Transforming Spaces is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
Y. Michelle Kang did not expect to come here.
As the founder and CEO of Cognosante, a healthcare technology company, she had made a name for herself as “a successful businesswoman in her own right,” she said.
At this point in her career, she explained, she may start devoting more time to philanthropy. Instead, she became an influential figure in women’s professional football.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as passionate about women’s football as I am now,” Kang said.
In March 2022, she acquired the Washington Spirit, becoming the first woman of color to own a controlling interest in a team in the National Women’s Soccer League. The sale came after a lengthy controversy with players and fans demanding that then-CEO Steve Baldwin sell the team to Kang following allegations of abuse against the team’s former coach.
Just a year later, she is about to become the first woman to own and lead a multi-team football organization that includes both Spirit and French club Olympique Lyonnais.of All stock tradingis scheduled to close at the end of June, with a new independent legal entity set up with Kang as the majority owner.she is already talking to add More teams from all over the world will come together.
Despite Kang’s rising profile, questions remain about how far she can go in a league and sport where abuse is rampant and coaches fail to protect their players. Confidence in long-time NWSL coaches and staff may be at stake. Who knew abuse and turned away? How do I build a new culture from scratch?
Her reaction is equally dominated by investment and trust. Players and staff have endured “horrible conditions,” she said of her abuse allegations, including the accusations made by the coach of the team she owned. Promoted a toxic work culture For female employees.
“I don’t want to exaggerate that I’m a woman or a person of color, so I’m the only one who understands the players,” she said of the Washington Spirit members. I am very happy that I can offer them a little bit of trust, security and familiarity so that they feel comfortable coming to me and talking to me about any problem. ”
She wishes she could say that the acquisition of a NWSL team, the establishment of a multi-team organization and the desire to help change the culture surrounding women’s football were all part of a grand vision. But it’s not.
A few years ago, she didn’t know much about the sport. In fact, her friends even accused her of ignorance of one of the world’s most famous players, Lionel Messi.
what is her objection? “Well, I knew who Pele was.”
Mr. Kang grew up in a family where education was valued in Seoul. Her mother demanded excellence from her, and her father always kept telling her, “There’s nothing I can’t do if the boy next door can do it,” but this was growing up in South Korea in the 1960s. It was a rare feeling for her then.
When she began studying business and economics in Seoul, she found her dreams extended beyond her home country. The center of her business world was in America, so she finally decided to go to America with her parents’ blessing, she said. For a young single Korean woman at the time, this was a rather daring move. She holds a degree in economics from the University of Chicago and earned her master’s degree from the Yale School of Business.
And so the 30-year plan began instead of the 5-year plan. The goal was to gain enough experience to become the CEO of a large company. Her job kept her going. Kang said she has moved 20 to 30 times, she estimates.
In the midst of the recession of 2008, when she was about to join a big company, she started her own business. Like many entrepreneurial stories, what would become a multi-million dollar company, Cognosante, began in a room above her garage in her Washington, DC area.
Of Cognosante, she said, “I was working for a reasonably successful company. I thought that was my business career.”
That was in 2019, after the U.S. Women’s National Team won the World Cup that year, until Kang, whose business accomplishments were well known, was invited to join Spirit’s owner group. Her Kang didn’t know much about football, but she still had to run her own company, she recalled. But she was curious and spent six months getting to know her owners and players. She thought about the teaching she had already done. Why not?
She joined the owners group at the end of 2020, stepping into a league and team that would face public perception and extraordinary upheaval.
In the spring of 2021, she was informed of ongoing accusations of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of Spirit’s former head coach Richie Burke. Kang said several people came to her with concerns. Burke was fired from the team in September 2021. The allegations were detailed in a series of public reports, with many employees leaving the team amid reports of a toxic work culture.
Kang sought to seize majority control of the team as players and fans urged then-CEO Baldwin to sell the Spirit. The transfer of power was not easy. Spirit officials demanded that Mr. Kang become the new owner, but it took months before Mr. Baldwin resigned and Mr. Kang was able to acquire the stake he needed.
“Let’s be clear” A letter from a team player to Baldwin read:. “The person we trust is Michele. She always puts the needs and interests of the players first. She listens. She believes this can be a profitable business.” And you’ve always said you’re going to hand over the team to a female owner, and that moment is now.”
The transaction with Spirit ended on March 30, 2022.
In the summer of 2020, a diverse group of owners, including actors Natalie Portman and Eva Longoria, football legend Mia Hamm and tennis great Serena Williams, will create a team in Los Angeles, Angel City FC. Announced. 2022 will also see the addition of another expansion club, the San Diego Wave. An additional club, Racing Louisville FC, joined the league in 2021, the Utah Royals were sold, and their assets moved to a new Kansas City franchise, Current. The Utah Royals are set to return to the NWSL for the 2024 season, along with another expansion club, Bay FC. The league is now in its 11th season and is already considering further expansion.
None of this comes as a surprise to Kang, who seems stunned, if not frustrated, by some underestimating the women’s professional soccer league and why investments are being delayed.
“I have total respect for the people who have supported the team,” she continued, speaking of past NWSL owners. “But it was viewed as a charitable or non-profit organization and from my standpoint no business discipline was applied.”
That attitude is justified in a unique way, said Natalie L. Smith, an associate professor of sports management at East Tennessee State University who studies women’s soccer.
If Angel City demonstrates legitimacy through celebrities, Kang will demonstrate value through business investments, which will send a message to other potential investors, she said.
An economist at the University of Michigan,soccernomics“One is clearly the rise of women’s football, which has been long awaited, but now seems to be progressing quite rapidly. It’s being transformed around the world.”
Kang, who turns 64 this month, now speaks like a game student. She is eager to listen, learn, and work through the complexities of her team’s ownership, but not so much in her current mandate. This trait made her popular and trusted among the team’s players and staff.
“We don’t feel like women are little men,” she said, reflecting sentiments reflected in the lack of research done especially on women’s athletics. “We are not borrowing manuals from men’s soccer teams. We want to understand female physiology and biology and train athletes based on that,” she said.
So Kang hired an expert to develop a program on how training can and should change during the menstrual cycle. This is a worthwhile place to put her money, she says, and that her experience has helped her realize what her footprint can be in the larger world of football. said.
“There’s no reason you have to do it just for spirit,” she said, adding, “And frankly, it’s a really important investment to do it for one team.”
That’s part of what inspired her to think more globally. Kang focused on Lyon, a European powerhouse that has historically acquired top American players such as Ally Wagner, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. She excitedly spoke about her next steps in scouting players internationally, designing a training center and a larger stadium, and expanding.
Sports management professor Smith said of Kang’s expansion, “There’s always been a push and pull for good and good when it comes to the women’s football community. It’s benefiting these clubs.” She said, “She wants the game to grow, but she also wants her team to win.”
It will never be a smooth road. Questions are being raised about what could be a conflict of interest in an already questionable labor market. But for her, her biggest challenge may be with her fans outside the United States.
“Americans are a little more docile when it comes to sports and who runs them,” says co-author Szymansky.soccernomics‘ He added, ‘In Europe, people don’t see it that way. They say, ‘This is our sport, not yours. You may be here temporarily and we’ll give you back your due money if you put in money, but it’s not all about you. This is about sports. ”
Kang is undaunted.
“This is not rocket science,” she said with a smile.