By buying Lyon and Washington Spirit, Kang is building soccer’s new powerhouse

Scan the field after a Washington Spirit match, when players, staff and family gather to debrief and swap stories, and team owner Michele Kang is almost certain to be holding court. Kang is at most games, home and away. It is hardly the life once imagined by the investor and philanthropist who made her name (and fortune) in the field of health information technology.

“If you asked me even three years ago, ‘Are you going to be a sports team owner?’ I would have looked at you like you’re crazy,” Kang told ESPN recently.

Now, having assumed majority ownership of the Spirit in early 2022 for a then-record National Women’s Soccer League team sale of $35 million, Kang is doubling down. A deal to purchase the Olympique Lyonnais women’s team — eight-time champions of Europe in the past 12 years — is expected to close in the next month.

Kang’s acquisition of the world’s most successful women’s team of the modern era is the start of a multiteam, global network, she said. She expects to add at least one more team to her new, yet-to-be-named parent company’s portfolio before the end of the year, with a goal of owning at least one team on each continent soon.

The model is reminiscent of what Red Bull and City Football Group have established on the men’s side, but with one key difference: the focus is entirely on women’s soccer.

“Women’s soccer around the world needs investment,” Kang said. “It’s not just the U.S. For us to take women’s soccer to the next level — Europe, Asia, South America, Latin America — they all need to come up. I wanted to accelerate that trend.”

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Kang acknowledges that there are various business models in the NWSL and globally — particularly in England, where women’s teams largely share branding with popular men’s teams — but she is a believer that women’s teams need to be separate, independent businesses from their men’s team counterparts. Lyon’s women’s team will maintain its identity, but the business operations will be separated from the men’s team.

Kang’s buyout of the Spirit from Steve Baldwin, who was forced out of the NWSL for allegedly enabling a toxic and abusive work environment, only scratched the surface. The purchase price of Lyon is reportedly €50 million (about $54 million), and Kang confirmed that hundreds of millions of dollars of investment will be needed. More teams need to be purchased, training facilities need to be built, staff need to be hired.

Do all that, Kang said, and two critical achievements become possible. First is a scale of investment that creates a more sizeable potential return. “One could argue that trying to do it at one team’s level is probably unsustainable,” Kang said. “This is not a money-making business and there is still a ways to go in breaking even. So, you need some scale to continue to invest, not just for one team but more teams.”

Kang also believes she can grow women’s soccer at an accelerated rate by effecting change on multiple continents. Rather than having just one of 14 board votes in the single-entity NWSL, Kang will now control, at minimum, two major teams on two different continents.

“There are multiple areas for centralized investment at scale that will really take the sport to the next level,” she said. “The global scouting capabilities, even some of the planning and marketing areas. Each team is going to be on its own and its own identity, but there are things that we can actually do centrally and make it available. Then you can do it at scale, not sub-scale, but at the scale that male teams and other businesses can invest. So, that was truly the impetus behind it.”

One tangible area Kang points to is high performance and “training women as women” rather than copying the approaches of men’s training. That concept is being led by Dawn Scott, senior director of performance for the Spirit who once held similar roles for the United States and England women’s national teams. Scott’s group includes 14 employees, Kang said, which is more than those national teams have.

Using performance as an example, Kang illustrates how training methodologies can be developed centrally and implemented locally with each of the ownership group’s teams, meaning each team doesn’t have to hire 14 people for the same department.

“We’re going to create some sort of an innovation lab,” Kang said. “It’s going to be dedicated, the staff and everything else, toward the Spirit. To some extent, because we started [with] the Spirit, this is going to be where we start developing most of the things. All the methodology, training methodology, all that stuff will be shared. Staff will go back and forth and will train the trainers.

“Other teams will have their own team [of staff] and we will localize. We’re not just going to say one size fits all, but here is some basic science, basic technology, things that have worked. Let’s customize it to make it work. There are some differences in European-style football vs. American, so we’re going to customize the fundamental science, technology, research. It will be all shared and then we’ll figure out how to spread those methodologies so that everyone can benefit from what we are investing in.”

In theory, there could be shared practices between technical staff of the teams. Could Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor (a star defender for the Washington Freedom as a player) visit D.C., or Spirit coach Mark Parsons visit Lyon, to brainstorm coaching methodologies? It’s plausible under the same ownership.

Parsons started his second stint as Spirit head coach in late 2022, returning to the U.S. after a brief stint as head coach of the Netherlands women’s national team ended with a quarterfinal exit at the 2022 European Championship. Parsons had left the Portland Thorns to be closer to family in England, but Kang’s vision sold Parsons on the Spirit being a completely different, more ambitious team than the one he left in late 2015.

“What Michele has also done is made clear that this isn’t just two clubs — there will be more clubs,” Parsons said. “I knew that before I joined — not which clubs and which countries, but this is the model, this is the vision.”

