“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
Y. Michele Kang didn’t expect to be here.
As the founder and CEO of Cognosante, a healthcare technology company, she had made a name for herself as a “reasonably successful businesswoman,” she said.
At this point in his career, he explained, he thought he could start devoting more time to his philanthropic work. Instead, she has become an influential figure in the world of professional women’s soccer.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as passionate about anything as I am about women’s football now,” Ms. Kang said.
In March 2022, she purchased the Washington Spirit, becoming the first woman of color to own a majority stake in a Women’s National Soccer League team. The sale came after a lengthy and contentious battle in which players and fans called on Steve Baldwin, the CEO at the time, to sell the team to Ms. Kang in the wake of abuse allegations made against the former head coach. equipment.
Just a year later, she will now become the first woman to own and run a multi-team soccer organization, encompassing both Spirit and French club Olympique Lyonnais. He deal all stocks, which is expected to close at the end of June, will create a new independent entity under the direction of Ms. Kang as the majority owner. she is already talking about 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 sport where abuse has been rampant and leaders have failed to protect players. Trust in longtime NWSL coaches and staff members can be shaky ground. Who knew about the abuse and turned the other way? How do you build a new culture from scratch?
His answer lies in investment and trust in equal parts. The players and staff had endured a “horrible situation”, he said of the allegations of abuse, including allegations that the coach of the team he owned had fostered a toxic culture in the workplace for female employees.
“I don’t want to exaggerate that I am a woman or a person of color, therefore I am the only one who can understand our players,” she said, speaking of the members of the Washington Spirit, “but there is a little bit of trust, comfort and familiarity. which I am very happy to provide so that they feel comfortable reaching out to me and talking to me about any issues.”
I wish I could say some of this: buying an NWSL team, creating a multi-team organization, her hopes of helping transform the culture around women’s soccer, it was all part of one big vision. But that is not the case.
A few years ago, she didn’t know much about the sport. So little, in fact, that her friends accused her of not knowing Lionel Messi, one of the most famous players in the world.
His replica? “Well, I did know who Pele was.”
Ms. Kang grew up in Seoul in a home where education was valued. Her mother demanded excellence, and her father always told her “there’s nothing I can’t do that the boy next door can,” a sentiment that was rather a rarity growing up in South Korea in the 1990s. 1960.
When he began studying business and economics in Seoul, he realized that his dreams extended beyond his home country. The center of the business world was in the United States, he said, so with the eventual blessing of his parents, he decided to go there. It was quite a bold move for a single young Korean girl at the time. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and later earned 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 accumulate enough experience to become the CEO of a large company. His work kept her moving. Ms. Kang estimates that she has moved between 20 and 30 times.
In the midst of the 2008 recession, when he was hoping to join a major company, he started his own. Like many entrepreneurial stories, what would become Cognosante, a multimillion-dollar company, began in a room above his garage in the Washington, DC area.
“I had a reasonably successful company,” he said of Cognosante, “I thought that was my business career.”
That was until 2019, when Ms. Kang, whose business achievements were well known, was invited to join Spirit’s ownership group after the US 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 reminded herself. But she was curious to spend six months getting to know the owners and players. She thought about the tutoring she was already doing. Why not this too?
He joined the ownership group in late 2020, entering a league and a team that would face a public reckoning and extraordinary turmoil.
In the spring of 2021, he learned of ongoing allegations of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of Richie Burke, the Spirit’s former head coach. Ms. Kang said that several people came to her with her concerns. Mr. Burke was fired from the team in September 2021. The allegations were chronicled in a series of published reports and many employees had resigned from the team amid reports of a toxic work culture.
Ms. Kang was working to take majority control of the team as players and fans called for Mr. Baldwin, then CEO, to sell the Spirit. The transfer of power was not easy. The Spirit players demanded that Ms. Kang be the new owner, but it would be months before Mr. Baldwin resigned and Ms. Kang could acquire the necessary shares.
“Let’s be clear” letter to Mr. Baldwin from the team’s players stated. “The person we trust is Michele. She continually puts the needs and interests of the players first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said that she intended to give the equipment to a woman. That time is now.”
The deal with Spirit closed on March 30, 2022.
In the summer of 2020, an eclectic group of owners, including actors Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, soccer legend Mia Hamm and tennis great Serena Williams, announced the creation of a Los Angeles-based team, Angel City FC, which made his debut in 2022, alongside another expansion club, the San Diego Wave. An additional club, Racing Louisville FC, 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 NWSL in the 2024 season, along with another expansion club, Bay FC. The league, now in its 11th season, is already looking for further expansion.
None of this comes as a surprise to Ms Kang, who seems stunned, if not frustrated, at how someone could undervalue a women’s professional soccer league, or why there has been a delay in investment.
“I give all the credit to the people who ran the teams,” he continued, speaking of the previous NWSL owners. “But it was being viewed as a nonprofit or charity, and business disciplines didn’t apply from my position.”
That attitude signals legitimacy in a unique way, said Natalie L. Smith, an associate professor of sports management at East Tennessee State University who studies women’s soccer.
If Angel City signaled legitimacy through celebrity, she said, Ms. Kang signals value through business investment, which also sends a message to other potential investors.
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 co-author of “footballomics.” “Obviously one is the rise of women’s football, which is long overdue and seems to be moving pretty fast at the moment. The second is the transformation of football ownership and club management in general around the world.
Ms. Kang, who turns 64 this month, now speaks like a student of the game. She is eager to listen and learn, and to navigate the complexities of team ownership, which in her current arena are not that 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 like women are little 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 the physiology and biology of women and train our athletes accordingly.”
To that end, Ms. Kang has engaged experts to develop programs on how training can, or should, differ during menstrual cycles. It’s a worthwhile place to put funds, she said, and her experience has helped her realize what her footprint could be in the greater world of soccer.
“There’s no reason you should just do that for the Spirit,” he said, adding: “And, frankly, doing that for a team is a really 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 larger training centers and stadiums, of the next steps for expansion.
“There is always this push and pull for the greater good when it comes to the women’s soccer community, which is something that benefits these clubs,” Dr. Smith, a professor of sports management, said of Ms. Kang’s expansion. “She wants the game to grow, but she also wants her team to win.”
It will surely not be an easy path. There are questions about what could be conflicts of interest in an already shaky job market. But his biggest test may be with fans outside of the United States.
“Americans are a bit tame when it comes to sports and who runs them,” said Szymanski, co-author of “footballomics.” He added: “In Europe, people just don’t see it that way. They say: ‘This is our sport, not your sport. You may be here temporarily and we’ll give you your fair share if you contribute money, but this isn’t just about you. It’s about the sport.’”
Ms. Kang is not intimidated.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said with a smile.