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Washington Spirit investors seek help from attorney Beth Wilkinson, who led WFT probe

Steve Baldwin watches play in 2021. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)

A group of investors fighting for control of the Washington Spirit enlisted Beth Wilkinson, a high-profile attorney who investigated allegations of workplace misconduct and sexual harassment at the Washington Football Team, to represent them, increasing pressure on the National Women’s Soccer League team even as the sale of the Spirit to an outside billionaire nears completion.

Steve Baldwin, the Spirit’s managing partner, is close to finalizing a sale to Todd Boehly, part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks, three people close to the situation said. That deal would shut out Baldwin’s co-owner, Y. Michele Kang, who, according to a letter obtained by The Washington Post, has offered $10 million more than Boehly’s $25 million.

In an interview Monday, Wilkinson framed the turmoil at the Spirit, and Baldwin’s move to sell the team for about 30 percent less than Kang’s offer, as partly an issue of gender.

“I don’t understand, as a woman businessperson myself, why [Baldwin] won’t take much more money from a woman and other investors who are already involved in the team,” Wilkinson said. “I want to help them in any way I can.”

Boehly initially planned to buy the team alone. But after an outcry from fans, he added Jennifer Tepper Mackesy, a retail executive and philanthropist, to the deal.

Todd Boehly, Jennifer Tepper Mackesy in talks to buy Washington Spirit

Kang has the support of the Spirit’s players. In a letter in October, they called for Baldwin to sell the team to Kang, saying she had earned their trust over the course of the 2021 season.

The NWSL, which is largely dominated by White, male owners, is struggling to recover from allegations of coaching abuse and sexual misconduct that prompted an outcry from players last season. The league has given indications that it supports the sale of the team to Boehly, according to two people close to the situation.

But Wilkinson’s involvement, and the ongoing threat of a legal battle pitting a prospective female owner against Baldwin, could put pressure on the NWSL.

Wilkinson has been involved in many high-profile cases and recently led the NFL’s investigation of allegations against the Washington Football Team — a situation not unlike what the Spirit experienced last year.

Daniel Snyder pledged support for the NFL’s investigation. His actions tell a different story.

In August, Coach Richie Burke was accused of verbally and emotionally abusing players. Kang also repeatedly confronted Baldwin over the treatment of women at the club, The Post reported, which included a top executive and close ally using degrading nicknames for female employees and players.

Baldwin, in turn, accused Kang of meddling in the team’s “day-to-day affairs” and “compromising” its messaging.

A league investigation resulted in Burke’s firing. The team also was banned from league governance matters.

Baldwin backed out of an apparent deal this summer that would have made Kang the majority partner, and since then he has been adamant that he would not sell to Kang under any circumstances, several people close to the matter said.

Baldwin, who bought controlling interest in the team three years ago, had pledged to sell his stake by Jan. 1.

“It appears to me to be personality conflicts, which is the least professional way to resolve something that’s a business opportunity,” Wilkinson said.

Seventeen team investors who support Kang, including former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, wrote to Baldwin last month, saying failure to sell to the higher bidder could result in a lawsuit.

Baldwin and Boehly did not return messages seeking comment Monday. Through a spokesman, Kang said she did not want to comment.

The NWSL has not commented on the proposed sale to Boehly, but several people familiar with the talks said Marla Messing, the league’s interim chief executive, and the NWSL’s board of governors prefer Boehly over Kang.

Besides the $35 million offer, Kang has agreed to assume all liability. It’s unclear whether Boehly has done the same.

Wilkinson got involved recently through a friendship with author and journalist Claire Shipman. Shipman and her husband, Jay Carney, an Amazon executive and former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama, are among dozens of low-level Spirit investors. (Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post.)

Other investors include Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager and Alex Ovechkin, though none signed the letter to Baldwin.

“I hope [the league] understands the importance of selling this team for the highest value, first and foremost,” Wilkinson said. “That just seems like it’s good for everyone in the league. … And to have women involved with the leadership, to start fresh, the league would know better than anyone else how important that is for them, to have powerful women in charge of these teams.”

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