Bobcats owner offered promise, never delivered

In December 2002, the NBA named Bob Johnson the owner of Charlotte’s expansion franchise, choosing him over a group led by Steve Belkin, Larry Bird and M.L. Carr. The selection was a surprise, because the Belkin-Bird group had plenty of local support, but Johnson’s deep pockets, media sophistication and so-called branding expertise won over the league.

Commissioner David Stern called him “one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America.” The first minority owner in the NBA coming to a city with a publicly financed new arena and strong basketball roots seemed like a perfect opportunity.

Call it opportunity lost.

Johnson proved to be one of the most ill-prepared team owners in recent memory. Now, he is selling the club to his partner, Michael Jordan, and the deal couldn’t happen soon enough — for Charlotte, for the NBA and probably for Johnson himself.

In the early days Johnson talked about the Bobcats being a business “acquired for the passion for the sport and one that was a partnership, with the people of Charlotte building the arena, and me buying the team.” Though he was a Washington, D.C., resident, he spoke of his goal to be “part of the fabric of the community.”

The words sounded good. They just were hollow. 

Johnson’s business moves as an owner were almost bizarre considering his success founding and running Black Entertainment Television. The media strategy of establishing the local RSN C-SET with ridiculously little market distribution was stubborn and insulting; consistent management overhaul resulted in a revolving door of personalities and messages; and ticket-pricing missteps were strategic misfires.

It was clear that Johnson never understood the Charlotte market. He didn’t comprehend the wide gulf of bad feelings from a fan base that got burned once by the NBA and now was footing the bill for an arena that was built only after a nonbinding public referendum on a funding package failed. Johnson also continually alienated the local business community both publicly and privately. These were shortcomings unbefitting the owner of a local trust.

In the end, Johnson’s primary shortcoming was his approach to NBA ownership: Regardless of what he may have said, many Charlotte observers will consider Johnson’s apparent lack of passion as the defining characteristic of his tenure. The Bobcats always seemed just an investment piece that was part of his post-BET portfolio. One rarely saw the fire for basketball or the NBA that’s seen in other owners, and his general absenteeism did little to dispel the impression that Johnson had little interest in Charlotte other than feeling the market was ripe for growth. The foundation of his involvement with the team appeared to be blatantly self-serving, so much so that the community never embraced the team.

Stern and others praised Johnson’s adroitness as a business executive, but he showed none of that during his ownership tenure. He never connected the creation of a strong ownership brand to the financial success of the franchise brand. Let’s hope the NBA and other markets can learn from this.

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