Cutting Timbers Ties May be Tricky for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns

When the Portland Thorns made their debut as one of the NWSL’s eight inaugural clubs in 2013, their shared ownership with Merritt Paulson’s MLS side, the Portland Timbers, was presumably a positive for a new team in a new league.

Sharing a front office with an MLS team with well-capitalized owners provided the Thorns with more resources and human capital than many of their competitors within the NWSL and created opportunities of scale.

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But now, as Paulson looks for new owners for the Thorns without selling the Timbers, the downsides of that overlap are on full display. A change in ownership will likely leave the reigning NWSL champions without much of the infrastructure typically handed over in a standard team sale.

The shared resources of the two clubs, both of which Paulson controls alongside his father, Hank, under their Peregrine Sports umbrella, are extensive, and require separating the Thorns from much of the staff that has supported the club for its entire existence.

“If you have teams that are under common ownership, especially in the same sport, you’re absolutely going to have synergies,” Sean Clemens, director and principal at Park Lane investment bank, said. “It’s an interesting situation for a buyer. I imagine they’d want to build out a Thorns-only staff, but that’s probably not going to happen day one. It’s probably going to be a mix and match where you’re leveraging some of the existing front office and leadership team that’s on the Timbers side until you figure out what that ultimate landing point is.”

Whoever ultimately purchases the Thorns won’t start from scratch. New ownership will likely inherit the team’s dedicated technical staff—general manager, coaches, athletic trainers and other medical staff members—and acquire its player rights, branding and an established fan base (so long as the team remains in Portland, which is expected).

The club also comes with some corporate sponsor commitments. But in the aftermath of a pair of investigations into misconduct within women’s soccer, which implicated Paulson and prompted the sale of his women’s soccer property, some Thorns and Timbers sponsors cut ties with both organizations. Others redirected committed dollars toward the NWSL side or outside organizations. Significant overlap still exists in the remaining relationships, and new owners will have to untangle the agreements and negotiate revenue shares as they work to strike their own deals, all factors that could impact the final purchase price.

The same financial and logistical overlap exists within the rest of the Thorns’ business operations. Front office and executive staffers from all departments—general counsel, finance, ticket sales, corporate partnerships, marketing, fan experience, stadium operations, human resources, communications and so on—support both organizations. Even the Thorns website is housed within the Timbers domain.

(The Houston Dash’s landing page is similarly nestled within its MLS counterparts, the Dynamo, as is the Orlando Pride’s within Orlando City SC.)

Prospective buyers will have to negotiate continued staff sharing, perhaps as a temporary bridge (one that would have to account for the black cloud hanging over Paulson’s ownership) or build out an entire front office and support staff prior to the transition.

“A clean break sounds great in theory, but I imagine it’d be pretty hard to execute right away,” Clemens said. “You’re not generally pulling out a team from its partner team, where those employees sit under the other team.”

To be clear, the Thorns are not the first franchise to be extricated from shared ownership. The WNBA’s New York Liberty were spun out from Madison Square Garden Sports in 2019 when the franchise was sold to Joe Tsai, who was, at the time, a minority owner in the Brooklyn Nets. (Tsai took full control of the Nets later that year). Some of the few dedicated Liberty personnel within MSG transitioned with the team—including the team’s now-CEO Keia Clarke—giving its new owners some staff to build around and providing a potential blueprint for the Thorns.

Then there’s the Thorns’ home venue, Providence Park. The city of Portland owns the venue, but Peregrine Sports holds its operating rights, which will remain with Paulson and the Timbers. Paulson would like the Thorns to remain at Providence Park, expressing his commitment to “providing favorable usage terms … that will enable the Thorns to continue to capitalize on their popularity in Portland.” Negotiating a lease from Peregrine Sports would mean agreeing to rent costs and revenue splits for concessions, parking, suites and sponsorships.

The leading bidder for the Thorns—an all-women investor group led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong, now a managing partner at Next Ventures—wants to keep Providence Park as the team’s home venue, according to someone familiar with the process who was not allowed to speak publicly. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Thorns would have to remain there as tenants of the Timbers if alternative arrangements can be made with the city. (The Strong-led bid would reportedly value the three-time NWSL champions—with their robust revenues and attendance on par with many MLS clubs—at $60 million.)

The group is presumably looking for fewer ties to Paulson’s ownership, but Peregrine, as the incumbent, likely holds the cards in this scenario, Clemens says.

“It’s tough to envision a new group having the leverage to carve out their own portion of that operating control or management rights,” he said. “It’s not just the city and Peregrine and then Peregrine subbing out something to the new owner. It’s now the city restructuring their deal with Peregrine. All of a sudden it becomes a tri-party discussion, and these things take a long time to negotiate with municipalities.”

New owners will also have to find or build new training facilities for the Thorns. Construction timelines would make building—training grounds or even their own stadium, if land were available, though the latter possibility hasn’t yet been raised publicly—a longer term endeavor.

Carving out their own operational rights, even as a temporary solution, would be valuable for new ownership, as would having a business staff fully dedicated to the Thorns. The club could better maximize revenue streams like sponsor dollars, for example. These are the nuances that will dictate final purchase price and establish a timeline for transition for one of the NWSL’s most valuable teams. But they’re also the ones that make this sale thornier than others.

(This story was updated in the 14th paragraph to include additional reporting on potential owners.)

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