Spirit owner expands portfolio to include Lyon women

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Spirit owner expands portfolio to include Lyon women

Washington Spirit owner Michele Kang, OL Groupe and Eagle Football Holdings announced an agreement Tuesday to form a global women’s football organization, which will include both the Spirit and Olympique Lyonnais Féminin. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Kang will be the majority owner of the new entity and will also serve as its CEO. Under Kang’s leadership, the group intends to expand to include multiple women’s football clubs across the world.
  • Kang will hold 52 percent of the new group. Meanwhile, OL will own 48 percent of the organization via OL Association (a public independent association consolidated by OL Groupe) with 12 percent and OL Groupe with 36 percent in exchange for contributions of a 50-year license of the brand. OL will not have voting rights and the remaining shares are set to become public tender by Eagle Football Holdings Bidco.
  • This move is only the latest in Kang’s efforts to grow her investment in the women’s game, following her $35 million takeover of the Spirit last year.
  • OL Groupe, who also oversees the men’s side at Lyon, will combine OL Féminin with Kang’s majority stake in the Spirit to form the new organization.

What they’re saying

The announcement follows U.S. businessman John Textor’s takeover of Olympique Lyonnais in December, adding OL Groupe to his football investments under his holding company Eagle Football. Textor also owns a stake in Crystal Palace, along with other European men’s clubs. Last month, OL Groupe confirmed their intention to sell their NWSL franchise, OL Reign, and have already received interest.

While Kang intends to acquire more women’s football clubs as part of the overall organization — she’s looking in Europe, Central and South America and Asia — the two clubs she’s starting with will retain their established individual identities. Kang plans to invest in both local and centralized infrastructure among both teams, citing plans for shared resources, particularly across performance science, staff development and scouting.

“This deal represents a major step forward in the history of women’s professional football,” Kang said in the news release Tuesday. “It brings together the unparalleled tradition of the 8-time Champions League winning OL Féminin and the dynamism of the 2021 NWSL Champion Spirit to usher our sport into a new era.

“It is a great honor to take stewardship of OL Féminin and lead this unprecedented effort on behalf of the fans, players and staff of both teams.”

Backstory

Kang’s entry into women’s football began with the Spirit. She made her original investment in the club in December 2020 through then-majority owner Steve Baldwin. After a contentious battle for control of the team with Baldwin, the NWSL approved her as the club’s majority owner in March 2022. The Spirit struggled on the field last year, but Kang has steadily built out the front office and technical staff. She hired Mark Krikorian (former Florida State coach) as general manager and president of soccer operations, as well as Mark Parsons as coach and Dawn Scott to head up a new performance, medical and innovation department.

Textor purchased Lyon in December 2022, adding the club to his other football investments via Eagle Football Holdings (which also includes Belgian club RWD Molenbeek and Brazilian side Botafogo, and a 40 percent stake in Crystal Palace F.C. of the Premier League). In February, Kang also acquired a minority stake in Eagle Football Holdings.

While in April, OL denied a report from French newspaper L’Equipe that suggested Kang would purchase the women’s team based in Lyon, it did confirm that OL Groupe’s ownership stake of OL Reign in the NWSL was up for sale.

“OL Groupe announces that it has given a mandate to sell its NWSL franchise to the investment bank of the Raine Group,” the statement said. The Raine Group previously served as the lead financial advisor for the sale of Lyon to Eagle Football.

“Olympique Lyonnais is happy and proud to have been able to build the new foundations of OL Reign, to have contributed to its sporting success (shield winner and semifinalist of the NWSL 2022), but also to have repatriated the team in Seattle with its fans and community, as OL Groupe committed to when it was acquired in 2019.”

Kang confirmed to The Athletic that OL Groupe’s sale of the NWSL franchise was already in discussion prior to her conversations with Textor and Eagle Football around this deal, and not a result of her potential conflict of interest. “This was not my request to do this deal, (they) have to sell,” she said. “This was already contemplated.”

Textor became chairman of the board of directors earlier this month for OL Groupe, and was appointed interim CEO, ending Jean-Michel Aulas’ tenure of leadership with OL (Aulus was appointed as honorary chairman at the same meeting). A week ago, Textor addressed a question about the “restructuring” of the women’s side of the club in a news conference, stating that it had been approved across two votes from the board, including by Aulas.

This past weekend, Kang attended Lyon’s victory in the final of the women’s Coupe de France, a 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain. The team’s captain, Wendie Renard, dedicated the win to Aulas and wrote in French, “This title is for you President Aulas, and the first with the new management Michele Kang and John Textor.”

With the deal formally announced, Kang also joins OL Groupe’s board of directors.

