Paulson, Thorns perfect model for NWSL
Merritt Paulson doesn't want to be a role model. Not for other women's soccer owners, anyway. But when your team is the gold standard for a fledgling league, these things are going to happen.
Paulson's Portland Thorns are not merely leading the National Women's Soccer League in attendance less than 10 games into its inaugural season, but blowing away the next closest competition by three times in average per game and more than twice in total attendance -- and setting a new precedent for an expansion team in the first year of a professional women's sports league.
But Paulson, one of the most charismatic and outspoken owners in Major League Soccer as majority owner of the Portland Timbers and former owner of the Triple-A Portland Beavers, is hardly gloating.
"There are a lot of different things," Paulson said when asked why soccer works in Portland. "But, at the end of the day, it's pretty simple. Portland just loves soccer and the Thorns benefitted exponentially from having the organization that launched it already doing soccer and doing it well.
"The league came together extremely late and a lot of teams didn't have the time for advance ticket sales or marketing, and didn't have the organizational infrastructure around the team. We had all that, so it was definitely an easier start."
The Timbers have more than 15,000 season-ticket holders, their waiting list at more than 8,000, and Paulson's team relied heavily on that in order to develop a fan base for the Thorns, which counts approximately half of the Timbers' season-ticket holders as their own.
But he is the only MLS team owner who agreed to take on a women's team in a league with two failed predecessors in the Women's Professional Soccer League (2009-11) and the Women's United Soccer Association (2001-03) -- and for that, others are grateful.
"I did want Portland and Merritt in the league," said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who was at the forefront of the formation of the new league. "He's symbolic of a new generation of young sports entrepreneurs. And now, in addition, we have an owner who is committed, dynamic, who we knew would be successful and he has proven all of that."
Paulson said when U.S. Soccer decided to pick up the salaries for national team players in the league, it was a tipping point to join in. "I felt we had the best market and I owed it to the effort of the women's side to be sort of the poster child for women's soccer," he said.
That does not mean he was not slightly apprehensive.
"My nervousness was two-fold," Paulson said. "I didn't want to distract from the core mission of the Timbers because we have our hands full there. And second, the history of women's pro soccer and women's pro sports in general does not have a history marked by success. But I do think some fundamental things have changed; Sunil is a friend and it was important for the league to have an established organization behind it to show folks what this is capable of being."
NWSL executive director Cheryl Bailey said it is that sense of responsibility which came shining through in her dealings with Paulson, who is typically the first one in the office in the morning and the last to leave at night.
"We talked about him pouring his heart and soul into both teams and the care and enthusiasm was striking to me," Bailey said. "This is somebody who totally has a passion for what he is doing, and whether it's men or women, you couldn't ascertain a difference in him. ... Clearly, there is a risk when you've seen the two leagues before you not be successful and now you're asked to come into the third.
"We couldn't have said at the beginning of the year that they would have the crowds they are getting. We thought they would be good, maybe 5, 6,000. But they're getting over [13,000] each week and more. Clearly, he stepped up to the plate and has had an extreme amount of success."
The Thorns have drawn an average of 13,118 fans in four matches at JELD-WEN Field (capacity 20,647) with the next closest, FC Kansas City, averaging 4,849, also in the first four games. Last Saturday's match between the Thorns and Chicago Red Stars drew a crowd 12,446 despite the well-publicized fact that the Thorns were without four starters who were playing for their U.S. and Canadian national teams in Toronto.
"It was very important for U.S. Soccer and the [NWSL] owners to have at least one MLS owner, and there's no market like Portland," said Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler. "It doesn't surprise me that it caught on there earlier than the rest.
"There aren't a ton of other alternatives that compete with people who want to go see women's soccer. Portland has a little bit of a European feel, a different vibe than other places in the country. ... They also have the University of Portland, which has had one of the strongest collegiate soccer programs for years, so it's a great hotbed for the sport."
As Gulati points out, however, "There are more than a few cities in the country where people love soccer but they're not selling out every game. Clearly, [Portland is] the flagship team in the league," he said. "If other teams reach 75 percent [of the Thorns' attendance], they would be extraordinarily successful."
But attendance is just a part of the equation.
"Their supporters and culture is wonderful," Whisler said. "But the team's professionalism -- the way they run games, their marketing and social media -- is something we can learn from."
Paulson, the son of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Henry Paulson, said he is happy to offer advice if asked, but said 2014 will be the "real litmus test" for some markets. "I don't want them unfairly compared to us. If they can get 4-5,000 fans [this season], they're doing a good job."
"I'm happy for him," said Chris Likens, who heads the FC Kansas City ownership group. "I never met him before the owners meetings and I generally liked the guy. You can tell he loves soccer and loves what he's doing. I think, for him, it was not a hard choice that he wanted to do this."