making it the first black-owned company traded on the New York Stock Exchange before making it private again in 1998. In 2000 he sold BET to Viacom for about $3 billion, becoming the media monoliths second largest individual shareholder. And, with an estimated wealth of $1.63 billion, Johnson became the nation’s first black billionaire.
After selling his stake in BET, he began playing in different arenas. In May of 2000, he unsuccessfully tried to launch D.C. Air, which would have been the largest minority airline in the country, until government regulators grounded the venture. And recently he’s been building a hospitality empire through the acquisition of Hilton and Marriott hotel properties.
For years, Johnson has had his sights on sports franchises, and he’s managed to achieve a milestone that’s been a long time coming. Until now, African Americans, like past and present BE 100S CEOs Herman Russell, Comer Cottrell, and Ed Gardner–as well as hoopsters Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan, have only been able to gain minority stakes in sports franchises.
Harry Edwards, a former sociology professor and consultant for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, maintains that Johnson’s inclusion in the ownership ranks marks a refreshing change. “At some point, we had to move beyond black athletes getting involved in ownership and move to just rich black folks getting involved in ownership, just like rich white folks get into ownership,” he says. “Most of the NBA owners couldn’t hit their plates with their forks let alone hitting a 20-foot jumper. But when it came to us [African Americans], we have to have a history of hitting 20-foot jumpers, if not being a Hall of Famer, just to get consideration.”
In fact, a number of African American businesspeople have been inspired by the news of Johnson’s success. “I was happy for him. It’s like one marathon runner crossing the finish line and then you celebrate for him because if he can do it, so can you,” says Donald V. Watkins, an Alabama businessman looking to acquire a major league baseball team. “I think we’ve changed the mindset. It’s no longer a focus on who will be the manager, who will the players be, it’s which teams these guys are going to own, and that’s healthy for our people.”
Attorney Johnnie Cochran, who’s been at the forefront of a campaign to increase the number of African Americans within the coaching ranks and front offices, says ownership is the next step in the evolution of blacks in sports. “We’ve got a lot of offensive coordinators and defensive coordinators in football and a lot in the pipeline, and we get more and more of them,” he says. “But now we need ownership. That’s the next step.”
Stern says Johnson came out on the winning end of the selection committee’s vote based on the value he brings to the table–business experience and a high net worth–not the color of his skin. “The owners were impressed with his reputation, his experience, his means, and his commitment,” says Stern.