad psychological rut during the losing streak," Johnson said. "I mean, I have never seen a team more beaten down. I said: 'Girls, we have to climb out of it. I still love you. I respect you.' I told them that I spoke with Abe [Pollin] and he said that he just came out of the hospital where he was fighting for his health and he wanted them to go out and that night and do the same thing," she said, referring to the Wizards owner and former Mystics owner's heart bypass surgery last month. "I think they just needed some encouragement."
Johnson's pep talk worked because the Mystics played inspired basketball for the first time in two weeks and pulled out an 82-69 overtime win against the Liberty. Rookie point guard Temeka Johnson (no relation) said the speech was exactly what the team needed to hear.
"To have someone like her, someone who has been so successful at whatever she's done, come in and say she believes in us and she still loves us like that, it was special," Temeka Johnson said. "But that's how she always is. Telling you to keep your head up. It's okay. You're doing great. I think it gives us motivation to go out there and perform because we want to make her look good."
Johnson has taken a personal touch to most of her dealings with the Mystics. She's attends every home game and can be seen in her suite cheering and screaming from opening tip to final buzzer. Before games and during halftimes, she's often in the stands or the concourse greeting fans, and after victories she's been spotted in the locker room sharing hugs with her players and coaches.
"One thing [Capitals owner] Ted [Leonsis] told me was: 'Don't fall in love with your players,' " Johnson said. "But's it's hard not to. They are such an impressive group of athletes. It's been a tough year with all of the changes, but they've hung in there and played some good basketball. I'm proud of this team."
Johnson's hands-on approach has been noticed by fans such as Carol Wayman, who lives in the District and has owned season tickets for five seasons.
"She's a dynamo," Wayman said. "She's singing the national anthem, she's out there dancing on the court, she's everywhere. She has so much enthusiasm and the really important thing is that she's there for the Mystics. I love the Pollins and everything they've done for the franchise, but with Sheila there's a feeling that there is finally a face of the franchise. We haven't really had that."
According to WNBA President Donna Orender, owner-partners such as Johnson are exactly what the nine-year-old league needs. "She's the best surprise present this league could get," said Orender, who has been with the WNBA for five months after spending 17 years with the PGA Tour. "Anytime you have a business, you want it to be run by people who are passionate and motivated like Sheila."
Down the road, Johnson wants to change the team's logo and uniforms, and ramp up the game-day atmosphere by bringing in a professional hip-hop dance squad. She's even thinking about holding an exhibition game on the Mall. "The important thing to remember is that this is an entertainment business," Johnson said. "It's about coming to watch these excellent athletes but it also has to be about having a good time."