Boehly, Kang Standoff Over D.C. Team Sale Heads to League Office

·6 min read

The sale of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit took another abrupt turn this week, lengthening a saga that began with a league-altering abuse scandal before turning to ownership infighting and behind-the-scenes maneuvers.

Despite the turmoil, the NWSL champions are likely to sell at a valuation greater than any other club in the league to date. Far less certain is who’ll be left standing when the ownership transfer is complete.

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For a while it appeared to be a group led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly. Last month the league announced the group was in exclusive negotiations to buy the team, at a price Sportico reported to be a league-record $25 million. Boehly is a billionaire, an established investor across a number of sports teams and companies, and has shown a willingness to put his money behind women’s sports through a minority stake in the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. But moves made by Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang, whose $35 million offer is 33% bigger than the Boehly group’s, have complicated the process and put the team’s fate largely in the league’s hands.

Representatives for the team, league and Kang declined to comment. Neither Spirit controlling owner Steve Baldwin nor Boehly responded to messages seeking comment.

The sale process began in October of last year, in the midst of a league-wide abuse scandal that implicated Washington head coach Richie Burke, whose eventual firing was accompanied by accusations that Baldwin created a toxic culture. At the time, the NWSL communicated to all three Spirit owners—Baldwin, Kang and Bill Lynch—that the league’s preference was that they all sell, according to multiple people familiar with the communications. On Oct. 14, Baldwin emailed club investors to say that he would start looking for a buyer.

While Baldwin and the league had hopes of wrapping up a sale by year end, a finish line no longer seems as close as it did even a few days ago, when Boehly’s group was ready to close the deal, according to people familiar with the discussions, who were granted anonymity as sale talks are still private.

In the background was another attempt to buy the team. Kang, who became the league’s first female co-owner in late 2020, began lobbying to take over almost immediately after Baldwin announced his intent to sell and quickly amassed a vocal group of advocates—Spirit players. In an open letter published on social media, an unspecified group of players urged Baldwin to sell to Kang, founder and CEO of healthcare tech firm Cognosante.

“The person we trust is Michele,” the players’ letter said. “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 intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”

Despite the player sentiment, Baldwin made clear he had no intention of selling to Kang, who made an initial $21 million bid.

Boehly’s solo interest in the club first surfaced in October, but the reports were met with pushback about the lack of a female owner. In response, US Squash board member Jennifer Mackesy and a handful of others joined in a Boehly-led group bid, which tapped Mackesy, a former retail executive and William & Mary college soccer player, as the franchise’s would-be representative at league meetings.

Shortly after Sportico reported on the Boehly group’s plan to buy the club for $25 million, Kang upped her offer to $35 million. A one-time management consultant and former vice president of Northrop Grumman’s health solutions division, Kang also received additional support among the roughly 40 investors who joined the club last February. (The group included Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager, Dominique Dawes, Briana Scurry and other notable names). More than a dozen of them, including former Sen. Tom Daschle, wrote a letter to Baldwin in late December supporting Kang’s $35 million offer and threating legal action if a lower bid was accepted.

As Baldwin pressed forward with Boehly’s group, Kang made another move. Those 40-plus investors who bought into the club did so by purchasing club debt that could later be converted into equity; Kang has leveraged that conversion option in an attempt to gain majority voting interest. She agreed to buy out one note holder, Devin Talbott, with the goal of converting his investment into equity (which equally dilutes shares from the three partners, according to someone familiar with the terms), and convinced a group of her supporters to do the same with their own holdings, as The Athletic first reported.

Kang subsequently sent a letter to the NWSL’s Board of Governors where she claimed Baldwin “no longer has control of the team or the ability to dictate the terms of any sale.” She reiterated her $35 million offer to acquire 100% of the team and her plans to invest another $25 million in the team’s infrastructure.

Much of what Kang announced in her letter still requires approval from the NWSL board—which requires a majority to approve any conversion of debt to equity, and any transfer of equity within teams. A super majority is needed to transfer control of a team. The board hasn’t yet scheduled a meeting to discuss any of those votes, according to one of the people, which would be needed for Kang to assume control. Should the conversions get approved and the transfers happen, Kang and her backers would gain control of the franchise, effectively letting her approve a sale to herself.

Boehly is now stepping back from the process as the league irons out the ownership wrinkles. While Boehly’s group has not officially withdrawn its bid, they do not want to make any other moves until there’s clarity, the people said. Boehly did not respond to a request for comment.

Several factors will influence the board’s votes on control of the team. When the board recommended last year that the Spirit owners sell, the communication was made to all three owners, Kang included, the people said. Her bid to assume control could be viewed as an affront to that recommendation.

Money also plays a role here. Transactions at any league reset the bar for expansion fees; a record franchise sale price would likely help the NWSL raise the barrier to entry for future teams. That’s happened notably in MLS, where high team sales have pushed the expansion fee from $40 million to $325 million in the last decade. A $35 million valuation could help reset the NWSL’s expansion fee, which was $5 million for the Kansas City Current, who joined the league last year.

The complicated sales process also comes as the league and its players union try to hammer out its first collective bargaining agreement, a critical step toward long-term stability.

For now, the people involved in the Spirit sale are waiting on the NWSL’s next move. Kang’s $35 million offer is still on the table, at least for now. In her letter earlier this week, Kang said she’d honor it “for a reasonable time.”