Franchise Player This television mogul crashed the most exclusive all-white club in America when he purchased the NBA's new expansion team

May 04, 2003

The man who has been opening doors to the media and business
worlds over the last two decades cannot, on this February day,
open one for himself. "Would you mind getting that for me?"
Robert Johnson says, nodding toward a doorknob at the corporate
offices of Washington, D.C.-based Black Entertainment Television
(BET), the groundbreaking media conglomerate he founded and
turned into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Both of Johnson's
hands are occupied with crutches, the result of a ruptured
Achilles tendon he suffered while getting off a boat near his
beachfront home on the island of Anguilla. A wave rolled under
the boat just as Johnson was stepping down, causing him to fall
awkwardly. "I haven't been in the sports business very long," he
says, propping his casted right foot on a chair, "but at least I
have an injury that athletes can relate to." ¶ A lifelong sports
fan, Johnson, 57, the first African-American billionaire, was
awarded the NBA's newest expansion franchise, in Charlotte, for
$300 million in December. The team, which doesn't yet have a
nickname, will begin play in the 2004-05 season.

Johnson has pursued membership in the ultraexclusive club of
professional sports owners since at least 1994, when he offered
(to no avail) to buy what was then the Washington Bullets from
Abe Pollin. This time he succeeded, beating out a group that
included Hall of Famer Larry Bird. The deal made Johnson the
first majority African-American franchise owner in any major
sport and gave him the kind of clout in team and league
boardrooms that no African-American has ever had. That's why SI
has chosen him as the most influential minority in sports. His
impact is expected to reach far beyond pro basketball, not only
because of his unique status but also because he apparently has
some cash burning a hole in his pocket. In partnership with
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Johnson is trying to buy
the Montreal Expos and move them to D.C.

Even if Johnson's baseball efforts fail (and he hasn't failed at
much), he has already had a significant effect on sports at the
executive level. For instance, he hired Ed Tapscott (No. 56 on
SI's list), an African-American, as the Charlotte franchise's
executive vice president, making Tapscott one of the few
minorities running a major sports team. And Johnson intends to do
more. "I'm going to create an experienced pool of people who work
in sports--many of them black, many of them other minorities--for
all those employers who say, 'We'd love to hire you if you had
more experience,'" Johnson says. "It will be similar to the way
it happened at BET, which eventually became the place that other
companies in the entertainment business came to when they were
looking for talented, capable black people. We will have no
shortage of those people in our franchise." Johnson has the
platform to create opportunities for people of color in areas of
sports in which they have long been underrepresented. "How much
influence I really have remains to be seen," he says. "After all,
I am new at this. But for $300 million, you ought to get more
than just the right to pick the name of the team."

What the NBA has gotten in Johnson is a calm, relatively
soft-spoken but no-nonsense man who nonetheless had the drive to
build his fortune from scratch and has the toughness to brush off
the inevitable racism and criticism he encountered on the way.
Some 10 years ago, as he sat behind the wheel of his Jaguar in
front of a hotel, a white woman climbed in the backseat, thinking
he was her driver. About five years later a worker on Johnson's
163-acre estate in Middleburg, Va., mistook him for a stable
hand. (Johnson owns 16 horses, and his 17-year-old daughter,
Paige, is a champion show jumper.) "There are stereotypes and
ugly racial moments that every black person in this country has
to deal with regardless of what's in his bank account," he says.
"But you can't let it deter you. It's like playing in the NFL.
You know you're going to get hit, so you prepare for it, take the
hit and keep going."

For such a well-connected businessman--while Bill Clinton, whom
Johnson considers a friend, was president, Johnson persuaded him
to appear in a video promoting BET to potential
investors--Johnson works out of headquarters that are far from
D.C.'s usual corridors of power. The BET building, a six-story,
black-glass structure, is in a low-income section of northeast
D.C., hard by a maintenance yard for Amtrak trains. (The land was
cheap.) On this February day Johnson appears for a meeting
dressed business casual, a silk shirt buttoned to the collar, no
tie, and he exudes none of the bluster or outsized personality of
some of his peers in the ownership ranks. (Though they'll
certainly discover that behind closed doors, he's no pushover.)
It's a safe bet that Johnson won't be heckling referees from
behind the team bench like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or
regularly grabbing headlines like New York Yankees owner George
Steinbrenner. "Bob is not a person who feels the need to always
be the center of attention," says Tapscott, a former American
University coach and a New York Knicks executive. "The only time
I remember him really calling attention to himself was when he
insisted on wearing his Dallas Cowboys jacket to a Washington
Redskins game."

