The reigning NWSL champion Washington Spirit has sold for a record $35 million to Y. Michele Kang, according to people familiar with the deal, marking the end of a long and contentious dispute for ownership of the club. Kang, who purchased a minority stake in the team in 2020, will acquire controlling interest of the franchise from co-owners Steve Baldwin and Bill Lynch.
The team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the sale price, and the league declined to comment.
The new ownership group will include additional investors, though Kang will have the vast majority of the team’s equity, according to the people. It is not yet clear how many of the roughly 40 limited partners who joined the club last February—including Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager, Dominique Dawes, Briana Scurry and former Sen. Tom Daschle—will remain on and convert their debt into equity or sell their stakes.
The league-record $35 million price for the franchise beat a bid from Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks co-owner Todd Boehly, and will likely reset the bar for NWSL expansion fees. That’s happened notably in MLS, where rising team sale prices have pushed the expansion fee from $40 million to $325 million in the last decade. The NWSL’s expansion fee was $5 million for the Kansas City Current, which joined the league last year.
“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,” Kang said in a statement. “I can’t wait to begin work with our talented, resilient players and staff.”
Baldwin, the club’s former controlling owner, had previously refused to sell to Kang, going so far as to characterize her attempts to purchase the team as “a coup attempt” in a letter sent to investors in January, just days after NWSL approvals paved the way for her to purchase the franchise. In the letter, Baldwin described Kang’s efforts to gain control of the club as “an endless stream of lies, a coup attempt, organizational disruption and secret meetings, and a PR campaign to damage my reputation and hurt my daughters.”
In a press release Tuesday, Baldwin said he was “pleased that someone with Michele’s commitment to the Spirit will lead the team in its next chapter.”
“I spoke with Michele this morning and told her that Bill and I decided to sell her the team,” Baldwin’s statement said. “I sincerely wish her, our wonderful players, and our staff the best. My hope for 2022 is that the Spirit become the first ever DC premier league sports team to win back-to-back championships. Go Spirit.”
The news ends a complicated sale process for D.C.-based club that began in October after the Spirit were implicated in the NWSL’s widespread abuse scandal. Washington’s head coach Richie Burke was among the people implicated in that scandal, and, after an NWSL investigation into the allegations, the league told the team’s three owners—Kang, Baldwin and Lynch—that it wanted them all to sell.
The club’s players published an open letter on social media urging Baldwin to sell to Kang, but Baldwin refused to do so after early indications that he would.
Kang, founder and CEO of healthcare tech firm Cognosante, made it clear from the start of the process that she wanted to purchase the club. When it became public that Baldwin was in exclusive talks to sell the team to a group led by Boehly for $25 million, Kang upped her initial $21 million offer to $35 million. The team’s debt holders responded with a threat of legal action against Baldwin if he did not accept the higher offer.
Baldwin forged ahead in discussions with Boehly and, in turn, Kang convinced a number of the team’s debt holders to convert their notes to equity and acquired and converted some of those shares herself to improve her voting position, moves the NWSL board approved in January. Kang wound up with less than half of the total shares but still became the team’s largest equity holder—ostensibly opening the door for her to sell the team to herself.
Baldwin’s scathing letter came in response to the league board approvals, and a vote of the club’s equity holders over the future of the franchise was to follow.
Now, with Baldwin and Lynch voluntarily selling their stakes to Kang, the club will kick off the 2022 season next month—led by 19-year-old Trinity Rodman, who signed a record contract with the club earlier this month on the heels of the NWSL’s first CBA—without ownership uncertainty continuing to loom.