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D.C. United’s new head of business operations will be first Black president of an MLS team

Danita Johnson has been the president and chief operating officer of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks for the past two years. (Michael Tran/Getty Images)

D.C. United is planning to appoint Danita Johnson as president of business operations, three people in the soccer industry said Monday, making her the first Black man or woman to serve as an MLS team president and one of the highest-ranking female club executives in league history.

For the past two years, Johnson has been president and chief operating officer of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.

Her 15 years in pro basketball include executive positions with the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and a stint as director of ticket sales for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics in 2013 and 2014.

United officials said they did not want to comment. Johnson did not respond to an email seeking comment.

United’s business and soccer sectors will continue to operate separately, with Dave Kasper serving as general manager and vice president of soccer operations. Like Kasper, Johnson will report to chairmen Jason Levien and Stephen Kaplan.

Johnson, 37, will become one of the few Black women to achieve a prominent front-office role in D.C. pro sports. Sheila Johnson is vice chairman, president and managing partner of the Mystics.

Danita Johnson’s hiring comes four months after the Washington Football Team named Jason Wright the NFL’s first Black team president.

United’s move also comes amid a coaching search that includes Jill Ellis, the former U.S. women’s national team coach.

Johnson will be responsible for growing the fan base and sponsorships, arranging non-MLS events at Audi Field and overseeing the business of Loudoun United, a second-division team based in Leesburg and owned by the D.C. organization.

She will fill a job vacated 2½ years ago by Tom Hunt, who joined the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to become an executive vice president. Andy Bush, the team’s chief business officer, left the club in May.

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Since then, Levien has taken on greater business responsibilities and chief strategy officer Sam Porter has been atop the front-office directory.

Johnson’s hiring will help diversify the club’s power structure. Both chairmen and all six executives in the current front office are White men. The highest-ranking woman is Julie Kalmanides, the human resources director.

Data compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) shows no MLS team has had a Black president or chief executive since 2004. The report also showed none from 1999 to 2002. Independent research found none from 1996 to 1998 or in 2003.

Two women have been an MLS team chief executive or president since 2004, TIDES reported. Both were White. Women held about 25 percent of all executive-level managerial positions with the league’s 26 teams this year, with titles such as chief financial officer and chief operating officer. However, only one is Black: Houston Dynamo chief revenue officer Dionna Widder.

Johnson’s hiring comes after Black Players for Change, an MLS group formed amid global social-justice efforts this summer, pressed the league on diversity issues. Although about 22 percent of the player pool is Black, there are only two Black coaches (Colorado’s Robin Fraser and Montreal’s Thierry Henry) and one Black general manager (Toronto’s Ali Curtis).

In October, MLS announced initiatives to increase diversity in the sport, featuring a committee with members from Black Players for Change and Black employees in the league office.

This season, according to TIDES, MLS teams employed four minorities as president or chief executive: one Asian and three Latino men.

At the start of the season, almost 24 percent of teams’ senior administration jobs were held by women, but only 3.7 percent were minority women.

Women had a greater presence at MLS headquarters in New York, making up 39 percent of employees at the start of the year. Seventeen percent were women of color, TIDES said.

Seventeen women had a title of vice president or higher, including president and chief administrative officer JoAnn Neale.

Amid the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, MLS this fall laid off 20 percent of its staff. Those affected were not identified.

Danita Johnson worked for minor league basketball teams before moving to Phoenix in 2007 to become senior account executive for the NBA’s Suns and WNBA’s Mercury.

She was ticket sales director for the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock for three years, then joined Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Mystics, the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals.

In 2014, Johnson became a Sparks vice president for ticket sales and service, then a senior vice president of business operations. She worked for the Clippers for 14 months before returning to the Sparks, working for an investment group featuring Magic Johnson.