Just like many women of her generation, Michele Kang never once fathomed that becoming a soccer player could be an option for someone like her. Although she played soccer as a child in South Korea, she rediscovered her passion for the sport when she met the United States women’s national team, the current world champion, during their visit to the White House in 2019.
“Honestly, it’s more like soccer found me rather than the other way around,” said Michele Kang. “I didn’t really think much about soccer before diving into this industry. I mean, sure, I played it as a kid — it’s pretty big in Asia. I’ve always had respect for the game, but it wasn’t until I got invited to the reception at the Capitol after the 2019 World Cup that I found out there was a pro women’s league in the U.S. I knew soccer was popular in schools, but I had no idea about a professional league.”
In 2020, Kang overcame multiple obstacles to become the majority owner of the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). And she just acquired a 52% stake in Olympique Lyonnais Féminin (Lyon, France), the most successful team in women’s soccer history. The CEO of the first women-led, multi-club organization for women’s soccer joined us via videoconference from Lyon.
Her foray into women’s sports may seem unrelated to her successful career in the healthcare technology sector. But a look back at her life shows she has a history of challenging the status quo. In 2008, she founded Cognosante with the aim of revolutionizing the healthcare system in the United States. Now, 15 years later, she is applying the same drive to soccer. She is now driven by a passion for creating change, enhancing player conditions, and exploring the opportunities in women’s soccer from both sporting and business perspectives.
“I got really passionate about women’s soccer. I truly believe in women’s equality and fairness on the field. And I also see it as a fantastic business opportunity, which is why I’m fully committed.” said Kang, who has been close to players and fans since buying a stake in the Washington Spirit. The players publicly backed her as she aimed to become the majority shareholder in the NWSL team following abuse allegations against Richie Burke, the Spirit’s former coach under former team owner, Steve Baldwin.
“The person we trust is Michele. She consistently puts the needs and interests of the players first. She listens. She believes this can be a profitable business, and you [Steve Baldwin] have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership — that moment is now,” read the letter signed by the players and published in October 2021.
In February 2022, Baldwin and minority shareholder Bill Lynch agreed to sell their stake in the club to Kang, in what the Sports Business Journal described as the deal of the year. Impressive for a businesswoman with no prior soccer industry experience, who has successfully identified opportunities and improvements for the Washington Spirit, Olympique Lyonnais and the sport as a whole.
Kang is determined to break into an industry that has long been resistant to change. Unlike previous leaders, she is boldly revolutionizing women’s soccer from the very top. “In every business, when you’ve been inside for a while, it becomes really hard to see certain things because you get used to them. But for someone on the outside, it’s not so tricky to spot the issues that need fixing,” said Kang. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure out how to improve the training environment or how to coach women like women.”
The new methods gained popularity in the United States. Michele Kang’s Washington Spirit and clubs like Angel City, San Diego Wave and Kansas City Current have all embraced a new outlook on women’s soccer. The turning point has already happened in Europe, demonstrated by the 91,500 fans who attended the 2022 Champions League match between Barcelona and Wolfsburg at Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium.
Kang emphasizes the importance of maintaining momentum in women’s soccer by bringing together top athletes, investing in player-centric science and technology, and prioritizing an exceptional fan experience. “As owners and players, we must make sure we deliver the best product and create a value proposition that shows that it’s worthwhile spending your weekends with us.”
Women’s soccer still faces high hurdles, including disparities in playing styles across continents. “I don’t think it’ll be like, ‘this is how soccer is played in Europe versus how we play it.’ In the end, we can all learn from each other, which will make the game more fun and exciting. There’s still a lot of work to do in the global community. Right now, Europe and Asia have the most established leagues, but I really think we should come together and talk about how we can create more excitement and benefits,” she said.
Buying Olympique Lyonnais and establishing the first multi-club organization is a starting point for those changes. The French team is the dominant brand in women’s soccer, excelling both in their local league and the Champions League. It has been home to renowned players like Ada Hegerberg (Ballon d’Or winner in 2018), Eugénie Le Sommer (France’s top scorer of all time), and stars from the United States like influential activist and soon-to-retire player, Megan Rapinoe.
Michele Kang’s choice of Olympique Lyonnais to spearhead her vision is akin to choosing Real Madrid, the most successful team in the top European soccer leagues. “Ultimately,” she said, “it’s about all the young girls growing up in the world and dreaming of becoming professional soccer players. Of course, not all of them will want that, but at least now they’ll be able to chase after that dream.”
In the not-so-distant future, the trailblazing women’s soccer tycoon also hopes to conquer Latin America and Spain. “Hopefully, in the next month, there’ll be an announcement about the next team. Latin America, South America, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Nordic countries... They’re all super influential in women’s soccer, and we’re definitely keeping an eye on them.”
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