American businesswoman Michele Kang does not like to be photographed nor videoed. She does not like press conferences either. In fact, she has never done one before.
But as she looked out at journalists from Lyon’s media room, the new majority owner of Olympique Lyonnais Feminin (OLF), did not hold back.
Kang, who already owns NWSL side Washington Spirit and England Women’s Championship team London City Lionesses, said the practice environment for Lyon’s women “is not the best”, the training centre is “not up to the standard that players deserve” and it is “unacceptable” that the women’s team play most of their games at the 1,200-capacity training-centre stadium.
This is Lyon, juggernauts of the women’s game, who boast a record eight Champions League and 16 league titles and have historically paved the way. The women’s club is now officially a separate entity — “full and independent” — from the men’s team, majority-owned by U.S. businessman John Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings group, which also has a share in Premier League club Crystal Palace.
Kang, however, is trying to raise the bar for OLF. She has been working with them since May. This is not just about trophies, she says; she wants to focus on professionalising women’s football, a strategy she has already tried to implement with the Spirit with varying degrees of success.
At OLF, Kang’s plans include:
- “Training women as women” with specialist performance staff.
- Building a bigger dedicated women’s training campus in another location.
- Constructing a 15,000-to-20,000-capacity stadium for the women’s team.
- Engaging fans to increase attendance.
“This is the new beginning for OLF,” she said. “From now on, it’s going to be moving forward. This is almost a necessity. This is not a luxury. This is not a vanity purchase. This is really a necessity for women because there isn’t enough revenue coming in. But we have to invest. It’s a chicken-and-egg question.”
So how will it all work?
How does the OLF deal work?
Kang has bought a 52.9 per cent stake in OLF. The other 47.1 per cent is owned by OL Groupe, a French holding company controlled by Textor’s Eagle Football Holdings, via OL Association (a public independent association consolidated by OL Groupe) and Olympique Lyonnais SASU.
In summary… it’s complicated.
In May, OL Groupe and Eagle Football Holdings announced an agreement to form a new global women’s football organisation, which includes both Washington Spirit and OLF. That agreement has now been completed.
But, originally, OL Groupe was supposed to bring OLF into a joint structure with Kang, who would have brought Washington Spirit with her to form the new organisation. However, Kang has directly invested into OLF, making her the majority shareholder. That means Kang has more control of the global multi-team platform and more flexibility with how she wants to shape it. She would not comment on how much she paid for her 52.9 per cent stake.
Kang is OLF’s president and Vincent Ponsot, former general manager of Lyon’s men’s football, has been named as CEO.
The deal took so long to finalise because, according to Kang, “separating the technical business side is challenging” and she wanted to ensure “all the constituents and communities understand what the new change is all about”.
Why did Kang want to make OLF independent from the men’s side?
Kang said she wanted the women’s team to have “full necessary resources”.
Many European women’s teams are affiliated to men’s clubs and so all the power and decision-making is focused on the men’s side because they bring in more revenue. The women’s teams are usually second in line. “It’s an issue,” said Kang. “The resource allocation could be very challenging.”
By being separate, however, OLF are not going to be subjected to someone else’s whims and Kang can have full focus on the women’s team.
OLF will, though, still share some of the men’s team resources. Kang said she has “no shame in copying and borrowing best practice” and OL Groupe has contractual obligations to existing contracts in terms of marketing agreements.
So what is changing?
Kang wants to provide a specialised staff and training environment for women.
“As my head of performance says, women are not small men, so they should not be trained based upon the training manuals developed by men,” said Kang.
Kang has already significantly increased the number of training staff working with OLF. There used to be a handful, split between men and women, and now there are 26 dedicated staff for the women’s team, including a head of performance, full-time nutritionist and psychologist.
“I wanted a dedicated staff, focused only on women,” said Kang. “When they get up in the morning, they only think about women athletes, not men and women.”
Next, is the women’s training facility. Lyon’s campus is “primarily for men”, according to Kang. Her “dream project” is to have a dedicated women’s and girls’ campus which would serve girls’ youth clubs, and run grassroots competitions and coaching clinics.
