Sheila Johnson a truly 'dynamic woman'

PALM HARBOR

Imagine the projects and priority lists bouncing around Sheila Johnson's brain at any given moment.

America'sfirst black female billionaire and co-founder of the BET network might be thinking about the ongoing makeover at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club or her efforts to find a sponsor for the PGA Tour event there.

She might be focusing on her other luxury resort properties in Middleburg, Va., and Summerville, S.C., and the burgeoning Salamander Hospitality company she founded in 2005.

Then again — as the only woman ever to have a stake in three pro sports franchises — she could have her mind on the WNBA's Washington Mystics club she owns, or the NBA's Washington Wizards and the NHL's Washington Capitals in which she has partial shares.

But it's just as likely she's consumed by her work on many social and artistic fronts — as global ambassador of CARE, a humanitarian organization that fights poverty; as an executive producer of two acclaimed documentaries — including one about soccer and the homeless called Kickin' It, which was featured at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival; and as an active member of corporate boards that promote ways for children and young adults to express themselves in the arts.

Right now, though, Johnson, 59, is sitting inside her plush, airy condo with large windows that overlook the 18th hole of Innisbrook's Copperhead Course to field questions.

Is it in the back of her mind to lure Tiger Woods from his home in Orlando to the next PGA tournament at her place — whomever the sponsor will be?

"It's in the front of my mind," she said, smiling. "I've started making some moves to see what we can do. It's something I've put on my radar screen."

A radar screen worthy of Chicago O'Hare — filled with a steady flow of deals Johnson has landed and endeavors she's watching take off, fueled by an unwavering determination to fly high in a male-dominated world.

Staying on course

These days, the Johnson mission that matters most to bay area sports fans involves the PGA tournament at Innisbrook.

PODS, the portable storage company based in Clearwater, recently opted out as the tournament sponsor after two years, following four with Chrysler and one with Buick.

Johnson and tournament director Gerald Goodman have been working behind the scenes trying to nail down a replacement, and PGA commissioner Tim Finchem's news conference slip May 7 indicated that the tour will be back on the Copperhead Course in March.

All signs point to Transitions Optical Inc. of Pinellas Park, though Johnson remains mum on the identity.

"We're actively pursuing new sponsorship," she said. "I think the tournament is really important for this area, and we need to keep the momentum going. The way to do that is not only attract even more talent but continue to improve the facility."

She did just that after buying the resort in July for $35-million, then launching a $1.7-million overhaul of the Island Course, bringing it up to the level of Copperhead. LPGA officials have visited the Island Course, raising the possibility of the men's and women's tours staging events at Innisbrook. And there's talk of adding the Nationwide Tour's fall championship as well.

Last week, the resort announced another Johnson golf undertaking — a nine-hole walking course geared to families and all levels of skill. Named Fox Squirrel and created in conjunction with Nike, it opens Memorial Day weekend.

But golf isn't the only game at Innisbrook. Basketballs have been bouncing there, too.

A league leader

Last month, in a PR coup, she hosted the WNBA draft the day after the women's Final Four championship in Tampa. ESPN covered the event live from a large Innisbrook conference hall, with top collegians — many of whom competed in the Final Four — and WNBA leadership attending.

"Sheila is spectacular," said WNBA president Donna Orender, standing in a packed lobby. "She is a well-rounded human being who cares about people, understands that everybody has the ability to make an impact in this world.

"I can't tell you how happy we are in the WNBA — with all the things she has in front of her — that she chooses to prioritize the growth of women, women in sports and leadership in our league. For that, she's just an unbelievable partner and asset."

Against a far wall, dozens of high school girls filled bleachers, serving as a WNBA cheering section. Johnson made a point of stopping by to talk.

"You know, I'm all about women's empowerment," she told the teenagers. "And I wear many hats. But my proudest one is owner of my great team, the WNBA Washington Mystics."

The comment was greeted by loud cheers. Johnson went on to sing the praises of the WNBA players as top athletes and well-educated, caring individuals — and encouraged the youngsters to strive for excellence.

"She's a dynamic woman and wonderful role model for young women like these," said a familiar female official standing nearby, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "I'm just delighted that she's here, in the Tampa Bay area, investing in the Innisbrook Resort and bringing attention to this region."

Music opens the door

Johnson has gotten attention most of her life, which she likens to three acts of a play in progress.

Act I: She was born Sheila Crump in McKeesport, Pa., in 1949. Her father was a skilled doctor — one of only 11 African-American neurosurgeons in the United States at the time — and her mother was an accountant.

"My mom is very smart in math, and my father was absolutely brilliant," Johnson said last month inside her condo, minutes after speaking to a conference of African-American businesswomen at the resort.

