Washington Spirit’s Michele Kang Wants to Take Women’s Soccer Clubs Global

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“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.

Y. Michele Kang did not expect to be here.

As the founder and chief executive of Cognosante, a health care technology company, she had made a name for herself as a “reasonably successful businesswoman,” she said.

At this point in her career, she explained, she thought she might start spending more time on her philanthropic work. Instead, she has become an influential figure in the world of professional women’s soccer.

“I don’t think I’ve been as passionate about anything as I am now about women’s soccer,” Ms. Kang said.

In March 2022, she purchased the Washington Spirit, becoming the first woman of color to own a controlling stake in a National Women’s Soccer League team. The sale came after a long and contentious battle in which players and fans called for Steve Baldwin, the chief executive at the time, to sell the team to Ms. Kang in the wake of allegations of abuse brought against the team’s former coach.

Just a year later, she is now set to become the first woman to own and lead a multiteam soccer organization, which will encompass both the Spirit and the French club Olympique Lyonnais. The all-stock deal, which is expected to close in late June, will create a new independent entity under Ms. Kang as majority owner. She is already talking of adding more teams from around the world.

As Ms. Kang’s profile has risen, questions remain about how much she can do in a league and a sport where abuse has been rampant and leaders have failed to protect players. Trust in longtime N.W.S.L. coaches and staff members can be on shaky ground. Who knew of abuse and turned the other way? How do you build a new culture from the ground up?

Her response lies in equal parts investment and trust. Players and staff had endured a “horrific situation,” she said of abuse allegations, including accusations that the coach of the team she owned had fostered a toxic workplace culture for female employees.

“I don’t want to overplay that I’m a woman, or a person of color, therefore I’m the only one who can understand our players,” she said, speaking of members of the Washington Spirit, “but there is a little bit of a sense of trust and comfort and familiarity that I am very glad to provide so that they feel comfortable coming up to me and talking to me about any issues.”

She wishes she could say any of this — her purchase of a N.W.S.L. team, her creation of a multiteam organization, her hopes to help transform the culture around women’s soccer — were all part of a grand vision. But that is not the case.

A few years ago, she didn’t know much about the sport. So little, in fact, that friends accused her of not knowing Lionel Messi, one of the world’s most famous players.

Her retort? “Well, I did know who Pelé was.”

Ms. Kang grew up in Seoul in a home where education was prized. Her mother demanded excellence and her father always told her “there is nothing I couldn’t do that the boy next door could,” a sentiment that was more of a rarity growing up in South Korea in the 1960s.

As she began to study business and economics in Seoul, she realized her dreams extended beyond her home country. The center of the business world was in America, she said, so with the eventual blessing of her parents, that’s where she decided to go. It was quite a bold move for a young single Korean woman at the time. She earned a degree in economics from the University of Chicago and went on to earn a master’s degree from the Yale School of Management.

And so began not a five-year plan but a 30-year plan. The goal was to build enough experience to become the chief executive of a large company. Her work kept her in motion. Ms. Kang estimates she moved between 20 and 30 times.

In the midst of the recession of 2008, around the time she expected to join a major company, she started her own. Like many entrepreneurial stories, what would become Cognosante, a multimillion-dollar company, began in a room above her garage in the Washington, D.C., area.

“I had a reasonably successful company,” she said of Cognosante, “I thought that was my business career.”

That was until 2019, when Ms. Kang, whose business accomplishments were well-known, was invited to join the Spirit’s ownership group after the U.S. women’s national team won the World Cup that year. Ms. Kang didn’t know much about soccer, and she still had her own company to run, she recalled. But she was curious enough to spend six months getting to know the owners and players. She thought about the mentorship she was already doing. Why not this too?

She joined the ownership group in late 2020, walking into a league and a team that would face a public reckoning and an extraordinary upheaval.

