Female sports billionaire makes way in man’s world

By Jeff Odom, STAFF WRITER
On January 13, 2015

ORACLE PHOTO / JEFF ODOM

Sheila Johnson spent a lifetime breaking the entrepreneurial glass ceiling through which no other African-American woman had ever shattered.

Johnson is the first — and only — African-American woman billionaire. She is also the first to have a stake of ownership in three professional sports franchises: the NHL’s Washington Capitals, NBA’s Washington Wizards and WNBA’s Washington Mystics. 

But rather than touting her credentials during a speech Tuesday night in the USF Sports and Entertainment Lecture Series, Johnson shined light on a different issue for the hundreds of audience members filling the Marshall Student Center’s Oval Theatre: the state of women’s sports in the U.S.

“I’m going to be very honest with you,” Johnson said. “Women’s sports are still in a very fragile state.

“We, collectively, should use this event to explore, collaborate and communicate to society through print media, through our networks and any way we can with why women’s sports are important in developing strong, responsible and confident women.”

Johnson, a Pennsylvania native, painted the picture of her experience as a cheerleader at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois and spoke about her daughter, Paige, who is a champion equestrian.

Johnson’s experience with sports eventually led to her to purchase a percentage of the Mystics, Wizards and Capitals in 2005, which she called “an extraordinary experience.”

“I have watched men who have owned teams all these years and it’s like the biggest badge of courage for them,” she said. “I just love being up in the owner’s box as a woman with all those men up there.”

Johnson also played a major role with several women’s basketball events, such as Tampa’s successful 2019 bid for the NCAA Women’s Final Four where she spoke to the selection committee on the city’s behalf.

Tampa Bay Sports Commission Executive Director Rob Higgins, a USF alumnus, attributed Johnson’s support as one of the main reasons Tampa was chosen to host.

“The way Sheila really combined her passion for women’s basketball, her passion for Tampa Bay and her passion for student-athletes and business … really was able to bring it home for us,” Higgins said.

Johnson said she does it because she believes athletics contributes to the betterment of all women.

“Sports help women truly grow on a personal and emotional level. It helps them evaluate their competition and, most crucially, to evaluate themselves,” she said. “It helps them evaluate their dreams and not the dreams of someone else.”

The lecture series, hosted by the USF Sports and Entertainment Management Program and sponsored by Fox Sports Florida and the Tampa Bay Lightning, continues today at 4 p.m. with Don Marinelli, co-founder of Entertainment Technology Center. Then, at 7 p.m., David Falk, considered the most influential basketball agent in sports history, will conclude the series.

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