Johnson admits to being more of an NFL than an NBA fan, but he
didn't buy into pro sports for the chance to rub elbows with
athletes. In fact, when he discusses his reasons for owning a
team, he sounds much more like the media titan he is than a
season-ticket holder. He refers to the NBA as a "high-profile
brand" and to his new team as "a sports entertainment product."
The franchise is not a toy he bought to amuse himself--it is a
piece of a larger business strategy, another building block in an
empire. He has talked of using his new team, and his new
ownership colleagues, to launch, for instance, a regional sports
TV network in the future. "It's not the sports side of me that
drives ownership, it's the business side," he says. "Owning an
asset like this creates the potential for opportunities beyond
the business itself. There are opportunities to develop
relationships with other team owners. These are entrepreneurs who
like to do things outside of the box. There may be other things I
can do with Mark Cuban or [Denver Nuggets owner] Stan Kroenke.
It's just a good club to belong to."

It's not surprising that Johnson believes in such a classically
American approach to business, because he followed a classically
American path to success. He was born the ninth of Archie and
Edna Johnson's 10 children in Hickory, Miss., a small town where
his family owned land purchased by his great-grandfather Filmore,
a freed slave. His father chopped and sold timber, and his mother
was a teacher. When Bob was in grade school, the family moved
north to Freeport, Ill., where his parents found work in the
town's dairy farms and factories. Bob was an excellent student
and became the first of the Johnson children to attend college.
He was awarded an academic scholarship to Illinois, at which he
earned his bachelor's degree in history and met his future wife,
Sheila (now divorced, they have two children, Paige and Brett,
14), before getting a master's in international affairs from
Princeton.

A fellow Illinois alum, Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks
owner Jerry Colangelo, was a member of the NBA's expansion
committee, the group that selected Johnson over other expansion
bidders. "Bob sees possibility in areas that other people tend to
overlook," Colangelo says. That vision led to the founding of
BET. In 1978, when cable television was in its infancy and
Johnson was an industry lobbyist, he conceived the idea of
developing a network catering to the unmet interests of black
viewers. In time he attracted $500,000 from John Malone, then CEO
of TCI Cable, and in January 1980, BET was born--as a network
that was on the air for only two hours a week.

But it gradually grew. Johnson and his skeleton staff promoted
the network to potential new investors, lobbied for higher
subscription fees from cable companies that carried it, and
increased its programming. Johnson took BET public in 1991,
making it the first black-owned company to be traded on the New
York Stock Exchange. He took the company private again in 1998
and three years later made a financial killing, selling BET to
Viacom for $3 billion. (As a majority owner of the company,
Johnson pocketed $1.3 billion.)

Success has not shielded Johnson from criticism. In fact,
African-Americans have been among his most vocal detractors.
Johnson's original plan at BET was to provide quality
programming, including news and public-affairs broadcasts as well
as comedies and dramas centering on black characters--shows
rarely found on mainstream networks two decades ago. But
eventually it became clear to him that it was more profitable to
air paid programming (infomercials) and music videos, the latter
of which often contained images that, in the view of many, were
violent and/or degrading to black women. Twice in the last decade
Johnson slashed the network's news division, not only eliminating
many of the job opportunities he had created in an arena in which
blacks were underrepresented but also cutting out some of the
network's most vital programming. (When the network last dropped
some news shows, in 2002, BET president and COO Debra Lee said
that ratings for such broadcasts were among the lowest on the
network.)

Johnson has even been knocked by some of those whom he helped
make successful. "You would hope the most visible black
businessman in America would have a little different agenda,"
says Michael Wilbon (No. 74 on SI's list), a Washington Post
columnist and cohost of ESPN's popular show Pardon the
Interruption. He was one of several black sportswriters who
appeared regularly on BET's Sports Report, a roundtable
discussion show that aired in the late 1980s and early '90s. "I'm
conflicted about this, because Bob has done a lot for the careers
of a lot of people, including mine. But I can't get over what
he's done to other black professionals in pursuit of money."

Johnson believes he has done more for black professionals than he
has done to them, and he makes no apologies for following his
business sense perhaps more than his social conscience. "I don't
think the two are mutually exclusive," he says, moving the
discussion away from the past and toward an intriguing future.
"My mission is to create a profitable franchise that the people
of Charlotte can be excited about and proud of. One of the
by-products of that will be that people will see something
they've never seen before--a successful sports team owned by an
African-American, with other African-Americans in major positions
of authority. The message that sends is powerful, to both black
and white people. If we can do that, everybody wins."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFFERY A. SALTER BREAKING GROUND Johnson beat out a group that included Larry Bird to become the NBA's first African-American majority owner. B/W PHOTO: MILTON WILLIAMS INNOVATOR Johnson founded BET in 1980 and made it into a company worth billions, with hundreds of minority employees. COLOR PHOTO: LAYNE BAILEY/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER/AP MAN ABOUT TOWN Johnson keeps his cool, whether he's sharing the stage with (clockwise from top) Whitney Houston; fellow NBA pioneers Earl Lloyd, Bill Russell and Wayne Embry; or Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory (with basketball). COLOR PHOTO: JOE MURPHY/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: REGGIE PEARMAN/AP [See caption above]

"I'M GOING TO CREATE AN EXPERIENCED POOL OF [MINORITIES] FOR
THOSE WHO SAY, 'WE'D LOVE TO HIRE YOU IF YOU HAD MORE
EXPERIENCE.'"

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