“I think there’s an important symbolism to him because he’s the first … but it doesn’t relate to race. In fact, focusing on race in this context sort of misses the point.”
Next up: Johnson’s pursuit of a 51% stake in Major League Baseball’s Montreal Expos. In a deal with an estimated price tag of $400 million to $450 million, his partners, including Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, would purchase the remaining 49% and move the team to Washington, D.C. (See “A New Game for Johnson,” Newspoints, February 2003.)
Johnson explains that he is lured to the sports business for three reasons. He finds the competitiveness attractive and he looks forward to interacting with league owners, some of whom are personal friends. The third reason is, since he is unsure whether he’ll renew his five-year contract with BET, he’ll have another venture to manage. I have another platform to go to that’s fun, exciting, and something I can enjoy with my son, Brett.”
Since Johnson sealed the deal, which includes ownership of the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, the City Council has approved outlines of an agreement with the NBA in which the city would build a $265 million facility that the expansion team would operate. Under the deal, Johnson will sign a 25-year lease, although his team could move out after 20 years if it demonstrates that it’s losing money and not selling enough tickets to survive in the Charlotte market. The Charlotte team will fill its roster through a dispersal draft in which every other NBA team could protect eight players.
At the end of the day, Johnson is a businessman and, despite all the perks that come with being a franchise owner, he wants to cut a profit. “I told the guy that I just announced as head of basketball operations, Eddie Tapscott, that I’m not mad at my money,” he says. “I expect him to put a competitive team on the field and make money.”
The trick for Johnson and company is to build a profitable team from scratch, where revenues (which are primarily derived from TV broadcast rights, advertising sponsorships, and sales from general tickets, luxury suites, and club seating) offset the top expense of any NBA team–player payroll. For the 2002 — 03 season, a team’s player payroll averaged $40.3 million. Despite those high salaries, Johnson expects to have his team running profitably by the end of the first season.
For Johnson, acquiring the NBA franchise and possibly a baseball franchise is just the beginning. He and his staff will work on building a winning franchise and perhaps a new dynasty in the sports arena. This time, he says, he’ll put people in place to ensure his ventures succeed, rather than carry the weight of the enterprise on his own shoulders. “I’m going to set the vision and strategic direction and lay out the culture, but other bright people are going to execute [them]. So it’s not going to be like BET, starting all over again from scratch where I’m doing everything