What this means for Lyon

As part of the new organization, OL Groupe has committed to supporting Lyon through the use of the existing facilities via Groupama Stadium, Groupama OL Training Center and OL Academy.

The logistics of how OL Féminin will be split from the men’s side do not appear to be finalized by any stretch.

“There’s a lot involved because you’re talking about shared services, a club that has operated in a certain way for so long across both the men’s and the women’s side with so many shared services, not only from facilities, but from people and medical,” Textor said during his news conference. “There’s a lot of work to be done on this.”

Kang reinforced that these conversations are ongoing in her interview with The Athletic, and expected to continue until the deal closes.

“Because Lyon has been part of a bigger organization, it takes some effort to figure out which portion we need to continue to get support from OL Groupe,” she said.

For her, the expectations for Lyon’s continued excellence in France and in Champions League play remain unchanged.

What this means for the Spirit

In the immediate short term, the theory is that not much will change drastically. The Spirit, along with Lyon, will retain their identity. There were already plans in the works to overhaul the Spirit’s branding, which complements its aspirations for a place in a new global organization.

Kang noted in her interview with The Athletic that the Spirit is seven weeks into the 2023 season as the only undefeated team left standing.

“Right now, our focus is going to be: each team (does) their best, especially the Spirit,” Kang said. “I don’t want them getting distracted.”

There will be opportunities, long term, for the Spirit to be part of Kang’s overall plans for centralized infrastructure around performance and development, but that’s not a project for this summer.

Kang also reaffirmed her commitment to building a dedicated training facility for the Spirit, after previously stating the scope of her ambitions on that front earlier this season.

“We’re talking about 70 (to) 90 acres of land and building not only the best pitches, but the training center with state-of-the-art technology, the data, the adjacent market, all the performance-related technology, all housed together,” she said. “We’re going to build it.”

What this means for OL Reign

With both Portland Thorns FC and the Chicago Red Stars already up for new ownership in the NWSL — at the same time as ongoing expansion projects — adding a third team for sale unexpectedly was probably not on the NWSL’s to-do list.

“We’re aware of OL Group’s interest in exploring the sale of OL Reign and will continue to work closely with them to ensure any potential owner(s) are aligned with our league’s vision and values,” a league spokesperson said in a statement on April 12.

When OL Groupe purchased its controlling stake in the Reign in 2019, it only cost $3.51 million for 89.5 percent of the club. That figure looks quaint now, considering the price tag for the Bay Area’s expansion fee ($53 million) and what a sale of powerhouse Portland could fetch considering its pedigree and profitability.

With Raine Group leading the sale process, Textor is likely expecting a decent return on the original purchase price from before his time. Per L’Equipe, he’s expecting €50 million ($54 million) for the Reign.

For the team, following a relocation to Tacoma, then back to Seattle and moving into Lumen Field, it’s more uncertainty over what the next step for the club might look like. If the right local buyer steps up, however, there’s huge potential waiting to be unlocked. The Reign has the players and the right stadium. They’ve just been waiting for the right owner with ambition. Under their own control, the Reign could and should be a major player in the NWSL.

And if nothing else, there’s a chance the original Reign badge — one of the all-time best in the NWSL — could return. While the lion eating a Pringle will be missed in its own way, the Reign has a chance to return to its roots.

What happens next?

Tuesday’s announcement marks the signing and creation of the new organization under Kang’s ownership and control, but the deal is not yet actually closed. It is awaiting approval from the NWSL Board of Governors.

“We anticipate that (closing date) to be around June 30, but it really depends on the NWSL approval process, because of OL Reign,” Kang said. “I think for all practical purposes, we’re going to start having more strategic conversations come this fall.”

The sale process has started. In the meantime for Kang, already majority owner of a team in the NWSL, “there’s going to be a clear firewall,” she said.

“I’m not going to have anything to do with OL Reign,” Kang said. “In the context of our group, if there is any conversation about OL Reign, I’ll recuse myself.”

Merritt Paulson announced he planned to sell the Thorns on Dec 1, 2022, and Arnim Whisler announced the sale of the Red Stars on Dec. 5, 2022. Both teams are still awaiting new owners as of May 16. The sale of OL Reign is considerably less complicated than either of those transactions, but there’s still due diligence that has to happen from a prospective buyer and the NWSL.

As for Kang’s massive project to build a global women’s football organization, there’s plenty on the to-do list, but she expressed multiple times her excitement over prospective match-ups between the Spirit and Lyon — which she wants to see in D.C. and France. As for the next few months, she’s waiting for the deal to close and to handle the immediate logistical issues.

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty)