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NWSL vote clears way for Michelle Kang to take over ownership of Spirit

Y. Michele Kang, left, has been locked in a contentious battle for control of the Washington Spirit with managing partner Steve Baldwin. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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The fight for control of the Washington Spirit — one that began last summer amid turmoil over treatment of players and threatened to overshadow the team’s championship run — turned in Y. Michele Kang’s favor Saturday when the National Women’s Soccer League cleared the way for her to consolidate power.

The league’s board of governors voted unanimously to allow the Spirit’s non-equity, nonvoting investors, many of whom back Kang, to become shareholders. With their support as well as her purchase of other equity stakes, Kang would be in position to take over ownership from Steve Baldwin, who has had controlling interest in the club since 2019.

“We believe Michele is fully committed to elevating this club and delivering for its players and it is now a matter for [Washington Soccer Properties] shareholders to determine who holds a controlling interest,” the board said in a written statement. “We are committed to allowing the required ownership process to be resolved in the appropriate, orderly manner.”

In announcing results of the vote, the NWSL said, “WSP will now engage in a process to determine whether Kang will receive sufficient support of its voting members, as required by the WSP bylaws, to operate the Washington Spirit as its controlling owner.”

In other words, the NWSL will bless Kang’s takeover of the team from Baldwin if the other investors coalesce around her. And from all indications, that seems to be happening.

Among those backing her are Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader who was among many well-known investors who Baldwin signed up last year. Daschle told The Washington Post last month that he supported Kang in her battle with Baldwin.

Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager, who also joined the investment group last year, were also planning to support Kang, people familiar with the situation said.

“All those people Baldwin brought in,” one person said, “came back to bite him in the butt.”

Full ownership of the team has been held by three individuals: Baldwin, Kang and Bill Lynch, who founded the Spirit in 2013 and sold controlling interest to Baldwin in 2019. Kang, founder of a health care technology company, joined the group in December 2020.

Through a spokesman, Kang said she did not want to comment and deferred to the league’s announcement. Baldwin did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Baldwin had entered into exclusive negotiations to sell his controlling interest to Todd Boehly, a billionaire who is part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dodgers and Sparks. Boehly and partners were prepared to pay $25 million — $10 million less than Kang offered.

In the past month, though, a group of investors, including Daschle, threatened legal action against Baldwin if he did not sell to the higher bidder. Also, Kang and some investors hired high-powered attorney Beth Wilkinson to represent them, increasing pressure on the league to step in.

On Tuesday, both Baldwin and Kang were asked to address the board, people familiar with the meeting said. Baldwin spent an hour, one person said, listing all the reasons Kang should not run the team. “It was mostly petty stuff,” that person said.

Kang had the support of the Spirit players, who, amid an unbeaten streak last fall that ended with the club’s first title, wrote a public letter urging Baldwin to sell to Kang.

The NWSL is struggling to recover from allegations of coaching abuse and sexual misconduct that prompted an outcry from players and fans last season. The Spirit was among the teams stung by controversy.

In August, Coach Richie Burke was accused of verbally and emotionally abusing players. Kang repeatedly confronted Baldwin over the treatment of women at the club, 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 subsequently stepped down as the Spirit’s chief executive.

“Our collective focus is to create the best environment for the Washington Spirit players, fans, and team employees, and to operate the NWSL in a manner that supports excellence on the field of play and in front offices around the league,” the board said. “Our priority is determining what is in the best interest of the NWSL, Washington Spirit, its players, and the D.C. soccer community.”