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Long string of Johnson's success now includes NBA ownership

Posted: Thursday, December 19, 2002

Robert Johnson took $15,000 of his own money and built it into a television network that made him the nation's first black billionaire.

Now Johnson, the Black Entertainment Television founder, is taking that same energy and passion to the sports world.

On Wednesday, Johnson was picked to own the NBA's new expansion franchise in Charlotte.

For those who know Johnson, the first black man to own controlling interest in a major pro sports franchise, the team represents just one more chance for him to succeed.

''Robert Johnson is the complete package, irrespective of his race,'' Denver-based sports marketing consultant Dean Bonham said. ''He has the financial wherewithal, he has the business acumen, the reputation and he happens to be African-American. To my knowledge, we've never seen that combination in any potential minority owner in the NBA.''

That savvy was evident when Johnson started BET in 1980 with his own money, plus $500,000 from cable mogul John Malone. He ignored widespread doubt about the viability of a cable channel aimed at black Americans and, by 1991, had taken the network's stock public. It was the first black-owned company to list on the New York Stock Exchange.

Seven years later, disappointed by the stock's performance, Johnson went $500 million into debt to take the company private again.

The risk paid off two years later, when he sold the network to media conglomerate Viacom in a deal valued at nearly $3 billion. It made Johnson the nation's first black billionaire.

''The most interesting thing about working with him is he's always moving on to the next thing,'' said BET president Debra Lee, who has worked with Johnson for 18 years. ''You've got to run to keep up with him.''

This year, Forbes magazine estimated Johnson's net worth at $1.3 billion for its annual list of the richest Americans.

''I think what he brings to this, which should be the case with any pro sports franchise owner, is genuine interest and real, sincere energy to get this done,'' said David Carter, who runs a sports marketing firm in Redondo Beach, Calif. ''He just really has the passion to get this done.''

A Mississippi native, he grew up in Freeport, Ill., went to college at the University of Illinois and earned a master's degree at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He was the only one of 10 siblings to graduate from college.

The 56-year-old Johnson, who now lives in Washington, D.C., worked for four years as a lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade association representing cable companies before starting BET.

The network proved a financial hit. But it also drew criticism from within the black community that it catered to lowbrow tastes and failed to project positive images for black Americans with heavy programming of music videos and ghetto humor.

''I think Bob understands the criticism,'' Lee said. ''He's always been very committed to news and public affairs, but he's been very committed that it's a business first. He's always had the approach that we do the best programming we can within the budget that we have, and we continue to push advertising revenue.''

During the years BET was publicly traded, Wall Street seemed frustrated by Johnson's efforts to extend the BET brand into different areas. There were spinoff channels, movie production deals, plans for casinos and nightclubs and financial services companies.

''After we went public with BET and we had money and opportunities to do other things, his first question was what other areas can we get into,'' Lee said. ''Once you have a brand, you can put that on restaurants, on merchandise. At one point we had 13 different subsidiaries.''

In fact, Johnson's initial interest in owning an NBA team -- he tried to buy the then-Washington Bullets in 1994 -- was in part to provide programming for BET.

That kind of focus on synergy and brand expansion may be a primary reason why Johnson won the team over the group headed by Larry Bird and Boston businessman Steve Belkin.

At Wednesday's news conference, Johnson described the NBA as ''a dominant, influential kind of brand'' and said, ''For me to be associated with that is an extension of what I do well.''

Bonham said Johnson and the NBA are a great fit for each other.

''This is somebody who has done his homework, who understands the connection of entertainment and sports, who understands the importance of a brand,'' Bonham said.

Johnson has an 18-year-old daughter, Paige, and a 13-year-old son, Brett. Johnson and his wife Sheila were recently divorced.



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