Under pressure from sponsors, fans, and city officials for covering up alleged sexual abuse by a former coach, soccer team owner Merritt Paulson says he plans to seek a buyer for the Portland Thorns, this year’s champions in the National Women’s Soccer League.
Paulson says he plans to keep the Timbers, his men’s team. He will offer the new Thorns owner “favorable usage terms” at Providence Park, which he leases from the city.
“This has been a difficult decision for me, but I believe this is the best way to position the Thorns for continued success during this next chapter of the NWSL and the sport,” Paulson said in a statement. ”We will be a key partner to the new Thorns ownership group, as we believe the team should continue to call Providence Park its home.”
Last week, WW reported that Paulson’s company, Peregrine Sports LLC, was in talks to sell only the Thorns for as much as $50 million. Among the potential buyers was a group of women led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong, WW said, citing people familiar with the negotiations. Today, a person familiar with the sale said Paulson is seeking $60 million for the Thorns.
Peregrine is majority owned by Paulson’s father, Hank, the former head of Goldman Sachs, and his mother, Wendy. The couple put up the money for Paulson to buy the Timbers in 2007.
Selling the Thorns is Paulson’s latest effort to hang on to the Timbers in the wake of a blistering October report from the U.S. Soccer Federation that described how former Thorns coach Paul Riley harassed and abused two former Thorns players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, in 2015.
Paulson and his management team fired Riley soon after learning about the abuse, but they didn’t alert other NWSL teams about Riley’s conduct, the report said. To the contrary, they praised him in their communications with executives who were looking to hire Riley. He went on to coach the Western New York Flash and stayed with the club when it moved to North Carolina. Riley’s professional coaching career ended in September 2021, after sports website The Athletic reported his alleged sexual predation.
Little changed in the executive ranks at Peregrine in the year after The Athletic’s story, but two days after U.S. Soccer issued its report, Paulson fired his top two deputies, general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president Mike Golub. Six days after that, Paulson himself resigned as CEO of both teams. He stayed home Oct. 29, when the Thorns traveled to Washington, D.C., to win a record third championship.
Today’s announcement comes as Paulson braces for yet another report on sexual abuse in women’s soccer, this one from the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association. They began their investigation in October 2021, the same month U.S. Soccer did, and their report is expected before year’s end.
The abuse went far beyond the Thorns, according to Sally Yates, the former federal prosecutor who led U.S. Soccer’s investigation. Last season, half the NWSL’s 10 teams parted ways with their coaches following allegations of misconduct, Yates said in the report.
Paulson said he wants the Thorns’ to continue playing at Providence Park, where they attract upwards of 17,000 fans at each match.
“I am fully committed to doing all that is necessary to ensure a smooth transition and the continued success of the Thorns, including providing favorable usage terms for Providence Park that will enable the Thorns to continue to capitalize on their popularity in Portland,” Paulson said today.
Peregrine has been trying to find a new training facility for the Thorns. Paulson said any prospective owner should commit to carrying on that search if their bid is to be successful.
In addition to selling the Thorns, Paulson said he would donate $1 million to establish a new NWSL’s Player Safety Office. U.S. Soccer, which oversees men’s Major League Soccer, the NWSL, and all other leagues across the country, last month set up the Participant Safety Taskforce and appointed Shim, the former Thorns player, as its chair.
“I’m proud to seed the founding capital for the project,” Paulson said.
Paulson apologized for how he handled the abuse scandal.
“The past year has been a challenging one for our club and our players,” he said. “I regret the role our organization played in the failures identified by the investigations.”
The organization representing the most ardent fans of the Thorns and Timbers said it was unimpressed with Paulson’s latest move. The 107 Independent Supporters Trust, or 107IST, is a nonprofit that represents the Timbers Army and the Rose City Riveters. Both groups are raucous fixtures at home games. Today, they said they want a seat at the negotiating table with any new buyer.
“As long as Merritt Paulson is an owner with a financial stake in EITHER club he is still in an unacceptable position of power and control,” 107IST said in a statement. “We continue to call for the sale of BOTH teams and for the sale, divestment, or removal of interest/control from all professional, development, and youth soccer leagues by Peregrine Sports. We acknowledge that this will likely be a long and complex process. We are optimistic about the tremendous potential of the Thorns under new ownership and look forward to engaging with prospective buyers who can help realize that potential.”
Chris Bright, co-founder of Onward Rose City, a group that’s raising money from fans to buy the teams, said he, too, thought Paulson had to sell both teams. Just parting with the Thorns is “insufficient,” he said before today’s announcement.
Many city officials, too, said Paulson must divest himself of both clubs. City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, for one, said one sale wasn’t enough. “I think both teams should be sold,” Mapps said last month.
Even though the city owns Providence Park, politicians probably couldn’t force a sale. The 25-year lease, signed with Peregrine in 2010, contains no provisions that would permit the city to evict the company over sex abuse scandals at its teams.
So far, Paulson has faced no public pressure from either MLS or the NWSL to sell either the Timbers or the Thorns. Today, MLS Commissioner Don Garber blessed Paulson’s plan for the Thorns.
“For more than a decade Merritt Paulson and the Timbers have played an important role in the growth of Major League Soccer,” Garber said in a statement. “As the Thorns transition to a new ownership group, they will undoubtedly continue to have a significant impact on Portland, the NWSL, women’s sports, and soccer in North America. At the same time, I am confident the Timbers will continue to be a successful MLS club in the years ahead.”
At an event on Nov. 3, Garber said he saw nothing in the Yates report that would require the Paulsons to sell the Timbers. He didn’t mention the Thorns. Merritt and Hank Paulson both sit on the MLS board. Hank and Garber are fly fishing buddies. They talked about their shared passion on Hank Paulson’s podcast last year.
The NWSL, meantime, has withheld judgment.
“It’s incredibly important that the joint investigative team, with the full participation of the players association, has the opportunity to finish their work, unimpeded,” NWSL spokesman Mark Jones said in a statement last month. “That is the league’s focus, and any corrective actions will follow that joint report.”
Today, NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said she supported Paulson’s decision to sell the Thorns.
“We will continue to work collaboratively to ensure the players and the club have everything they need to be successful on and off the pitch,” Berman said in a statement.