“In a city like Lyon to get that 70 to 80 acres in one area is going to be pretty challenging,” she said.
The next long-term project is a new 15,000-to-20,000-seat women’s stadium.
The women’s team play some games, such as Champions League matches or fixtures against rivals Paris Saint-Germain, at the club’s 58,000-capacity Groupama Stadium. But the majority of their games are at their 1,200-seat training-centre stadium. Kang recognises the jump between 1,200 and 58,000 is too big and is looking for a middle ground. Her team have visited sites in the metropolitan area and city centre. Kang’s desire is to be as close to the city centre as possible but no decision on location nor timing has been made.
Increasing stadium attendance is a key pillar of Kang’s strategy. When speaking to women’s players, she cites their wishes are not to be paid more but to “play against the best players, the best teams in a sell-out stadium.”
To do that, Kang needs to understand who is interested in women’s football. When she first arrived in Lyon she asked people why they did not attend women’s games. Some of them replied: “You’re going to win anyway, so why should I come?” The competitiveness of the French league is a concern, given Lyon have won the last 16 out of 17 league titles. Kang called for other teams to “raise the bar and join this effort.”
According to her research, among European teams there is only a five to 10 per cent overlap between those who attend men’s games and those who attend women’s matches. Her job is to find out if it is because there are different fan bases or if women’s teams have not marketed their games effectively.
Kang hired survey, marketing and rebranding firms to get a better picture of fans’ profiles. She conducted a survey of 6,000 Lyon citizens and within 48 hours, she received 4,500 responses, the quickest response rate she says she has ever seen in her business career. Her next plan is then to build an appealing match-going experience for different groups of fans.
“Not all fans are created equal,” she said. “Once you start (building communities) then the media and the sponsors are going to come. The foundational block is to bring the fans to the stadium.”
Will Kang spend much time in Lyon?
Kang conceded she will not be in Lyon all the time but would attend as many games as she could. The 64-year-old also believes her full-time presence is not necessary.
Kang is not a football expert — she admitted she was criticised for not knowing who Lionel Messi was — and her leadership philosophy is to set a vision, goals and make sure everyone understands them.
“You put the money where your mouth is and provide all the tools and infrastructure and then hire the best coaching staff, best performance staff and the best roster and then let them go for it,” she said.
Kang identified the lack of resources and attention devoted to the women’s game. “As a business person, I saw this as an opportunity to totally change the course for women’s football. With just a little nudge and a little investment, I saw the possibility of how women’s football could just explode.
“I saw women’s football, not just as a best sport, but as a commercial viability. I don’t want women’s football to be a charity and treated that way. This is a viable commercial business. Our players are the best. We can get as close as we can to other men’s leagues and men’s teams and athletes.”
What about the expansion of her global organisation?
When Kang spoke to The Athletic in May, she said: “The ambition is to add three to five teams by the end of the year (2023), if we do everything right.”
Those plans have not materialised in that timeframe. In December, she bought London City Lionesses and Kang confirmed there are plans for matches between her clubs Washington Spirit, Lyon and London City Lionesses to take place. Washington Spirit staff also visit Lyon to ensure the same methodology and research practices are used.
“Regardless of the structure, it’s about a scale of investment and sharing all the necessary information across as many teams as possible,” she said.
This week, the Lionesses parted ways with head coach Carolina Morace and assistant coach Nicola Williams, the day after their League Cup match at home against Arsenal had to be postponed owing to a waterlogged pitch.
As for future expansion, Kang revealed she was “engaged in some conversations” and “receives a lot of requests.” She does not want women’s football to be limited to the U.S., France or England, instead wanting to reach “as many places as possible” around the world “so that young girls growing up don’t think that’s just the dream.”
“I want this to be in their backyards,” she added. “We will go where it is going to have a high impact. That’s really the acceleration of women’s sports, globally, not just England, France and America.”
(Top photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images)
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