Timbers Owner Merritt Paulson Sees MLS Growth Potential
MLS Timbers Owner Merritt Paulson said he does not “know of a sports property in the world that has the growth potential that MLS has,” and the league has “reached a tipping point in the United States and it’s really exciting to be part of it,” according to Jack Bell of the N.Y. TIMES. Paulson said there is “a bit of a move now and focus toward the product on the field,” and Portland is a “sophisticated soccer audience.” Paulson said the “real priority is to get the level of play up, and make this the best league in the Western Hemisphere and one of the best leagues in the world.” The following are excerpts from Paulson's Q&A with Bell.
Q: Last year, you had about 2,000 seats that were covered with a tarp, with obstructed views I believe. You opened them up for this season increasing potential attendance to about 20,000. What went into those decisions?
Paulson: We opened all the seats in North End, and have very few that are tarped. We have 7,000 people on our waiting list for season tickets. If we had 25,000 seats we would be sold out every game. We’re costing ourselves money with seats covered with tarps. ... At halftime it is a bit tight on the concourses, but it’s manageable now. Last year we were at roughly 18,000 a game, this year it’s 20,300. Another 1,500-2,000 seats are still covered. We’ll see how it goes.”
Q: Do you ever second-guess yourself about renovating an older stadium in the downtown area as opposed to trying to build something new, perhaps outside the city?
Paulson: To be in [the] heart of the city on the west side, with light rail everywhere, that’s something I wouldn’t trade for all the tea in China. If you build me a Livestrong Sporting Park in Hillsboro, about 20 minutes outside Portland, I wouldn’t take the trade.
Q: There has been so much talk about a second team in the New York area. ... Where do you come down on the matter?
Paulson: I think I’d share the commissioner’s view that New York makes sense on a lot of levels, but we’ve got to get it right. That means getting the facility right. ... A second team in New York in the right stadium makes all the sense in the world.
Q: Did you make money last year? And if not, will you this year?
Paulson: We are cash-flow positive, and in this world it is a terrific thing. We put a lot of money into it, not just the team, renovating the stadium. It might be a long time to say we made a profit. If you look at the money between the cost of team, the extra millions put into the stadium and practice facility -- on an operating level we were profitable. (NYTIMES.com, 3/14).
WEIGHING IN: MLS Commissioner Don Garber and NBC Sports Networks President of Programming Jon Miller attended the Union-Timbers game Monday, and Garber said Paulson and his staff “have done a truly remarkable job.” Garber: “It’s only going to get bigger and better.” Miller said of the atmosphere at Jeld-Wen Field being apparent on TV, “It’s important, and it’s incumbent on our producers. ... It’s up to us to make sure we capture that and transfer it to television.” When asked what teams and their supporters’ clubs can do to replicate the atmosphere in Portland, Garber said, “I’ve been following some social media today, and people have been talking about how special tonight is. It is very, very special. But it’s also amazing in Seattle and it was fantastic in Toronto, where the Champions League game had 47,000 people.” He added, “There’s great passion in a lot of our markets, and it continues to grow. It’s a little bigger and better than it was last year, so who knows how it will be a couple years from now. Hopefully in markets it will continue to create a very positive dynamic of fan passion -- controlled fan passion.” Garber said Union CEO & Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz told him “one of the things he has admired the most is that Merritt has listened to the fans and given them a voice, but done it in a way that’s responsible and respectable.” Garber: “I applaud the Timbers Army for working closely with the league. We’re trying to replicate that dynamic around the league” (PHILLY.com, 3/13).