Steve Baldwin, the controlling owner of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit, told investors Thursday that he plans to sell the club, according to an email obtained by The Washington Post. The move comes after his players demanded the sale amid the ongoing fallout from an abuse scandal that has rocked the Spirit, the NWSL and the sport.
“I have heard the calls for change. I understand that many of our fans, players, and investors feel that the club requires new leadership, direction, and energy. And I agree,” Baldwin wrote in the email.
Baldwin did not name a specific buyer or say that one had been chosen, writing only that “a sale process for the club has commenced in earnest” — despite explicit calls from Spirit players that he agree to sell the team to his female co-owner, Y. Michele Kang. Baldwin said the process was “complicated” but that he expected it to be finished by the end of the year.
Baldwin, who has owned the Spirit since 2019, oversaw the hiring of Richie Burke as coach despite allegations that he had treated youth players abusively in the past. Burke was accused earlier this year of verbal and emotional abuse by multiple Spirit players in a story in The Post, and was fired following a league investigation.
Baldwin also presided over what current female employees told The Post was a toxic “old boys’ club” work environment at the Spirit, one that included the use of degrading nicknames for women by an executive and close ally of Baldwin’s, Larry Best.
Baldwin said earlier this month that he planned only to “step back” from the club, ceding his role as CEO and managing partner but retaining his ownership stake. Spirit players responded to that announcement with an extraordinary public rebuke, criticizing Baldwin’s decision to keep “a firm grip as majority owner” and calling for him to sell the team to Kang, a health technology CEO.
The explicit and public demands from the players, which had little precedent in American soccer, came after players in the WNBA successfully pressured Kelly Loeffler, the former Republican senator from Georgia who had been critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, to sell her stake in the Atlanta Dream.
“The person we trust is Michele,” the players wrote of Kang in a public message to Baldwin. “She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intend to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”
Baldwin and Kang have been engaged in discussions over the sale, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. But in a call with investors last week in which he discussed the possibility of a sale process, which was first reported by the Athletic, Baldwin had said that other buyers were potentially interested in the team.
The NWSL and Kang did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A two-week deadline for the Spirit to respond to the league’s investigation passed this week, but the NWSL has not yet said whether it will impose further sanctions on the team. It could still force Baldwin to sell the team back to the league, allowing the NWSL to oversee the sale process.
Baldwin’s decision to sell the team comes in the midst of turmoil across the NWSL. Days after the Spirit’s coach was fired following The Post story about his abusive treatment of players, another coach, the North Carolina Courage’s Paul Riley, was accused of sexual coercion and abuse in an article in the Athletic.
Player outrage ground the league to a halt (play was suspended for a weekend), forced the resignation of the league’s commissioner and sparked multiple investigations. As players returned to the field last week, their union demanded the league expand its investigation to examine possible abuse on all of the 12 teams that will play in the 2022 season and called for the suspension of officials accused of overlooking player abuse claims.
The Portland Thorns called for the suspension of the team’s general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, who had been aware of some of the players’ claims against Riley but, along with the Thorns owner, had not made them public, allowing Riley to be hired by another NWSL team months later. The Thorns placed Wilkinson on leave following the players’ demands but did not suspend him from his parallel role overseeing the men’s team.