The Washington Spirit are officially Michele Kang’s team. The Spirit announced this afternoon that the team’s former controlling stakeholder Steve Baldwin and founding owner Bill Lynch have both opted to sell to Kang, giving her controlling ownership of the 2021 NWSL champions.
“I personally appreciate, and want to publicly recognize Bill Lynch’s pivotal work as the founding owner of the Spirit bringing women’s professional soccer back to our nation’s capital, and also Steve Baldwin’s leadership, vision and formidable drive in building the Spirit and the outstanding roster that won the 2021 NWSL Championship,” said Kang in a team press release announcing the change. “I can’t wait to begin work with our talented, resilient players and staff.”
The process to get to this point was anything but smooth. The demands for a change in ownership began with a shocking Washington Post report featuring players, including former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough, detailing abusive conduct from former coach Richie Burke, who was hand-picked by Baldwin to be the team’s new head coach when he bought his majority ownership stake in in 2019. That was followed by later reporting detailing allegations of an appalling workplace culture including instances of casual racism, with then-General Manager Larry Best — another hire that came as part of what was effectively a package deal when Baldwin took over — among the people accused. Further abuse allegations came later in the year, as another ex-Spirit player, Jenna Hellstrom, went public with her experiences playing for Burke.
Kang, who bought her initial shares of the Spirit late in 2020, was reportedly taking on a greater interest in acquiring the team anyway, and has said that she began making offers to Baldwin just months into 2021. Baldwin was reported to initially be receptive to those offers — Kang reportedly said that at one point Baldwin had verbally agreed to sell — only to do a 180 over time. The situation, amid a league-wide push for abusive conduct to be dealt with, got to the point that the Spirit’s players issued a remarkable collective statement calling for Baldwin to sell the team to Kang:
A note to Steve from Washington Spirit Players pic.twitter.com/PWsemHR41R— Tori Huster (@torihuster) October 5, 2021
Still, Baldwin opted to dig in. More bad news hit, with the Spirit forced to forfeit two games due to Covid-19 protocol violations, and the league’s investigation of the club in the fallout of Burke’s eventual dismissal saw NWSL declare Washington to have “failed to act in the best interests of the [league],” removing the club from the league’s Board of Governors until the matter was satisfactorily remedied.
Despite all of that swirling in the background, the Spirit proceeded to put together their longest winning streak in club history, culminating in a victory in the 2021 NWSL Championship. Meanwhile, Baldwin announced his intention to sell, but only to a group lead by Todd Boehly and Jennifer Tepper Mackesy, going so far as to issue a team announcement declaring that the two parties were in exclusive talks. Kang continued to push for a sale to her, eventually stating that her bid to purchase Baldwin and Lynch’s shares valued the club at $35 million, a staggering sum in a league where clubs hadn’t changed hands at a valuation over seven digits before.
Both Kang and Baldwin began to make their respective cases to the rest of the Spirit’s investor group, with some publicly aligning themselves with Kang to such an extent that the possibility of taking Baldwin to court was brought up. Kang eventually declared that enough owners were ready to convert their holdings of the club from debt to equity, which would give them voting rights with Washington Soccer Partners (the formal name of the ownership group).
Baldwin contested that, and the matter was eventually brought before the league’s Board of Governors last month. That meeting saw the Board issue a statement effectively clearing Kang’s path by saying that the concept of stakeholders converting to equity was allowed, and that the matter would have to be settled by Washington Soccer Partners.
Today’s announcement is officially the end of that saga, with Baldwin — who previously made a public promise to donate his profits from the sale to the Maryland Soccer Foundation — and Lynch selling their shares to Kang. It’s also a landmark development for the NWSL, with Kang being the first Asian-American woman to become a majority owner in the league. It’s not known yet exactly what the valuation of the club is after today’s news, but anything in the neighborhood of Kang’s past offers is a massive boost for NWSL as well. Kang has further said that she is interested in making more investments in the club, who amid the uncertainty of the ownership struggle have relocated their offices and currently use Episcopal High School as their training ground.