The Mystics huddle before game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. (Photo via LJRotter)
President and Managing Partner of the Washington Mystics, Sheila Johnson, is no stranger to the public eye. She is a founding partner of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and has produced multiple films. She is also the only African-American woman to be a part-owner in three professional sports teams; the Washington Mystics, their NBA counterpart Wizards, and the Washington Capitals, D.C.’s hockey team. Needless to say, Johnson is one of the more powerful women in the sports world.
I had the pleasure of joining a conference call on Tuesday with Ms. Johnson and wanted to know how she felt about her current Mystics team and their place in the public spotlight. She obviously cares deeply about her team and has a vested interest not just in their success as a sports franchise, but in their success as professional female athletes in a male-dominated industry.
What is it about this particular team, administrative- and player-wise, that enabled them to overcome this season’s setback of being short on players, namely their superstar, Alana Beard?
Well I think first of all everyone needs to know I don’t have any superstars. I have really good, solid players, and I think every one of those players knows that. And I think because we don’t have the ego involved, this team is so special. They operate as a team. They have respect for one another, they love one another, there are no cliques within the team, they are able to critique each other without any repercussions. They learn from each other.
Just recently, I took the road trip with them to Atlanta. And to be able to really watch and understand the process of what these girls are going through was tremendous, and also I was able to spend a lot of time just getting to know them; watching facial expressions while they’re going through their shop talk, and just watching what they eat and teasing them about nutrition and watching them texting and tweeting on their Blackberries, watching them multitask, going out with them the night before a game to do a barbeque at one of the players’ houses. To understand how they operate off the court has been very interesting and they just constantly were asking me questions about my life and my career and my journey through life so we got to share and really understand each other more and I think this team is so special.
Whatever comes out of this, we’re taking one game at a time. I know that this team has grown in the past year or two. They are much more mature, their self-esteem is right there. They’re a happy team. And it’s my job as an owner to make sure I keep them that way. To make sure that I take care of their needs properly and they know that I am there for them. I feel like a mother. I know I’m an owner, but I feel like their mother. They call me Mama J. I just want the best for them. I look at them and I look at my own children and there is no difference from what I want for them that I want for my own children. And that’s just the way I’ve been able to work with them and to build with them.
Now as far as our coaches, I think I’ve got the finest coaching staff in the history of the Mystics. They get along very well, and what I’ve observed in the past is there’s always a coach, and then you have assistant coaches who really do not have an open line of communication. We have no division on who inputs where. They work together cohesively, they’re able to negotiate plays; they’re able to air out their differences without any hard feelings. I have a chief operating officer who’s brilliant- I could never do his job- he makes me look good. And the entire Mystics staff- you go into the Mystics operation and you see smiles, hugs, respect- it is a wonderful, wonderful workplace.
On a broader topic, what does the team’s success up to this point mean for Washington, D.C. sports as a whole?
Well first of all, by winning this Eastern Conference Championship for the first time in team history, [it] has just been an unbelievable ride. I didn’t realize, until the end, what was at stake. And I’m glad-- you know ignorance is bliss. And as I’m learning the whole thing about basketball and just how we move through this Eastern Conference and go for a National title, it has been amazing. I think, through this, I now understand by winning this title we have home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. That’s huge.
We have set a franchise record for most wins in a season. We have never done that before. And I’ll tell you, it is the only D.C. professional basketball team, both on the men’s side and women’s side, in over 30 years that’s had a .647 winning percentage. So this means everything. I mean I feel as though the Mystics operation has been able to deliver to our fan base the best record in the history since the conception of the Washington Mystics.
How do you think, this year, the league visibility and the health of the league are doing in terms of people paying attention and getting the recognition that we all know they already deserve?
The media has gotten better, I think, because of the ESPN deal. I think that’s helped us a lot. We’re on television more. I think because…our fan base can follow us on the internet now, I still feel as though we have that missing link of getting on the same playing level as the men’s team. I mean we still are very disappointed that we’ll win a game, and I rush home and I turn on the regular networks and they’ll go, "Now for the sports!" and it leads off with the Nats, or it leads off with the Redskins. And then- times out. No mention of the women. And our win behind New York which was so crucial, we may have gotten, I think, 5 seconds of a mention on one network.
I think it’s still very, very disappointing, and it doesn’t play well, especially with our Washington metropolitan area fan base, that here [is] a group of women, and across the league these are women that struggle. They get paid next to nothing. They work so hard, they’re such great role models, and the media still doesn’t pay any attention to them. And I know, I mean I was in the entertainment media business, and I know it’s because the number of eyeballs aren’t watching us. I believe it’s growing. I know in the Washington market, at our last game we had a little over 13,000 people show up. I think as we go into the playoffs, you’re gonna see that fan base even growing. I think that what we were able to accomplish, hopefully, we are now on your radar screen- that we can get a lot more mention.
I tell ya, if I had a couple of billion dollars, I would start my own women’s network. It would just be terrific. But I just have to say we are doing great, I think the media has picked up a lot, I really believe that we’ve gotten better coverage this year, and I think across the board, I can’t speak to any of the other league’s outlets and what they’re getting, but I think…we’re gonna continue to work and fight and I have to tell you, I’m so grateful for all of the media attention…we’ve gotten so far. I mean Lindsay Czarniak was terrific on Channel 4- she did a two-parter.
So, believe me, I just want you all to understand I am eternally grateful for what we’ve gotten. The league, I mean we’re all working hard and we will continue to be aggressive and really [push] the league forward. I think we are really starting to see growth on all levels. We see it through marquee sponsorships, we’re seeing it in everything that we do. And even during this time of austerity, yes all athletic teams are fighting for sponsorships. But I really believe it’s constantly improving.