Sheila Johnson, the first Black female billionaire, couldn’t play sports in college but now owns three sports teams

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 5, 2024 10:17 AM EDT
Sheila Johnson. Photo credit: Simon & Schuster

The faces and names of young female collegiate athletes such as Angel Reese and JuJu Watkins have become a staple in today’s mainstream media. As we discuss the deals that monetizes their names, images and likeness (NIL) and distinguished honors, it can be quite difficult to conceive that many of these stars wouldn’t have had opportunities to shine only a few decades ago. Sheila Johnson was unfortunate to attend college before the enactment of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits gender discrimination in education. She was kept off the field with cheerleading being her only recourse.

“Like a lot of women my age who grew up in the pre-Title IX days, competing wasn’t really an option for me. So I got as close as I could. I was a cheerleader, which frankly I loved,” Johnson said about her missed sporting opportunities.

But Johnson harbors no regrets. Those early missed opportunities ignited within her a fierce desire to change the status quo. Not only did Johnson become the first female African American billionaire, but she also holds the singular distinction of being the first African-American woman to be an owner or partner in three professional sports franchises.

Johnson was determined to make her dreams come true from an early age. Johnson’s family moved more than ten times because her father, a neurosurgeon, was not allowed to practice in white hospitals and could only work with patients of color. Johnson recalls being told as a young girl that she would never succeed because of her skin color. Instead of letting these hateful comments get to her, she used them as an incentive to prove her detractors wrong.

By age eleven, Johnson was waking up at midnight to practice the violin so as not to disturb her family during the day. Her hard work paid off when she became the first African American to chair the Illinois all-state music competition. She consequently won a full scholarship to the University of Illinois to study music. Although Johnson missed out on the opportunity to play sports, her career as a collegiate cheerleader was legendary. She was the first African-American cheerleader at the University of Illinois and served as captain of the varsity squad in her senior year.

Later on Johnson would take her shares from a Viacom deal and invest in diverse real estate and sports franchises. She branded her new company Salamander, because of the animal’s almost magical ability to go through adverse conditions and still be regenerated wholly. Johnson’s Salamander thus stands for perseverance, courage and fortitude through hardship. In 2005, Johnson founded Salamander Hotels & Resorts which currently boasts a portfolio of multiple properties with five of them in the country. Arguably, the most plush of these, Salamander Middleburg, sits on over 350 acres in Virginia,

As a billionaire, Johnson would agree that she has made up for her missed collegiate sporting opportunities.

She sought to make a difference in the traditionally male-dominated professional sports industry by having a seat at the table. Johnson became team president, managing partner and governor of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and decided to broaden her reach by becoming an owner in the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Consequently, she is the only African-American woman to have an ownership stake in three professional sports teams. Johnson is also the first African American woman to be part of the PGA Tour.

She serves on the executive committee of the United States Golf Association and is the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment. Johnson was the executive producer of “Kicking It,” a documentary which looks at how playing soccer changed the lives of homeless people. It inspired her to launch the Lady Salamanders, nine soccer teams comprised entirely of homeless women.

From entertainment to real estate and now sports, Johnson is a trailblazer –  inspiring women everywhere.
“I don’t know what drives me, but I just know that when I get bored, you better watch out. I am a catalyst. I’m a visionary. When I see things that need changing, I do it. When I see things that need to be created or built, I do it. There is just something within me that prompts me to do the things that I do,” said Johnson.