When Portland Beavers owner Merritt Paulson landed the Triple-A All-Star game two years ago, he said, "we are thrilled at the opportunity to showcase Portland and our wonderful ballpark."
The ballpark he was talking about, PGE Park, has gotten a little less "wonderful" for Paulson since then.
The stadium is now so "un-wonderful" in Paulson's opinion that in an interview last week with WW, he bristled at questions about the stadium's adequacy to the point that he called it a "crap stadium." He says the stadium is inadequate for the deal he hopes now to achieve—revamping PGE Park for a Major League Soccer franchise starting play in 2011. And he insists the Beavers would improve at the gate if they played elsewhere in a new smaller baseball stadium because PGE Park feels cavernous most nights for minor-league baseball because it has too many seats.
So on July 15, when ESPN2 broadcasts the Triple-A All-Star game from PGE Park, we're assuming at some point the announcers will have to refer to all Paulson's travails in trying to close that deal. That's a lot to digest for a national TV broadcast. So to help, we re-packaged our 45-minute interview with Paulson into a thumbnail scouting report on the lineup of problems he faces.
1) The Beavers' fate: Paulson has said he's committed to keeping the Triple-A franchise in town but won't say where that might be. The search for a site to place that new baseball stadium has bounced from the Memorial Coliseum to Lents to well, nowhere for the moment. "For this to work, we need to get the Beavers figured out. We're not going to let them hang." Paulson, who says the Beavers' fan base generally is more suburban, expands his definition of keeping the Beavers "in town" to drop in references to the suburbs of Washington and Clark counties.
2) Why PGE Park can't be used both for MLS and baseball even though the latest stadium improvements are less than a decade old: Paulson insists that the MLS is resolute that PGE Park can't be dual-use and that the league would give Portland's expansion franchise to Montreal if Portland tried to push it. "They wouldn't want it and I wouldn't want it," Paulson says. That lack of leverage is curious because the league also certainly loves the idea of re-creating a natural geographic rivalry between Portland and Seattle, and must see the strong attendance numbers in Seattle as affirmation that the Northwest has a strong fan base.
3) Blogs that have criticized him: Paulson claims not to read them. He says he does read one: Dwight Jaynes at dwightjaynes.com—"He's a sports writer I have a pretty good opinion of," Paulson says. Ironic perhaps, in that Jaynes is no lover of soccer—though he's also said he doesn't object to MLS coming here.
4) The chance that Portland would ever get a Major League Baseball franchise: "It's so far away from being a major league baseball town," Paulson says, referring to the need for $700 million to build an MLB stadium and the city's lack of major corporations to buy sponsorships. "Right now, Portland is not set up where it could succeed at a big-league level. "
5) The naming rights for PGE Park after 2010: By next year, Portland General Electric will have spent $8.5 million over a decade to see its name in lights at the downtown stadium. Even though the stadium is owned by the city and leased to Paulson, he gets the revenue from the naming rights. That deal expires in 2010 and some might think there's no way in this economic freefall that Paulson could wheedle that kind of money from another sponsor. Think again, says Paulson. "That's an under-market deal, " Paulson says. "The value of naming rights deals continues to rise even in this economy."
6) The long-term prospects for MLS: Even with the strong fan support of Seattle's expansion franchise this season, leaguewide attendance has declined 5.6 percent this season—a condition affecting all U.S. sports leagues. Paulson says he has no doubts the league will be thriving in 2011.
7) The city that works?: "The public process here is unique," Paulson says. "I will say there's an anti-business sentiment that has been a surprise." The process must work OK at some level for him, though. Last Thursday, July 9. Paulson emerged after a meeting with Commissioner Randy Leonard and Mayor Sam Adams to announce a re-jiggered soccer deal 10 minutes before the full council conducted a hearing on that deal.
8) The chance that the whole deal strikes out: Paulson likens all the moving parts to a Rubik's cube but rates the odds that a deal doesn't get done as "very low."