In Major League Soccer’s 26-year history, a Black person had never assumed responsibility as a club’s president of business operations. That all changed in December when D.C. United announced the hiring of Danita Johnson, a tenured sports executive with years of experience helping professional teams improve their work culture.
Having previously lived in Washington, D.C., Johnson is well aware of the pride and passion United fans have for the Black and Red. Now with the flashy Audi Field across the street from Nationals Park, this marks a new era for both the club and the front office.
Though Johnson will always have the distinction of “first” being attached to her name in this capacity, the North Carolina native certainly won’t be the last. Assuming such a role filled with lofty expectations is not unfamiliar territory for the former president and chief operating officer of the Los Angeles Sparks. However, being the face of a franchise in a league not exactly celebrated for its racial diversity poses a different magnitude. As she prepares for her first year in charge, Johnson also reflected on what a promotion like this means to her, especially in this racial climate.
“Personally, it shows the progress that’s happening across so many industries,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve always been pushing for acceptance in the world of sports. My position is another example of that. It’s pushing the game of soccer in America forward. That part is very exciting for me and it’s something I take a lot of pride in, knowing the work myself and my team do on a daily basis will be impactful and can show what diverse leadership can bring to organizations.”
As this nation continues to grapple with the instances of racial abuse, Black soccer players have especially been on the receiving end of online vitriol by the same audience quick to call them their favorite athlete on a good day. Johnson is no stranger to addressing hate from the trolls,
“It goes beyond the sport at this point,” Johnson explained. “It’s not about the hate for the players, but rather a reflection on the upbringing of the person spewing the disrespect. As a club, we should absolutely be focused on the player’s best interests. How can we set the example in putting an end to the insults? By being clubs that represent diversity and work within our communities to create safe spaces for people to have these difficult discussions and facilitate change. Our efforts have to speak to the demographics not only in Washington, but also across MLS. We have work to do, but we are going to get there.”
Lessons learned with the Sparks
During her time with the Sparks, Johnson helped start the annual #WeAreWomen campaign, an initiative that celebrates women and young girls in the Los Angeles area who share a passion for empowering their community and women of all ages and interests. The Sparks also saw a 50% ticket sale increase during Johnson’s six-year tenure, which consequently earned them the title of WNBA Franchise of the Year in 2019.
Beginning a new role in a completely different league obviously comes with its obstacles, but there are plenty of lessons Johnson learned in her time out west that will be beneficial in her quest to achieve the same success in the nation’s capital.
“You have to find ways to connect with the fans. I think a lot about our supporter group and what they mean to our organization. Their passion is essential to my success and more importantly the success of the club. From a leadership perspective, I will always seek opportunities where we can create change. However, there is some stability that has to happen that creates a common cadence for the organization and the fans. Each market has its own process and you kind of have to embrace that and make that part of the organization.”
Thriving under pressure and expectations for the first year
Johnson knows all eyes will be on her as she works to build a team strong enough to challenge the league’s best sides for the title. On a personal level, she’s well aware of the responsibility she carries to set an example for the next diverse face leading a million-dollar franchise. When asked who are some Black leaders she draws inspiration from, the 37-year-old framed her response to focus on qualities rather than individuals.
“The first thing I look for is authenticity. Someone who can accept they still make mistakes but also hold themselves accountable. I look for motivation when it comes to taking care of themselves and family. I look for voices that positively push that narrative. There are so many phenomenal women that are creating space for themselves by helping others forge their own fate.
“My career has been so unpredictable, but it has also been very rewarding. Moving over to the soccer world I thought: ‘This is the international game.’ The landscape changes completely when you consider it from that perspective. I had so much support from the United Kingdom’s Black soccer community offering themselves as resources and it’s incredible to see such encouragement in so little time. I know the standards are high, but that’s what makes it so exciting.”
As for what people can look forward to when the season kicks off April 3, Johnson affirmed she will be building a diverse environment rooted in positivity and a strong work ethic. Though the conversations will be internal, the actions will be acknowledged publicly and with fervor.
Equipped with a strong front office and even more reassurance from colleagues in Los Angeles and beyond, the more Johnson thinks about her debut season, the more Johnson believes she made the right decision in challenging herself to “seek new things.”
“Especially this year, we have had to remain stagnant in our movement of place. But, that doesn’t mean we have to be stagnant in how we move in life.”