Merritt Paulson Sells Portland Thorns to Bhathal Family of Southern California

The swimwear magnates paid a record $63 million, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Thorns Pride Night (Blake Benard)

Merritt Paulson sold the Portland Thorns women’s soccer club to the Bhathals, a Southern California family that made its money in swimwear and real estate, marking Paulson’s latest, biggest move to put a lingering sexual abuse scandal behind him and move forward as owner of the Timbers men’s team.

The Bhathals paid $63 million for the Thorns, a league record, according to a person familiar with the matter. Peregrine Sports LLC, the entity that owns the Timbers, and, until yesterday, the Thorns, had higher offers for the women’s team, but Paulson wanted a female owner on the West Coast, the person said.

The Thorns will play at Providence Park through 2035 and will train there through 2025 at no charge, a Peregrine spokesman said. As part of the deal, the Bhathals agreed to build a new training facility for the team.

RAJ Sports, the entity that bought the Thorns, is run by the sister-and-brother duo of Lisa Bhathal Merage and Alex Bhathal. Their father, Raj Bhathal, came to the U.S. from India in 1960. He and his wife, Marta, founded Raj Manufacturing Inc. in 1967 to make swimsuits, according to the Orange County Business Journal. Lisa and Alex bought their parents out in 2006, alongside Swander Pace Capital and Goldman Sachs Group.

The four Bhathals are investors in the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team. Lisa and Alex co-founded Revitate, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based firm that invests in sports teams, real estate and consumer brands.

Lisa Bhathal Merage, who will be controlling owner of the Thorns and a governor in the National Women’s Soccer League, is married to Richard Merage, son of billionaire Hot Pockets creator Paul Merage. Richard is chief executive at MIG Capital LLC, also in Newport Beach.

”For this next phase of growth and stability, I am delighted to transfer ownership of the Thorns to Lisa Bhathal Merage and her family, whose extensive experience in sports and business make them ideal owners,” Paulson said in a statement. “I remain committed to the Thorns’ success at their Providence Park home, and we are excited about making our operating partnership with the Bhathals smooth and successful for all involved.”

The online sports site Sportico reported Nov. 15 that Paulson and the Bhathals were in negotiations.

Paulson has been under pressure to sell the Thorns since September 2021, when The Athletic printed a scathing story revealing sexual abuse and harassment by former Portland Thorns soccer coach Paul Riley. While at another club, Riley coerced one player, Sinead Farrelly, to have sex with him after plying her with alcohol, Farrelly told The Athletic.

Riley became head coach at the Thorns in 2013 and brought Farrelly over the following year. There, he harassed another player, Mana Shim, and once offered Shim and Farrelly lighter drills at practice if they would kiss each other in front of him. (Thorns management knew about the incident, The Athletic said.)

Players and fans alike have been calling for a sale of the Thorns ever since. WW broke the news a little over a year ago that Paulson would try to sell the team but keep the Portland Timbers, the men’s soccer club.

On Oct. 3, 2022, the U.S. Soccer Federation, soccer’s top regulator in America, reported that, among other things, Paulson had hidden Riley’s harassment. In addition, investigators said Paulson’s executives stonewalled their 2022 inquiry after pledging total transparency.

Two days after the report dropped, 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—while retaining control.

This week’s sale went further than past efforts toward assuaging fans’ concerns. The steering committee of the Rose City Riveters, the group that cheers, chants and drums throughout at every Thorns game, endorsed the deal and applauded the Bhathals.

“The Rose City Riveters are relieved that the sale has been completed and thrilled we can start a new chapter with the Portland Thorns, especially before the NWSL Draft,” the steering committee said in a statement. “After years of transition and upheaval, we are hopeful that this move to new ownership offers stability for both the players on the field and the supporters in the stands. We are aware what the Bhathal ownership group have been able to accomplish in the NBA and are cautiously optimistic about what they can do for the Portland Thorns.”

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