"He wasn't only a neurosurgeon, but a doctor in psychology," she said. "One of the sad things is that it was hard for him to find jobs in white hospitals. We were connected to the VA, so we had to move every 10 months or so."

Johnson and her brother got used to the moves — 13 of them. "But you know what? I think it made me very strong," she said. "And I can deal with many different people."

Johnson's father instilled in his daughter a love of music, coming home from work at night and playing the piano to relieve stress. "I would sit and listen to him," she said. "The other great thing was that he brought me to his surgeries, and I sat in the glass booth and watched. He wanted me to become a doctor, but I didn't have his brainpower."

Music won out, and Johnson excelled as a youth violinist. She started the instrument at age 9 and became an all-state high school champion in the Chicago area, where the family settled. She dreamed of being a concert violinist and practiced relentlessly.

In 1966, Johnson was accepted into the music school at the University of Illinois, where she made time for a high school pursuit: cheerleading. She became the university's first black cheerleader but ruffled the music staff.

"I'd always been a cheerleader, but do you know that they tried to throw me out of the music school after I made the team?" she recalled. "They said, 'We never had a musician go into sports.' But I took my case to the dean and won."

It was an achievement she remains proud of — capped May 11 with the Alumni Achievement Award she received at the 2008 Illinois commencement.

While studying music there, she met a bright public affairs student, Robert Johnson. They fell in love and married in 1969. Upon her graduation in 1970, the couple moved to the Washington, D.C., area. She soon became a private school music teacher and her husband a lobbyist in the young cable TV industry.

She taught music and wrote two instruction books for youth violinists. He moved up the cable TV ladder. And Act II unfolded.

Billion-dollar idea

In 1980, with the help of $500,000 from a financier, the Johnsons put together a deal to co-found the Black Entertainment Television network, BET. She signed the loan to get seed money and even helped pay the initial bills by teaching violin.

The network targeting African-American consumers grew fast into a lucrative conglomerate. She saw herself as the conscience of BET who sought to balance suggestive content with issue shows such as Teen Summit.

It made both of them wealthy but took a personal toll.

The 33-year marriage, which produced a daughter and son, unraveled in the late 1990s amid allegations of her husband's extramarital affairs. They sold BET to Viacom in 1999 for $3-billion. And in 2002, they divorced, each getting $1.5-billion.

Her ex-husband became owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, while Johnson coped with pain. "I went through psychiatric counseling; I went through spiritual counseling," she said. "Maybe I'd been brought up as too much of a goody two-shoes, but there were things that were happening in my life that I could not believe — that people could behave that way. It hurt."

The stage for Act III was set.

New pursuits

Seven years ago, she moved to Middleburg, 40 miles west of Washington — pastoral horse country where her daughter could pursue equestrian riding.

Two years later, she bought 400 acres to build a resort. "I did a groundbreaking, and the next day, I was driving to Dulles airport. There were signs on both sides of the road saying, 'Don't BET Middleburg.' I was blatantly hit in the face with racism."

Johnson pushed on, dealt with white developers who told her she didn't know what she was doing and succeeded. This year, her company broke ground on the $100-million Salamander Resort & Spa in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

As her portfolio of properties grew, so did her sports profile.

In May 2005, she paid $10-million to buy the Mystics at the urging of Wizards and Capitals owner Abe Polin. "I was stunned," she said. "What this man did for me was open the door into a white man's network — that no woman, black or white, could get into."

She followed with a proposal to buy into the Wizards and Capitals. The plan was approved, helping Johnson make history.

One of her first moves came after touring the Verizon Center. She noted the inferior locker room for the Mystics compared to the Wizards. "It was cramped, and there were two rats in the corner," Johnson said. She promptly upgraded it.

Mystics general manager Linda Hargrove raves about her owner: "She's a very compassionate woman who really wants opportunities for people."

"Just having the chance to see someone as successful as she is has been an inspiration," Mystics forward Nakia Sanford said.

Life is good for Johnson, who flies frequently to Tampa Bay aboard her private jet. She is the recipient of several honorary doctorates. And in 2005, she married Virginia Judge William T. Newman Jr. The wedding took place on her Middleburg estate with 700 guests, including CBS's Katie Couric, Virginia Lt. Gov. (now Gov.) Tim Kaine and singer Patti Austin.

So what's going on these days in Johnson's head?

Maybe the state-of-the-art spa facility she's building at Innisbrook. Maybe her second documentary, A Powerful Noise — about women facing poverty and oppression and featured this month in the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. Maybe her ongoing philanthropic work for the arts and global causes.

And maybe, just maybe, finding a way to catch a Tiger for Tampa Bay.

Dave Scheiber can be reached at scheiber@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8541.

Sheila Johnson a truly 'dynamic woman' 05/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2008 9:15am]

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