Community ownership of Portland, Ore.’s two professional soccer teams could soon be on the agenda. A yearlong investigation by former acting attorney general Sally Yates found that the front office of the Portland Thorns, a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team, not only failed to cooperate with investigators but even tried to impede them. The Yates report ignited protests in the Rose City, and numerous corporate sponsors of PTFC—the umbrella term for the Thorns of the NWSL and the Portland Timbers of Major League Soccer—issued statements either distancing themselves from the club, cutting ties altogether, or diverting their sponsorship funds toward other causes. Feeling the political heat, owner Merritt Paulson fired executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub. Then, as public pressure kept building, Paulson announced that he would step down as CEO of the clubs, a maneuver that Oregonian sports columnist Bill Oram dismissed as “another empty gesture from an owner unaccustomed to being told he can’t have what he wants exactly the way he wants it.
But supporters of the Thorns and Timbers are not satisfied. A joint statement by the clubs’ rambunctious supporters’ groups—the 107ist, Timbers Army, and the Rose City Riveters—slammed “the toxic culture” inside the front office and issued a demand: “Merritt Paulson and Peregrine Sports need to sell the teams.”
On Saturday, outside the stadium where the Thorns and Timbers play, protesters unfurled banners that read “Merritt Paulson Protects Abusers,” “Change Takes
Time Effort,” and “Smash Patriarchy.” Todd Diskin, an organizer with the activist flank of the supporters’ group Soccer City Accountability Now, or SCAN, articulated three main goals: supporting the players, pressuring Merritt Paulson to sell both soccer clubs, and building a resilient soccer community ready to stand up for justice.
Also on hand were folks from Onward Rose City Project, a newly formed group that is pushing to make the Thorns and Timbers community-owned teams. The group unveiled its shiny website on Friday, and in its opening salvo stated, “We believe that community ownership of our Timbers and Thorns is the best path to have our teams live up to our ideals. It will build a positive culture and give us all a sense of committed connection.”
Chris Bright, an organizer with the Onward Rose City Project, told us, “The ownership of this club is going to change. That’s inevitable.” He explained that the group’s initial goal is “to symbolically start amassing capital that would essentially take the teams public.” Bright is a Portland-based technology entrepreneur who has been involved in taking public numerous companies. “We’d offer shares, we’d allow people to buy ownership in it, and then owners would vote for directors who would oversee and manage the team in a professional way.” Ultimately, he said, this model would instill “this amazing culture within the city, this pride within the city and the fan base to have that deep connection” with the club.
The Onward Rose City Project is accepting pledges online—shares go for $107 a pop, a shoutout to section 107 in the stadium, where the Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army make their home. This plan for public ownership is endorsed by the Rose City Riveters, the Timbers Army, and the 107ist. Bright said he had plans to meet over the weekend with Melanie Strong—the former Nike executive involved in a women-led effort to acquire an ownership stake in the clubs—and that he is open to collaborating with them. “Portland is the perfect market, the perfect fanbase, the perfect everything” for some form of community ownership, Bright told us. At press time, the group had already accumulated more than $7.3 million in pledges.
Tina Ettlin, known to many as Goth Capo for her work orchestrating chants at both Thorns and Timbers matches, also spoke at the rally on Saturday. She told the crowd, “Today tell Merritt to get fucked. Tomorrow tell the players that we love them.”
The next morning that’s exactly what fans did. Hundreds of supporters lined up across the street from the players’ entrance two and a half hours before kickoff, donning handmade signs pledging their support for Thorns players and flying banners reading, “There is no us without you” and “This club was made for you and me.” The atmosphere was celebratory. Each time a Thorns player approached the stadium, the crowd burst into chanting. Even the Thorns general manager, Karina LeBlanc, walked outside to lead a chant of “PTFC!”
SCAN also choreographed an in-stadium protest at the Thorns NWSL semi-final match against San Diego Wave FC. Ten minutes before the teams entered the pitch, activists held aloft “For Sale” signs, creating a dissident sea of red. Doing this ahead of the teams’ entrance was key, SCAN organizer Sofia Freja told us. “This is strictly for the benefit of folks in the stadium and to show the front office that we want the teams sold,” she said. “We want to show the players only positivity because they’ve been dealing with the brunt of all of this, so we are going to ensure that our in-stadium protest is not in their line of sight. We want them to be focused on all positive things.” The “For Sale” signs were abundant in the north end of the stadium, where the Rose City Riveters make their organized ruckus.
What once seemed impossible—the extrication of powerful men from their executive positions at PTFC—has now become a reality. But one powerful man remains firmly ensconced as owner: Merritt Paulson.
There may also be another bombshell coming. There is an investigation into systemic abuse in the NWSL that is being carried out by the league in conjunction with the NWSL Players Association. League Commissioner Jessica Berman told ESPN, “I think in the last two and a half weeks…feels, at least to me, a little bit like a shift to accountability.” Will this new report, once it’s issued, unleash a fresh wave of demands?
The politics are not working out for Paulson. In this bitterly divided country, during this bitterly divided election season, all three candidates for Oregon governor said in their last debate that Paulson should sell the team. It’s also worth noting that after the protest dust had settled, there was still a game to play: a game that the Thorns won 2-1. This shows that fans can protest and work toward public ownership, while also cheering for their favorite squad. Sports executives talk about fans having a sense of emotional “ownership” of their teams. The Portland fans want to turn that hokey phrase into a reality.