Parsons’s task is to focus solely on the Spirit; he is “100% all-in” on that, and “nothing changes” for the Spirit in sharing ownership with Lyon women. Parsons is yet to speak with his counterpart at Lyon, Bompastor, about the new shared ownership, he said last week.

That hits on a crucial point for Kang, a factor that could more than any other determine the success or failure of this ambitious approach: While ownership and best practices will be shared, each team must remain uniquely autonomous.

“I want to make sure that each team is champion in its own country,” Kang said. “We’re not sacrificing one team for the benefit of another. We’re going to give everything and anything that each team needs to be successful. They’ll maintain their own identity, fandom — those are all very local, not central, or global.”

Her prerogative extends to branding. There will not be any cookie-cutter nomenclature like “OL Spirit,” which is what happened when OL Groupe bought the NWSL’s Reign FC and turned the club into OL Reign, stripping the club of its original and local branding. The Spirit are playing in temporary, black-and-white kits this year ahead of transitioning to an impending rebrand, but Kang said that’s unrelated to the Lyon business.

Lyon will still be Lyon, possibly with a version of “Féminine” to differentiate it from the men’s side, Kang said.

High on Kang’s list of physical next steps is building training centers — plural. Lyon already has a training facility considered to be a selling point for players. Kang’s view of the quality of that, however, is a window into her women-first — or really, all-women — mentality, and it also underscores her proposed financial commitment. The fact that Lyon’s women’s team shares the facility with the men’s professional team isn’t good enough, she said. She wants to build a dedicated facility that women’s players can access 24/7.

The Spirit bounced between training homes in previous years, creating inconsistency and uncertainty in the day-to-day player experience. A temporary solution is in place now, but Kang said the team is about nine months into the process of attempting to secure land for a permanent home. The task is daunting in the current real-estate market. Kang said her team is looking for somewhere between 50 and 90 acres of land, which in D.C. is a scale only owned by the city or national parks. The goal is to have a new training facility in 2025 or 2026.

“We’re working very closely with both agencies trying to figure out how to do it,” Kang said. “We’ve engaged engineering firms. We’re now in the process of engaging architectural firms to already start designing what the state-of-the-art performance center will look like.”

One of the first things Kang did when she took over the Spirit is tour training facilities of top men’s teams in England, France and the Netherlands to look for best practices. Those will be applied in Washington, D.C., and Lyon.

“The idea is that the same design will be transported to Lyon for the women’s team,” Kang said. “Whatever team, we will clearly have to customize a little bit, but the idea is that level of training center, performance center is going to be made available for every team under our umbrella, so if you walk into Spirit or Lyon, the training center will look the same inside and they’ll have access to the best technology, best equipment, best medical care, nutrition.”

Kang is already an investor in Eagle Football Holdings, which is led by fellow U.S. businessman John Textor. Eagle Football Holdings purchased Lyon in late 2022, setting into motion the sale of the women’s team to Kang.

Eagle Football Holdings does not hold the same global notoriety as Red Bull or City Football Group, but the model is similar. The company holds stakes in men’s teams of Crystal Palace (London), Lyon, RWD Molenbeek (Brussels), Botafogo (Rio de Janeiro) and a Florida academy. So, in some sense, Kang has seen firsthand the construction of a global horizontal of soccer clubs.

There are some basics she is looking for when it comes to purchasing more women’s teams. For one, those teams must already exist. Women’s soccer needs to be present in some capacity in their home countries, even if that is an amateur circuit in need of investment to turn professional, Kang said.

“There are some cultural aspects,” she said. “Excellence is very important. It doesn’t have to be necessarily the top team because there are only so many top teams in every country, but the teams that are really determined in excellence but just need a push and a little investment. I would ultimately in the next year or two like to have global coverage, so that we’ll have a team in Asia, we’ll have a team in South America, possibly another in Latin America and ultimately in Africa.”

Kang uses the term “catalyst” to describe her hope for the business model. Perhaps other current owners will join her in doubling down on investments into more teams. Or maybe her ambition simply signals to another businessperson that they should get involved in the sport at all, she suggested.

“I’m hoping that others will see our success, assuming that we are going to be successful, that others will follow that path and more people are going to invest in teams in Europe, South America, Asia — women’s teams,” Kang said. “One can’t do it all by oneself, so more people joining this — I’m hoping that this will be a catalyst, that other people can say, ‘Oh I can do that, too. OL is now part of this, maybe I’ll go get the next best team or another best team.’ I want this to be copied and followed. That’s what it’s all about. I want more money to come in globally.

“I think soccer is the most global game and women’s soccer, in my opinion, is very different from the men’s game. Different level of excitement, different type of game.”

A unique opportunity often discussed in the women’s soccer community is the clean slate still offered. Relative to the globalized, commercialized men’s game, women’s soccer is still fledgling. There lies an opportunity to borrow best practices from the men’s game while avoiding the issues that plague it.

A major criticism of the Red Bull and City Football Group multiteam models, particularly regarding their U.S. squads, is the perceived hierarchy of teams within those businesses. Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls and New York City FC will never be prioritized over Europe’s RB Leipzig or Manchester City, respectively. Manchester City’s men’s team just won the treble — all to the backdrop of sanctions alleging extensive rule breaking.

