« Transforming Spaces » is a series about women who lead change in sometimes unexpected places.
Y. Michele Kang didn’t expect to be here.
As the founder and chief executive officer of Cognosante, a health technology company, she had made a name for herself as a « moderately successful businesswoman, » she said.
At this point in her career, she explained, she thought she could start dedicating more time to her philanthropic work. Instead, she has become an influential figure in the world of professional women’s soccer.
« I don’t think I was as passionate about anything as I am now about women’s football, » Ms Kang said.
In March 2022, she purchased the Washington Spirit, becoming the first black woman to own a controlling interest in a National Women’s Soccer League team. The sale came after a long and controversial battle in which players and fans asked Steve Baldwin, the chief executive at the time, to sell the team to Ms Kang in the wake of abuse allegations leveled against the former team coach .
Just one year later, she is now set to become the first woman to own and lead a multi-team football organisation, which will include both Spirit and French club Olympique Lyonnais. THE all stock deal, which is expected to close at the end of June, will create a new independent entity under Ms. Kang’s leadership as the majority shareholder. She’s already talking about it adding multiple teams from around the world.
As Ms Kang’s profile has grown, 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 coaches and longtime NWSL staff members can be on shaky ground. Who knew about abuse and turned away? How do you build a new culture from scratch?
His answer is equal parts investment and trust. Players and staff have endured a « horrible situation, » he said of allegations of abuse, including allegations that the coach of his team owned him it had fostered a toxic workplace culture for female workers.
« I don’t want to exaggerate by saying I’m a woman, or a person of color, so I’m the only one who can understand our players, » she said, speaking of members of the Washington Spirit, « but there’s a little bit of a sense of trust, comfort and familiarity which I am very happy to provide so that they feel comfortable coming up to me and talking to me about any issues.
She wishes she could say that it all — her purchase of an NWSL team, her creation of a multi-team organization, her hopes to help transform the culture of women’s soccer — were all part of one grand vision. But is not so.
A few years ago, he didn’t know much about the sport. So little, in fact, that her friends have accused her of not knowing Lionel Messi, one of the most famous players in the world.
His reply? « Well, I knew who Pele was. »
Ms. Kang grew up in Seoul in a home where education was valued. Her mother demanded excellence from her and her father always told her « there’s nothing I couldn’t do that the boy next door could do », a sentiment that was more of a rarity growing up in South Korea in the 60s.
When she started studying 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 single young Korean woman at the time. She holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree from the Yale School of Management.
And so began not a five-year plan but a thirty-year plan. The goal was to gain enough experience to become the CEO of a large company. Her work kept her moving. Ms. Kang estimates that she moved between 20 and 30 times.
In the midst of the 2008 recession, around the time he expected to join a large 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 fairly successful company, » he said of Cognosante, « I thought that was my entrepreneurial career. »
That was until 2019, when Ms. Kang, whose business successes were well known, was invited to join the Spirit’s ownership group after the US women’s national team won that year’s World Cup. Ms Kang didn’t know much about soccer and she still had her own company to manage, she recalled. But she was curious enough to spend six months getting to know owners and players. She thought about the mentorship she was already doing. Why not this too?
She joined the ownership group in late 2020, stepping into a league and team that was expected to face a public showdown and extraordinary upheaval.
In the spring of 2021, she was made aware of ongoing allegations of verbal and emotional abuse by Richie Burke, the Spirit’s former head coach. Ms. Kang said that many people have come to her with concerns. Mr Burke was sacked from the team in September 2021. The allegations were chronicled in a number of published reports and many employees had left the team due to reports of a toxic workplace culture.
Ms. Kang was working to take majority control of the team as players and fans asked Mr. Baldwin, then the chief executive, to sell the Spirit. The transfer of power did not come easily. Spirit players applied for Ms. Kang to 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 me be clear”, a said the letter to Mr. Baldwin from players on the team. “The person we trust is Michele. He continually puts the needs and interests of the players first. She listen. She believes this could be a lucrative deal and has always said she 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 starters including actresses Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, soccer legend Mia Hamm and tennis great Serena Williams announced the creation of a team in Los Angeles, Angel City FC, which debuted in 2022, alongside another growing club, the San Diego Wave. Another 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 re-added to the NWSL in the 2024 season, along with another growing club, Bay FC. The league, now in its 11th season, is already eyeing further expansion.
None of this comes as a surprise to Ms Kang, who seems dumbfounded if not frustrated at how anyone can underestimate a women’s professional soccer league, or why there has been a delay in investment.
“I give full credit to the people who brought the teams,” he continued, speaking of the NWSL’s previous owners. « But it was being viewed as a charity or non-profit and the corporate disciplines weren’t being enforced from where I’m at. »
This 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 has signaled legitimacy through celebrity, she said, Ms Kang signals value through corporate investments, which also sends a message to other potential investors.
These moves come in the midst of two transitions in the soccer world, said Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan and co-author of « Soccernomics.” “One of course is the rise of women’s football, which has been long overdue and seems to be going very rapidly right now. The second is the transformation of football ownership and general club management 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 intricacies of team ownership, ones that in her current expertise are not nearly as complex. It is a trait about her that has made her popular and trusted among the players and staff of her team.
« We don’t think of women as small men, » she said, echoing a sentiment reflected in the lack of studies done specifically on women’s athletics. “We will not 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 hired experts to develop programs for how exercise can or should differ across menstrual cycles. It’s a good place to put money, she said, and her experience has helped her understand what her footprint might be in the larger world of football.
« There’s no reason I should do it just for the Spirit, » he said, adding, « And frankly, doing it for a team is a really significant investment. »
It’s part of what made her think more globally. Ms Kang has eyed Lyon, a dominant European team that has historically recruited top American players including Aly Wagner, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. She spoke enthusiastically about scouting players internationally, planning bigger training centers and stadiums, next steps for expansion.
« There’s 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 Ms Smith, a professor of sports management, of Ms Kang’s expansion. « She wants the game to grow, but she also wants her teams to win. »
It certainly won’t be an easy road. There are questions about what the conflicts of interest might be in an already dubious job market. But his biggest test may be with fans outside the US.
« Americans are a bit tame when it comes to sports and who runs them, » said Szymanski, co-author of « Soccernomics.” 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 due if you put the money in, but it’s not all about you. It’s about the sport.’”
Ms. Kang remains undeterred.
« It’s not rocket science, » he said with a smile.