Sunday, August 3, 2008

Why MLS Will Work For Portland

It's been a big week for soccer in Portland. Merritt Paulson has decided to throw his hat in the ring to snag one of two expansion teams in 2001 for Major League Soccer, and he wants to bring one of those teams to the Rose City. Within hours of the announcement, footy fans in Portland have mobilized efforts to email or write city officials, build a website for the effort, talk to people they know about MLS, and do everything possible to get folks buzzing about MLS.

The arguments for Portland as a MLS city are pretty substantial. You have a city of 2.4 million folks, the 25th largest television market in the U.S. with only one major sports team (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), a city that has hosted 2 legs of the Womens World Cup in 1999 and 2003, hosted US Mens National games, has a soccer program at University of Portland that has won 2 NCAA titles on the womens side and has been very powerful on the mens program, and has a USL Division 1 team that currently draws between 8 to 9 thousand fans a game. Plus, the USL Timbers boast one of the most passion filled supporter groups in football, the Timbers Army, who are known worldwide for their support of their club. In full disclosure here, I've been a member of the TA since 2004, met my wife in the section, and have attended home and road games religiously over the years. I see the passion in the TA in the stands, but I also see the passion in their help with Habitat for Humanity, Dornbechers, and other charitable groups. I've also seen them help their own when one of them couldn't pay their medical bills after a significant illness, donate to a special school program in England, and help a young cancer patient who had her cheer bag stolen who was a huge Timbers fans by replacing many of the things stolen.

Not only does Portland love soccer, the grass roots effort of the Timbers Army make this market extremely unique. We assist the team in marketing matches, have traveling fans at most of the Timbers road games in the USL, and we work on support through our website, Soccer City USA. I view this site as our life line, as we post rumours about signings, ideas about TIFO, gatherings to watch away matches, post thoughts about the team, talk about soccer in the world, and generally build a community. With this crazy, nutty group, I've found a home that I wouldn't have thought possible a few years ago. They love their city, they love their team, they love soccer, and they share this with anyone willing to participate.

But the TA is more than just a scarf and showing up to matches. There is a history of events, ranging from the early days of a small group to over 250 people going by bus to a match in Seattle this year. It's traveling throughout the world to show love and support for your team, as evidenced by fans showing their scarves everywhere they go. We've worked out deals with our Front Office to help them support the team and do it in the best way as possible, while also explaining many of the edgy things the TA is known for doing over the years. We may not agree all the time, but the FO knows that the TA is behind the team no matter what. What we do is grass roots, and many people chip in with their time, talents and money to do things to support the team. Many ideas for banners or TIFO start with a simple post, and then suddenly the idea takes off on its own.

What my point in talking about all of this is the fact that while Portland may have all of the technical demographics desirable for a soccer team, we also have a city that is passionate about their teams and are willing to do a lot for them. The days of Blazer Mania still ring true in this city after almost 30 plus years, with people showing team colors, attending games and generally buzzing about the team. This is after the dark ages of 2002 to 2005, where the team's antics soured a town and a region with drug arrests, trouble with the law, not caring about the fans, and taking a "I do what I do for people that cut the check" kind of attitude. The town responded to this by turning their back on the team, hitting the Trail Blazers in the pocket book. The team responded by drafting character guys, and building a young, hungry group of players, and last year, the team finished at .500 with our all star Brandon Roy leading the way. The town is in love with the Blazers again, and fans can't wait to fill the Rose Garden this fall. It means literally that we love our teams no matter what, but won't support anything we feel is wrong. Winning isn't the only thing that is important to us, we need to have a team that we can be proud of, full of good character people who care about the city and us with as much passion as we do for them.

It's an arrangment that could work for MLS a great deal. I know that there are some significant money hurdles to cross, as we haven't had the fortunate luck of our rivals up north. Seattle will be joining MLS in 2009, mostly because of having big money guys involved with their bid. Their current owner wanted to get MLS, solicited some big money investors to help coordinate the money part, and got a big help from MLS by them saying Qwest Field is an MLS acceptable stadium. They originally built the stadium for both football and soccer, but ended up making it more football friendly in the end. MLS has pushed teams to have soccer specific stadiums, but gave Seattle the green light to stay in Qwest, saving the ownership group there millions by not having to build their own park. Oh, and then they enlisted Paul Allen as part owner, who just happens to own Qwest as well, so now the team can save more money as well. I'm happy that MLS is coming to the northwest, but I'd rather they be here than up north, but I'm hoping that MLS does well to give credit to the Northwest as a soccer friendly region. If the team falls flat up there, it could sour MLS on future expansion to the Northwest, so selfishly, I want them to do well although not too well.

Paulson need the city's help to pay for the stadium upgrade of PGE Park, targeted at $30 million, and a $35 million investment for a new stadium for the Portland Beavers Triple A team. The stadium location would be in a couple of spots, but most likely in Lents, an area in SE Portland off highway I-205 that has large parcels of land near a little league baseball complex. While many baseball fans don't want to leave downtown, the situation of sharing a park with MLS won't work and right now, the Beavers need their own park as much as the Timbers need a park specifically for them. Upgrading PGE Park for MLB would cost significantly more than MLS, and I'm not entirely convinced that Portland could support an MLB team for 81 home games at a crowd of 25,000 to 30,000 average. PGE Park isn't even big enough for that now, but I think eventually MLB makes sense here. It's just that MLS now makes more sense.

I hope the city understands what a unique opportunity we have here to help set up the future of Portland. We have a soccer crazy town, ready and waiting, and all it takes is a small investment and some belief that we really are Soccer City USA. I know that the city has many competing groups wanting money for services, and it's tough to justify spending money on a stadium when schools and police need money as well. But the investment in the future of soccer not only gives you a jewel of a stadium for the Timbers, but allows extra tourism money from potential USMNT and USWNT games, World Cup games, friendlies with EPL teams, and other large events. There's a potential gain obviously in civic pride if the team does well, and it gives another major team for this city to get behind and support. Right now, the Trail Blazers are the game in town, and there's more than enough room to have another team come into town and gain some attention. Plus, you are talking about a league that has television coverage for most of its matches, which means exposure for Portland. It's a win-win proposal for soccer fans and for the city of Portland.

If you are interested in participating in this effort, visit or and read more about the future of MLS. For me, I can't wait to showcase Portland to the rest of the soccer world. You cannot stop us, We are the Rose City...

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