Kang said that is “absolutely not” the model being undertaken with her organization. Still, creating a truly equal playing field for each team within the business could prove challenging.

The Spirit won the NWSL Championship in 2021 and the team has made significant strides as a business under Kang’s leadership. Lyon, however, has been the standard-bearer in women’s soccer over the past decade, welcoming a steady who’s-who of world stars. How will those in Lyon feel long term about even the perception of the U.S. being the home of the parent organization, and the hub from which central ideas are born?

Former club president and former owner Jean-Michel Aulas guided Olympique Lyonnais for the past 36 years. His commitment to the women’s team to create a juggernaut predated the current flood of investment around women’s soccer. Lyon players have long been vocal about Aulas’ commitment to the women’s team: he left his post last month to a wave of praise from players.

“I hope that OL will continue to invest in their women’s team in the long term, even if Jean-Michel Aulas is no longer there,” Lyon and Norway forward Ada Hegerberg, the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or winner in 2018, told Le Monde.

Kang garnered the respect of Spirit players before she was the majority owner. Players publicly backed her takeover of the team in October 2021, when they demanded that Baldwin sell and leave. “The person we trust is Michele,” players said in a jointly released statement.

The trust has grown over the past year as Kang delivered on her promises to upgrade both facilities and team culture.

“I think Michele wants to make us the best team and is doing that,” Spirit forward Trinity Rodman said earlier this month. “The amount of support on the staff has been great and seeing just the specified attention toward individuals physically, mentally, emotionally, everything, we have so much support that comes from the owner. The interaction and the role that she plays with us has been amazing.

“Obviously, there’s only so much connection she can have with us with how busy her schedule is and boundaries, but she’s learned, and she’s been super open to learning what makes the best soccer team, what makes the best not only women’s but men’s team in the world. She’s done so much research, she’s learned so much about soccer and again, she wants what’s best for us and she wants to make a club where every team wants to come to. You’re seeing that slowly, and I hope that continues to build stronger and stronger.”

The roster dynamics of the Lyon-Spirit relationship are another point of tension that will be the focus of rivals around the NWSL. OL Reign benefited from high-profile loans under the ownership of the OL Groupe. French forward Eugenie Le Sommer, German midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan and French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi all joined the Reign on loan from Lyon for part the 2021 NWSL season.

Both the NWSL and D1 Arkema, the French top flight, have restrictions on the number of international players allowed on a team roster. Kang noted those limitations and reiterated that each team will prioritize winning its own competitions.

“We are absolutely not going to take players out of one team to support another team,” she said.

The sale of OL Reign remains a tangential subplot to Kang’s takeover of Lyon, an added layer at the NWSL level. OL Groupe announced in April — much to the surprise of those in Seattle — that it had already begun the process of selling the Reign.

It’s worth noting that OL Groupe’s purchase of the Reign in late 2019 serves as a benchmark in the rising valuations of the NWSL, a process Kang accelerated. The Reign were sold for a valuation of $3.51 million. Just over two years later, Kang took over controlling ownership of the Spirit for 10 times that and earlier this year, the NWSL sold expansion franchises for $53 million each.

Kang’s takeover of Lyon women looks like it will be finalized before the sale of the Reign is complete. Reign representatives have repeatedly directed all questions to “the current ownership group,” to which a spokesperson for Lyon said the club could not comment beyond what was said in the news release because it is a publicly traded company in France.

It has left several questions in Seattle, specifically, but also around the seemingly related sales. Kang told ESPN that the sale of the Reign is not a contingency for closing her deal to purchase Lyon women, and that she is not involved in the sale of her rival NWSL team.

“It’s my understanding that the Reign sale was contemplated before we started having this conversation,” Kang said, referencing her purchase of Lyon women. “That’s a totally different part of the OL side. I have nothing to do with it; I have no visibility whatsoever. Our deal is spinning off, totally separating OL Fem’s business from OL, which is what we’ll be taking on. So, there is really no relationship whatsoever. That’s going to be totally separate. OL Reign sale, as I understand it, is in progress and that has nothing to do with the separation of the French soccer team.”

Kang is focused on the Spirit, Lyon and the next move in building what she believes is a new club model for the women’s game. The task is all-consuming, one that has already seen her shuttle between France and the U.S. over the past few months.

“Once I was in it, I am absolutely passionate about it,” Kang said. “I see an incredible future, and I say this to everyone: women’s soccer is not a charity. It is not some corporation’s DEI project. I want to treat it as a real business, and I want everyone else to see it as a business. Our players are the best of the best and they should not be treated like some kind of non-profit or DEI project.

“My goal was really to build women’s soccer and make the necessary investment. Just like Silicon Valley, any other business, we can all sit here and talk about how much we support women’s soccer, but if no one is going to write the check and start investing, it’s just not going to go anywhere.”

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