With uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the new year brings an array of challenges for MLS clubs – though the stakes might be even higher for D.C. United’s new president of business operations.
That’s because Danita Johnson is making history as the first Black president of an MLS club, and only the third woman in the league's history to hold such a role. Perhaps more importantly, both Johnson and United believe it’s the best hire for the hard work that lies ahead as the Black-and-Red chart their course in a rapidly-changing city and league.
“I take a lot of pride in it – I take a lot of pressure in it, too,” Johnson told MLSsoccer.com in a one-on-one conversation. “What I do feel strongly is that I've had a strong history of doing this type of work, and I feel very prepared for the circumstance I'm walking into. I also know that I have to learn things.
“But my success can help create opportunities for others to have successful opportunities as well,” she added, noting that she aims “to be very focused about what I do and how I do things, and do things in grace, and be able to move forward and create opportunities and space for dialogue, creating opportunities and space for people to get different experiences. So I don't take that lightly.”
Johnson’s arrival from the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, where she rose to president and COO over an impressive six-year stint, is a major breakthrough for both D.C. and MLS. The league’s dazzling player diversity has rarely been matched by the makeup of its technical and front-office staffs, a reality that has grown starker in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and hard conversations about systemic racial inequality that ensued.
That’s not why Johnson is where she is. But it is a key piece of context.
“I have appreciated that in the media, one of the things that they've done is also put my work history behind versus just ‘the first Black woman,’ so being able to actually show the work I've done to have this opportunity,” said Johnson, who starts her new gig this month.
“It's not just because I'm a Black woman and ‘we're trying to check a box,’ because people are very, very aware of social justice in this moment. It should be all the time that this is a part of the conversation and thought process. So I think for me, beyond just telling the story of a Black woman or Black man, is telling the story of who they are and why they're in the position they're in.”
A North Carolina native, Johnson has D.C. roots, having worked for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the company that runs the Wizards, Mystics and Capitals. She’s got plenty on the docket at United, who are ensconced at a transformative new home in Audi Field, yet still seek the identity and relevance that ebbed with Wayne Rooney’s early departure at the end of 2019.
“My first observation,” she explained, “was that it's primed, it's ready. It's ready to elevate to this next level. I think the building of Audi Field was a key piece in that, even though I know it had some rocky starts at the beginning … so you want to take the opportunity to then say, OK, how do we realign and get this just right? I think there's some business things when we talk about broadcasting, talk about media, what that means for us and what that looks like in the District. When we talk about the in-stadium experience and what that looks like, how do we continue to elevate that? Those are some of the things I'm primarily looking at, as well as partnership and then our overall community aspect, like: Who are we? What are we, from a community standpoint?”
Already a veteran executive at 37, Johnson has navigated plenty of tricky territory related to her age and identity along the way.
“Yes, people may have issues with me – I've had people stop working for me because I was a Black woman. It’s happened,” she explained. “They couldn't take it and I was younger and they just weren't ready for that, and that's OK. But it doesn't change who I am, and it doesn't change my ability to do my work, and I think that's what keeps me grounded in the midst of this.”
Johnson also faces a lofty learning curve as she joins a new organization in a new sport during unprecedented times. It helps that she carries a comparable set of experiences – “that day-to-day scrappiness,” in her words – from a decade of service across three teams in the WNBA, another league that’s been grinding for growth and acknowledgment for a quarter-century.
“For me it’s the grit. For us at the W, it was always being thought of as ‘less than’ a lot of times, and people not necessarily respecting our game,” she noted. “Moving into MLS, that's what I think I bring to the table, just like being able to be like, we don't stop, we don't just take no’s, we work hard for everything that we want and we're not afraid of the challenge.”
Both MLS and WNBA players were prominent in speaking out with new levels of urgency last year, a process fueled in MLS by the launch of Black Players for Change, which won the MLS WORKS Humanitarian of the Year award in 2020.
Pointing to a Sparks initiative that addressed matters of social justice, Johnson says she wants to put D.C. United’s squad front and center in her plans to connect with a home market in the throes of continued population growth and dramatic gentrification.
“Our players are so key in how we progress as an organization in this area,” she said. “We need to find out what's important to them and be in alignment with them, and that being in alignment with our organizational values can be really key to how we move this forward in our club – what's important to us and even our staff, talking about what matters to them, what's happening in their communities.
“It's the voices around us that we need to serve every single day, that are going to help move us forward. So I'm very excited about what we'll be able to do in that space.”
Amid obstacles and opportunities alike, Johnson sees a D.C. ownership group that’s ready to “double down” in their pursuit of a return to the league’s elite. They’re ready to lead the way, in her eyes.
“There’s so much possibility with D.C. United right now, and the MLS world as a whole,” she said. “The league has continued to progress and I believe there's just so much that we're able to do.”