Spirit’s Michele Kang Adds Lyonnais Feminin to Women’s Soccer Venture

Michele Kang will have the controlling interest in a new, still-unnamed company that will hold the NWSL’s Washington Spirit and Olympique Lyonnais Feminin, a top-flight French club. Kang will contribute her majority share of the Spirit in return for 52% of the new entity. The OL Groupe will put in Lyon’s women’s team in an all-stock deal and receive 48% of the venture.

The Spirit’s ownership structure will not change otherwise. Kang will join the OL Groupe’s Board of Directors and serve as CEO of the new female-owned and led women’s soccer organization, which she plans to expand beyond the two foundational clubs through acquisitions of other international women’s teams.

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“This was a vision all along—when I first took over the Spirit, our vision was to create a global platform,” Kang, who was in attendance Saturday when Lyon beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de France Féminine final, said in an interview. “As a single team, it’s very hard to make the necessary investment to improve the playing conditions, training facilities, performance programs and invest in R&D. I felt that there has to be scale and a singular focus that’s only dedicated to women’s soccer to take women’s soccer to that next level.”

The OL Groupe (OLG.PA) was acquired by American businessman John Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings in December. In February, Kang bought a minority stake in Eagle Football; two people familiar with the deal said it was done at a valuation north of $1 billion. Eagle also owns Belgian club RWD Molenbeek and Brazil’s Botafogo, including its women’s team, as well as a minority stake in the Premier League’s Crystal Palace F.C. It does not have a controlling interest in Crystal Palace’s women’s club.

The agreement between Kang and the OL Groupe is still subject to approval by the NWSL, which will have to balance the overlap in the OL Groupe’s U.S. soccer holdings. The OL Groupe still owns the league’s Seattle-based OL Reign franchise, and though a sale process is underway, a deal has not yet been completed.

The NWSL declined to comment, but Kang hopes the deal will get the league’s approval to close by June 30. Until then, she is focused on disentangling the women’s team from the infrastructure and staff it shares with Lyon’s men’s team.

“OL Féminin has a unique opportunity in this growing market to build the Olympique Lyonnais global brand for the benefit of OL Groupe and for our remarkable athletes,” John Textor, chairman of the OL Groupe and Eagle Football Holdings, said. “Today’s agreement with Michele creates the ideal vehicle to accomplish that objective, securing an exciting future for OL Féminin.”

Kang declined to disclose financial terms of the deal but did say a lack of precedent in Europe made it difficult to assess the club’s commercial value. A person with knowledge of the sale said Lyon’s women’s team was valued on par with current women’s soccer trends in the U.S. and the new baseline established by NWSL expansion fees, which Kang, at least in part, helped set. In 2022, she purchased the Spirit in a deal that valued the club at $35 million, a league-high at the time. One year later, the NWSL sold an expansion franchise to a private-equity-backed group in the Bay Area for a record $53 million fee.

For the OL deal, Kang was represented by a pair of law firms, Northridge Law in London and Hogan Lovells in the U.S. The OL Groupe’s corporate counsel is Gide Loretta Nouel; the company did not use outside advisors on the transaction. Eagle Football assisted only in its capacity as an OL shareholder.

Lyon’s eight-time champion women’s club—which sits atop the Division 1 Féminine rankings, the highest division of women’s soccer in France—has two games left on its schedule for the season. The club will continue to use the OL Groupe’s facilities, including the 59,186-seat stadium Parc Olympique Lyonnais (now known as Groupama Stadium), Groupama OL Training Center and OL Academy under a leasing agreement.

Kang, founder and CEO of healthcare tech firm Cognosante, was first tied to Lyon last month in the French newspaper L’Equipe. The OL Groupe quickly refuted the “inaccurate” report of Kang’s takeover of the women’s club, which it said included a commitment to cover the team’s deficit of €12 million (more than $13 million) annually, and, in the process, announced its intention to sell the OL Reign.

The group purchased the Reign in 2019 for $3.5 million. The club engaged the Raine Group to facilitate the sale of its NWSL side, the investment bank that ran the sale of the OL Groupe to Textor last year. If the deal goes through, Kang and the OL Groupe will be the only NWSL owners with stakes in international soccer.

After purchasing a minority stake in the NWSL’s D.C.-based team in 2020, Kang took over the Spirit in early 2022 after a long and contentious dispute for control. Since her takeover, Kang has repositioned the club on and off the pitch, hiring a new general manager and coaching staff and penning a deal with the D.C.’s Kennedy Center all in her first few months at the helm. This year, the club inked a multi-year deal with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield; renewed its front-of-kit sponsor, CVS Health; and struck a training kit deal with the District of Columbia. Kang also made MLS club D.C. United’s Audi Field the Spirit’s new home for all matches, instead of just some, initiated a rebrand and signed a broadcast partnership with Monumental Sports & Entertainment’s NBC Sports Washington for regional TV coverage of the Spirit’s regular season matches this season.

As she unites the Spirit and Lyon Féminin, Kang’s plans reflect an appreciation for both their local communities and the growing globalization of sports. Each club will retain its established identity and investments will fund individual infrastructure upgrades, but Kang also said significant money will go into shared resources such as data analytics, performance science and research (as Kang says, “women are not small men,”), global scouting and staff development. Certain marketing initiatives and sponsorships could also fall under the shared domain.

“I’m not doing this because it’s charity or my legacy,” Kang said. “I want to prove that this is a great business.”

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