In the spring of 2021, she was made aware of ongoing accusations of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of Richie Burke, the Spirit’s former head coach. Ms. Kang said multiple people came to her with their concerns. Mr. Burke was fired from the team in September 2021. The accusations were recounted in a series of published reports, and many employees had quit the team amid reports of a toxic workplace culture.

Ms. Kang was working to take majority control of the team as players and fans called for Mr. Baldwin, then the chief executive, to sell the Spirit. The transfer of power did not come easily. Spirit players demanded that Ms. Kang be the new owner, but it would be months before Mr. Baldwin stepped down and Ms. Kang was able to acquire the necessary shares.

“Let us be clear,” a letter to Mr. Baldwin from the team’s players stated. “The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”

The Spirit deal closed on March 30, 2022.

In the summer of 2020, an eclectic group of owners including the actors Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, the soccer legend Mia Hamm and the tennis great Serena Williams announced the creation of a team in Los Angeles, Angel City F.C., which made its debut in 2022, along with another expansion club, the San Diego Wave. An additional club, Racing Louisville F.C., joined the league in 2021, and the Utah Royals were sold and their assets moved to a new franchise in Kansas City, the Current. The Utah Royals will be added back to the N.W.S.L. in the 2024 season, along with another expansion club, Bay F.C. The league, now in its 11th season, is already looking at further expansion.

None of this is a surprise to Ms. Kang, who seems dumbfounded if not frustrated by how anyone could undervalue a women’s professional soccer league, or why there has been a lag in investments.

“I give full credit to people who carried the teams,” she continued, speaking of past N.W.S.L. owners. “But it was being viewed as a charity or a nonprofit, and business disciplines were not applied from where I stand.”

That attitude signals legitimacy in a unique way, said Natalie L. Smith, an associate professor of sport management at East Tennessee State University who studies women’s soccer.

If Angel City signaled legitimacy through celebrity, she said, Ms. Kang signals worth through business investment, which sends a message to other potential investors as well.

These moves come in the midst of two transitions in the world of soccer, said Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan and the co-author of “Soccernomics.” “One obviously is the rise of women’s soccer, which is long overdue and which seems to be going places quite rapidly in the moment. The second is the transformation of soccer ownership and the management of clubs generally worldwide.”

Ms. Kang, who turns 64 this month, now speaks like a student of the game. She is eager to listen and to learn, and to navigate the complexities of team ownership, ones that in her current purview are not so complex at all. It’s a trait that has made her popular and trusted among the players and staff on her team.

“We don’t feel that women are small men,” she said, echoing a sentiment reflected in the lack of studies done specifically on women’s athletics. “We are not going to borrow a manual from the men’s soccer team. We want to understand women’s physiology and biology and train our athletes according to that.”

To that effect, Ms. Kang has hired experts to develop programs for how training may, or should, differ during menstrual cycles. It’s a worthwhile place to put funding, she said, and the experience has helped her realize what her footprint could be in the greater soccer world.

“There’s no reason I should only do that for the Spirit,” she said, adding: “And frankly, to do that for one team is a real significant investment.”

It’s part of what pushed her to think more globally. Ms. Kang looked to Lyon, a dominant European team that has historically recruited top American players including Aly Wagner, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. She spoke excitedly of scouting players internationally, of designing training centers and bigger stadiums, of next steps for expansion.

“There is always this push-pull of the greater good when it comes to the women’s football community, which is something that benefits these clubs,” said Dr. Smith, the sport management professor, of Ms. Kang’s expansion. “She does want the game to grow, but she also wants her teams to win.”

It will surely not be a straightforward road. There are questions around what could be conflicts of interest in an already dubious labor market. But her biggest test may be with fans outside of the United States.

“Americans are little bit docile when it comes to sports and who runs them,” said Mr. Szymanski, the co-author of “Soccernomics.” He added, “In Europe, people just don’t see it like that. They say, ‘This is our sport, not your sport. You may temporarily be here and we’ll give you your due if you put money in, but this is not all about you. This is about the sport.’”

Ms. Kang remains undeterred.

“It’s not rocket science,” she said with a smile.

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