In the unique and vibrant neighborhood of Buzzard Point in Washington stands a brand new Major League Soccer stadium. With state-of-the-art architecture and electric black, red and white colors, Audi Field, which opened in 2018, is home to the D.C. United Major League Soccer team, as well as the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League and the D.C. Defenders of the XFL.
Surrounding the stadium on the Pepco Waterfront substation are colorful murals of historic Black figures from local artists Kaliq Crosby and Rose honoring Frederick Douglass, Marvin Gaye and Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Washington delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
These murals provide a beautiful view for the president of business operations for D.C. United, Danita Johnson ’05. Johnson, who graduated from Western Carolina University’s sport management program, became the first black MLS president and the third woman to hold the position in 2021. Johnson shifted sports, moving from the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks where she was president of business operations, to MLS, with a desire for a new challenge.
“One of the things I really loved about the early part of my career was the grind. I love the fact that we were kind of changing the game with the work that we were doing,” Johnson said. “The game of soccer and the growth in the U.S. is completely on the rise. It was something different than I had done before. MLS often reminds me of my early years around the WNBA where there's so much that's out there for the taking. To help kind of lead that charge with D.C. United was definitely enticing to me.”
Johnson quickly realized that her new role meant something not just to her, but to her community. “I started getting messages from young African American women and men, and even some of the players reaching out to me in the league and just saying how important it was and what it meant to them,” she said. “At first the weight of that was overwhelming. I like to carry that weight now because I'm proud of the work that we've been able to do as an organization and as a club.”
Johnson pointed to the 2022 match between D.C. United and Bayern Munich hosted at Audi Field as one of the shining moments of her time as president. The game was the United’s biggest international friendly and the highest revenue generating event. “Every single department in our organization collaborated together to execute. We brought that to life and we brought something to the states for our fans that they had never really experienced before through D.C. United,” she said.
Washington, and the U.S., are currently in a culture shift towards soccer, perhaps due in part to the fairly new TV comedy Ted Lasso. “D.C. had one of the largest viewerships of the World Cup,” Johnson said. “Both from an international landscape and locally the fandom is here,” Johnson said. “Fans are passionate, they expect the best and we need to deliver. We like the challenge and I'm excited about what we've done. To look to our fans and improve their experiences, we just gotta continue to work at it every day.”
Johnson also highlights her first match as one of her best memories so far in her current role. “I remember standing up in one of the suites and just like taking it in,” she said. “I was like ‘Okay, this is real. Like this is where I'm at. This is what we get to do every day.’ That first match moment was definitely a significant one for me. I had some friends and family here and it was just like that culmination of years of work.”
Before the big move to MLS, Johnson held a series of positions with various NBA and WNBA teams, beginning with an internship with the Fayetteville Patriots, a team in the now defunct NBA Developmental League, in her hometown. Johnson, who was the recipient of the 2019 WCU Alumni Professional Achievement Award, completed her final semester in a sport management class with professor of sports management and now dean of the College of Business, AJ Grube.
“Dr. Grube was a significant part of my time at Western Carolina,” Johnson said. “We actually had to do a full-time internship and that's when I ended up going back to Fayetteville, working for the Fayetteville Patriots. If it had not been for that one class, I don't know if I would be doing what I'm doing today,” she said. “That opportunity to take that internship and really start my career in a different way was the catalyst. There are moments in your life that are a catalyst for change and taking that internship was definitely one of those.”
Johnson spent a few years in the NBA G League with the Fayetteville Patriots and the Bakersfield Jam in California. Her next big leap was working for the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA.
“I spent three years there just learning how to sell, learning how to be better, and I took it one day at a time. I ended up finally moving into a management role with the (WNBA) Tulsa Shock in Oklahoma.” Johnson said her management position with the Shock was another one of those catalyst moments, changing the trajectory of her career forever.
“When I moved to Oklahoma, it was my first time really leading a staff and leading a team. We all want that management role, but once you really get there, it can be intimidating,” she said. “It can be hard. Most of the people I was managing at the time were the same age as me and the people that were my peers were twice my age. I had imposter syndrome a little bit, but at the same time, I knew I could make a difference in the business.
