NSC Executive Director Todd Johnson talks about what's on deck
You’d think that after working for two speakers of the house at the Minnesota state legislature, taking on public policy as Executive Vice President of Government Relations at Allina Heath and serving seven years on the board of directors at the National Sports Center (NSC), Todd Johnson would have been adequately prepared for his new, dual role as the Executive Director of both the NSC and the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission (MASC) in 2015.
“For the first year or so, I walked around thinking I was trying to drink water from a fire hose,” Johnson said. “It was just coming at me full force. But there were a couple of things that helped keep me to stay focused and grounded, and in this case, job one was Minnesota United.”
While swimming as fast as he could, Johnson made retaining Minnesota United the NSC’s top priority: a mission completed just last week when the Major League Soccer franchise committed to staying on the NSC campus for at least the next 15 years.
“They had just been awarded a franchise for Major League Soccer, and they were contemplating moving to Woodbury for their practice facility,” Johnson said. “You might think, ‘they’re probably down in St. Paul now, they’re off the NSC campus.’ But, they’re only in their game day stadium (Allianz Field) for 17 or 18 games a year.”
Johnson underscored that Minnesota United spends over 300 days on the NSC campus. Securing the NSC as the team’s main training ground was one of Johnson’s top priorities. “Talk about your intro to running the National Sports Center 101; that’s what I had to do, and I didn’t have any choice. And boy, it was pass or fail. There was a possibility of failure, but we passed,” Johnson said.
Notice how Johnson seamlessly moved from the singular “I” to the collective “we” when acknowledging the NSC’s most recent major accomplishment? That’s because he knows his task is much bigger than just one person and there’s still much work to be done.
“As the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, we have a charge to create economic development through sports tourism, and we do that like no other,” Johnson said. The NSC tracks the visitor economic impact of all the events happening on campus. Last year, the NSC produced a total economic impact of $84 million, and of that total, the NSC’s flagship event, USA CUP produced a visitor economic impact of $25 million. Local spending raised that USA CUP total to $36 million, all within ten days in July.
Created by the Minnesota State Legislature back in 1987, the mission of MASC may be to promote the economic and social benefits of sports, but it goes without saying that generating revenue is required and that the landscape has become, shall we say, highly competitive.
“The MASC created the model, and if you look around the country, these types of places are popping-up all over,” Johnson said. “We’ve got this unbelievable platform that no one else does; we’ve got this 700 acre campus. So, we have quite a playing field on which to start. But, we’re in a position now where we need to reinvest in this campus to continue to stay as relevant as we are. Are we ever going to go away? No. Are we always going to have great tournaments? Yup. But, there’s competition out there.”
The NSC faces fierce competition in the highly lucrative and ever-growing business of sports tourism. “According to the Wall Street Journal, amateur sports in America is a $17 billion industry that is going to swell to $41 billion within the next five years,” Johnson said. “It’s a major, major industry that is kind of inflation-proof. When people do worse economically, the one thing that we have found that doesn’t suffer is sports spending. They’ll forego other things, but that spending continues. So, it’s really important for Minnesota to continue to have a piece of that.”
While MASC works with local communities to create a network of amateur sports facilities around the state, its flagship facility is the National Sports Center in Blaine. Open more than 360 days a year, the NSC hosts countless tournaments and events for multiple sports and organizations while promoting health and wellness and campus development.
“I think there are a number of different things that we still need to do, especially around the environment,” Johnson said. “We’re a steward of the water unlike anyone else. We need to figure out ways to get alternative energy sources up here. We’re looking at solar, we’re looking at wind, and we’re trying to look at better ways to deal with trash. It’s critically important to me to leave that legacy before I’m done here with my work: to make sure that the NSC becomes almost like a national park, where you go into the park and you bring out what you brought, and we’re trying to do that in all aspects of the campus, but it’s a lot of people. During USA CUP there are 25,000 people a day, every day.”
Johnson readily admits that there are still days when he feels like he’s drinking from a fire hose. The big difference is, four years into the job, he knows he doesn’t have to do it alone.
“I am blessed to work with a group of committed co-workers who believe in this place and what we’re doing here,” Johnson said. “While in some ways the fire hose has actually gotten bigger, I don’t feel like it’s all that intimidating because I’ve got all these colleagues who are more than willing to take their diverted piece of that water and get it to where it needs to go.”