SBJ/March 18-24, 2013/Forty Under 40

Forty Under 40



Photo: CRAIG MITCHELLDYER
After accomplishing so much as the owner of the Portland Timbers before reaching his 40th birthday, Merritt Paulson is ready to tackle a more personal challenge.

He plans on dialing down his outspokenness.

“I’m trying to be a little bit less of the face of the team this season,” said Paulson, who turned 40 just last week. “I don’t mind being out there, but if the owner is too much a part of the story of the team, that’s ultimately a negative thing.”

Paulson said it was often necessary to be a bit brash and in the public eye in recent years as he attempted to make a deal for a soccer stadium for the Timbers and then help sell tickets for his team — in other words, create press attention. But that charisma and candor have paid off. The 20,000-seat Jeld-Wen Field opened in time for the Timbers’ MLS debut in 2011 and has been sold out for every game. The team has become one of the league’s big success stories and a sensation in Portland. Season-ticket sales are capped at 15,000, and more than 8,500 people are on a waiting list.

Games featuring the Timbers’ reserve players last season averaged more than 8,000 fans, with one game attended by more than 14,000. Most MLS teams rarely get 1,000 fans at their reserve-league matches.

But Paulson’s penchant for speaking out has gotten him in some trouble, as well. After a questionable penalty call against his team last Sept. 29, Paulson confronted a referee and later vented his frustration with a series of officiating critiques on Twitter. He was fined $25,000 by the league for his actions.

Still, he has few regrets about his inclination to tweet.

“Twitter has been a positive,” said Paulson, who has more than 8,000 followers and is known to tease Timbers’ player signings on the social media site. “There are times when you’re better shutting yourself off. It’s essentially a press conference every time you hit, ‘Send tweet.’ But overall, I like Twitter. We want to be accessible, and I enjoy the interaction with fans.”

So now it’s time for more of a focus on his team, which failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs in its first two seasons. Paulson expects first-year coach Caleb Porter, a success at the University of Akron, to become more of a lead voice.

“I’m not shy and I’m not going to be shy,” said Paulson, who was an executive at NBA Entertainment before becoming owner of the Timbers in 2007. “You can’t tell a leopard to change his spots, but I worry about it becoming a little bit of a caricature. I’m not pointing fingers because I’m sure they’ve had their reasons, but there are some owners in pro sports who have become their team’s brand. I don’t want that to be the case here. This year, the team is going to speak for itself.”

Paulson, who earned an MBA at Harvard Business School and is the son of former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, said he never lacks for inspiration as owner of the Timbers.

“When you run a sports team that’s relevant in the market, you realize there are very few platforms that match it in terms of the profound impact you can have on your community,” he said. “We get to interact every day with leaders in the public and private sector. We get to make a difference with charitable work. I find it incredibly energizing. It’s also a lot of responsibility.”

The Timbers’ Stand Together initiative supports children’s and family charities in the Portland area through programs and philanthropic giving. Paulson is also on the board of many civic groups, including the Oregon chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the wild cat conservation organization Panthera.

This year, Paulson wants to see more victories by his soccer club and fewer quotes in The Oregonian and other media outlets by himself. As evidence of the new, more laid-back Paulson, he was reserved when asked for a prediction for the Timbers in the 2013 season.

“All I’ll say is I’m optimistic that the product we have on the field will match what we have in the stands,” he said.
Actually, when you consider the Timbers’ success at the box office, that’s a pretty lofty goal.

— Christopher Botta



Age: 40 (turned 40 last Wednesday)
Title: Owner/president
ORGANIZATION: Portland Timbers
Education: B.A., English, Hamilton College; MBA, Harvard Business School
Family: Wife, Heather; daughters Cassidy (4) and Adelaide (1)
Career: HBO, manager, HBO on Demand; NBA, senior director, marketing and business development; assumed ownership of the Timbers in 2007
PRIOR FORTY UNDER 40 SELECTIONS: 2011, 2012
* Hall of Fame distinction is for three-time winners

WHAT KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT: Fear of failure
Best business advice received: Who you work with is often as or more important than what you do.
Worst advice received: Not to take risks
IPOD PLAYLIST: Guns N’ Roses, The Lumineers, The Killers, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac
Favorite iPad apps: MLS MatchDay, ESPN ScoreCenter, AroundMe
TWITTER HANDLE: @merrittpaulson PERSONALITY, IN A TWEET: My personality is the type that should be banned from using Twitter. Ask Don Garber
Farthest traveled from U.S.: Australia
Stress release: Trail running
Favorite movie line: “Princeton can use a guy like Joel.” (“Risky Business”); “This is a very simple game: You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that.” (“Bull Durham”)


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