“During that time, I was isolated in a different place away from my family, but literally giving everything I had every day. I was ready to be in the trenches and I took those years in my life to be in the trenches and I came out stronger and better. It was tough, but as I've progressed in my career, that time taught me so much about how you go in and actually make change and impact. So much of what I did in Tulsa has led to my time in Washington, D.C.”
Johnson held various management positions with the WNBA Washington Mystics, the Los Angeles Sparks, the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers, and again as president and COO of the Sparks before her role with D.C. United.
“She was advised to find a meaningful internship (not just an experience that would ‘check the box’ for graduation requirements) and she took that advice seriously,” Grube said. “She set herself up for a hugely successful career and I have so much respect for her. She’s accomplished so much – and I know there’s more to come." While with the Sparks, Johnson headed a campaign for women’s empowerment called #WeAreWomen.
“The #WeAreWomen campaign started out as a challenge from our ownership group of ‘how do we sell out Staples Center?’ But it developed into probably one of the most beautiful things I've ever done in my career,” Johnson said. “It went from selling out a game to a full program centered around women development, young girls, both for socioeconomic and community impact. We developed an ambassador group of women in our community from all different walks of life and we went out and developed storytelling about the businesses they had done or the nonprofit work they had done and how it impacted the community. Part of it was us elevating voices through our platform, and the other piece was really about ‘How do we enrich their lives as well?’
“So, we started inviting them to special programs and events about funding for their business, getting better at business, good hiring practices, working on resumes, things like that. And the next layer to that, which was really a beautiful piece, is that from #WeAreWomen we developed #WeAreGirls, so we had our ambassadors actually come in and start to mentor young girls and do programming with them. It was truly a labor of love and many, many hours.”
During Women’s History Month, Johnson honored the women of D.C. United with a pre-match event and halftime dedication. “One of the things about soccer culture, for those who are not familiar with it, is the supporter section.” Johnson said. “I encourage everybody to go to a live soccer match and just watch the supporters. We want to honor our female supporters – they are amazing supporters of our club.”
While at WCU, Johnson found her own sisterhood through the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. As the president of WCU’s chapter, she learned how to support others. Johnson said the sorority’s work in the community shaped how she now operates and continues doing community work. Johnson also found another community at WCU through Project CARE, a mentor organization for students of color.
“Western was one of the best times of my life,” she said. “I truly grew up there and I came out of my shell at Western. Project CARE was really what brought it all together. Project CARE became our home. It was our welcoming to Western Carolina. Our friend who actually just recently passed away, Jared Wilkins, who was part of that group, was one of the first people that truly welcomed us. It was just such a great opportunity to network, a great opportunity to feel at home. That group really helped us stay together.”
One of Johnson’s greatest supports in Project CARE was Jane Adams-Dunford, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs. At the time, Adams-Dunford was the director of multicultural affairs.
“We were creating a safe space where students were learning how they all brought value to the table,” Adams-Dunford said. “They found their voices. And then we just continued to support and empower that. We were supporting the students where they were and not where we wanted them to be.”
Members of the same sorority, Johnson and Adams-Dunford share a decades long connection, and Adams-Dunford is still Johnson’s biggest fan. “I am not surprised that Danita went on to lead the Sparks and now she's with D.C. United. She was always focused, she was hardworking, she was caring and she was very authentic,” she said. “She's just a selfless and compassionate leader who is intentional and dedicated to her craft.” Grube said current sport management students can look at Johnson’s path and be encouraged for their own journey.
“In the sport industry, experience is an absolute key to getting a first full-time job,” Grube said. “Gaining this experience through the required internship of WCU’s sport management program means our students are more prepared to enter the workforce than students who have no work experience. Our faculty continuously discuss this with students, starting in the Introduction to Sport Management class. Other students can benefit by following Danita’s career path – starting with her first internship with the Fayetteville Patriots – and committing themselves to searching for an internship that will turn into a career.”
Johnson has advice for Catamounts looking to pursue a career in sport management.
1. Get experience in different ways. Your internships are going to matter.
2. Network. I know everybody hears it about networking and I know that's intimidating in its own way, but I think it's also about building relationships with the people to the left and right in you, because many of them will go along the same journey.
3. Don't be afraid to pivot. Don't be afraid to take on different challenges or do things that maybe you hadn't thought of.
4. Study the craft. Like even now, I'm getting ready to take another class. There's no stop to that learning.