The turmoil at the Washington Spirit has now cost the club at least one of its major sponsors: Sandy Spring Bank tells City Paper it has cancelled its sponsorship agreement with the Spirit. The Maryland-based bank became the club’s first-ever official banking partner at the end of 2019 and, earlier this year, announced the renewal of that agreement through 2023.
But amid a tumultuous season that has seen head coach Richie Burke fired for cause after an league-led investigation into alleged abusive behavior, accusations of a toxic workplace culture, and a public ownership battle, the Spirit has now been hit with the exit of a key sponsor.
“The Bank has canceled its sponsorship of The Washington Spirit based on the results of an investigation by the National Women’s Soccer League,” a Sandy Spring Bank spokesperson says in a statement. “Sandy Spring Bank is committed to an inclusive workplace where all employees are valued and treated respectfully. We expect the same in all organizations that we sponsor or partner with.”
The team has worn the Sandy Spring Bank logo on its jersey sleeves throughout 2021 and the bank was prominently featured on in-stadium signage during home games at Audi Field and Segra Field. The two organizations have also partnered on local charitable efforts, working with Toys for Tots and Comfort Cases.
The Spirit has endured a rocky period that began with a bombshell Washington Post report in August that detailed Burke’s alleged verbal and emotional abuse of several players. Burke’s behavior led to his dismissal after a league investigation, and also drew the ire of fans who questioned his hiring in the first place. Burke faced similar accusations of abuse during his coaching career prior to joining the Spirit.
Much of the ire has been aimed at the man who hired Burke: team owner Steve Baldwin. The club’s fan groups have demanded he sell his stake in the team to his co-owner Y. Michele Kang. The Spirit Squadron supporters’ group has announced it is limiting game-day activities like chants, flags, and drums until its concerns are addressed.
Kang has called on Baldwin to relinquish his stake in the team, saying in a letter to Spirit fans and investors last month that Baldwin and co-owner Larry Best had created a toxic culture at the team.
“An archaic and hierarchical command-and-control mindset, built on bullying and cronyism, left no room for the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Kang wrote.
On Tuesday, after the Post and the Athletic reported that Spirit players had sent a letter to Baldwin urging him to sell the team, he announced he would be resigning as managing partner and CEO of the Spirit immediately. Baldwin did not, however, indicate whether he would also sell his stake in the team.
That was not good enough for Spirit players, who publicly called on Baldwin to sell his stake in the team to Kang later on Tuesday night.
“We don’t have reason to believe you won’t be involved,” the players said in a letter to Baldwin. “This is not a fresh start.”
Another Spirit sponsor, Pepco, tells City Paper that the company has been disappointed with recent developments and has been reviewing whether it would renew its agreement with the club, which expires at the end of 2021.
“At Pepco, Safety and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are our two most important core values,” a company spokesperson says in a statement provided to City Paper. “We hold our employees, our contractors and our community partners to these same values. Because of this, we were disappointed and saddened to learn of the allegations against Washington Spirit personnel and are pleased to see that action is being taken to address the situation and the personnel involved. We are working to understand more about the incidents that led to these allegations to ensure we make a fully informed decision about our sponsorship with the team going forward.”
Several other sponsors have opted not to comment on the status of their partnership with the club.
Kelyn Soong contributed to this report.