There are many things you absolutely need to know about the Portland Timbers as it prepares for its first season in Major League Soccer.
But let’s start with the most essential — their fans like to fire up chainsaws and wield double-bladed axes.
They also like their soccer. They like it a certain way — just as they like their Rose City pretty and prickly.
Just like the way they like their locally brewed beer flavorful, distinct and superior to Seattle. Debating over beer quality, of course, won’t be the only Seattle-Portland rivalry that will stir the faithful. In Portland, they like to tell you they are the one, true “Soccer City, USA.”
And they like their Timbers and their image to be like them. Feisty. Independent. Progressive. Traditional. Outdoorsy. Urbane. Clever. Rugged. Ironic. Fit. Brainy. Brawny. And true. They are proud of their roots sunk deeply in the timber, farming, ranching and fishing industries of yore.
And they like where they’re headed in the future. It’s as if the Timbers’ image reflects the trickster spirit of prankster Ken Kesey, the worldly ethos of the tech industry and the heritage of Timber Jim, all rolled into one, as they share a Bridgeport Ale at Burgerville.
Welcome to Stumptown.
This is where MLS teams will confront some of the most devoted, intense and passionate fans led by the Timbers Army that draws strength from a 35-year history of rabid support. Where 1,500 Timbers fans recently waited hours to have have their photos taken with axes and chainsaws to be displayed on the Timbers’ web site. Where Timber Joey — who fires up his chainsaw every time a Timbers’ player scores a goal– will cut a slab from a massive log, called “the cutting of the round.” Where visiting MLS teams will indeed find “No Pity in the Rose City.”
This is where Timbers owner Merritt Paulson has turned the team, the brand, into something more than season-ticket sales. The Timbers have done what all consumer companies covet– created near instant brand authenticity. And through its provocative billboard campaign — called “We Are Timbers”– the Timbers have captured the cultural nuances of a people, a city and a region — as well as filled their pocketbooks.
If the Seattle Sounders set the marketing and attendance bar high when it entered the league three years ago, then the Portland Timbers may very well be elevating it to an art form. They won’t surpass Sounders attendance figures, but they appear to have created a deeper and tighter, perhaps more authentic, connection with their fans and their community.
For at the end of the day, the MLS is marketing the culture of soccer to a country and to communities that still struggles to comprehend the game. Seattle, and now Portland, are finding a way to make professional soccer relevant in these communities. In the case of Portland, it may be as simple as listening to their key constituents and staying out of the way.
“We havent done everything right, for sure,” Paulson said, in an exclusive interview with Sportspress Northwest. “But the biggest thing Im proud of is that we have lines of communications with our fans that dont exist with other teams.”
So far, the Timbers’ advertising campaign — or the elevation of its sports brand — has generated better-than-expected returns, say Timbers officials. Season-ticket sales have hit 11,000 for a 19,000-seat stadium. The corporate suites, the club section seats and the Timbers’ Army’s three sections all sold out. Media attention has blossomed and is all-encompassing. PGE Park, located in the heart of Portland, is getting a massive makeover and is destined to be one of the league’s showpiece soccer-specific stadiums.
“Our jersey sales are going very, very well,” said Mike Golub, chief operating officer of the Timbers. ” We’re on this really great trajectory.”
Sponsorship deals have gone briskly. They include jersey sponsor Alaska Airlines and local companies Burgerville, Widmer Brothers Brewery, Fred Meyer and Providence Hospital. Over the last two months, the Timbers’ web site has been the most visited site of any team in the league, say Timbers officials. Local radio and TV broadcast agreements are just around the corner.
The Timbers even project a net profit in the first year of MLS existence. In a pro-forma balance sheet submitted to the city of Portland as part of the requirement to persuade the city to help fund renovations at PGE Park, the Timbers projected first-year net income of $1.8 million on total revenues of $14 million.
Following the first year, the Timbers project net income will rise to roughly $3 million annually. This is a rare feat in a league where most teams continue to post operating losses, except, of course, Seattle, which is believed to have made a profit in its first and second years.
“I do think they’ve done a terrific job connecting their brand with the community,” said Jeff Bliss, president of Javelin Group, a Washington DC-based sports-marketing firm that specializes in soccer. “The territory is ripe for soccer, and Portland has a great history.”
Another thing you should know: the Timbers do not consider themselves to be an expansion team. They consider the team to merely have been promoted to the first division.
The Timbers faithful will point out that their history goes back 35 years to the North American Soccer League era. It can even be more narrowly captured in one of perhaps the first organized supporter groups in America at that time — the Cascade Rangers.
The Cascade Rangers started out as two or three rabid supporters that turned into more and more as the team grew. They sat up in the bleachers, banging drums at NASL matches back in the 1970s and early ’80s when few people knew or cared about soccer.
Like the original Timber Jim, who offered to rappel from the rafters and cut logs during those impressionable NASL days, the Cascade Rangers became a pulsating presence — supporting their team win, lose or draw — as supporter groups do in Europe. The Rangers morphed into the Timbers Army during the club’s decades in Division 2 soccer.
For the management of the MLS Timbers trying to generate passion among new fans while not alienating hardcore supporters, they had to tap into this history without overhyping it. The advertising campaign had to be true to the roots of this serious and fanatical fan base — or it could flop.
“I think you can see the roots of the Cascade Rangers in the campaign,” said Jelly Helm, creator of the No Pity billboard campaign. “This is a lifestyle. The soul of this team is in Europe somewhere. They want to win but theyre not going to change loyalties if they lose. Its all real. It cant be manufactured.”
Helm previously worked for Wieden+Kennedy, which has long been Nike’s top advertising agency. It was Wieden that came up with Nike’s iconic “Just Do It,” among many other now legendary Nike advertising slogans, campaigns and TV spots.
Helm said he pitched Paulson on this idea of capturing the true Timbers culture by showcasing real fans and keeping the entire billboard campaign understated. He got interested, Helm said, because Paulson convinced him that he wanted the Timbers to be bigger than purely a business.
“I wouldnt be interested if Merritt didn’t have a vision for Timbers soccer in this community,” Helm said. “Merritt believes that soccer can play a role in this community that is much bigger than being a sports team. The power of sports can connect and unite like nothing else.”
The result: showcasing Timbers supporters in provocative poses wielding axes or chainsaws on massive billboards scattered in strategic locations around the city. The billboards capture the history of the Timbers supporters and capture the culture of a city without saying a word.
“The marketing before that was all about asking for something,” Helm said. “What we tried to do is give something back to the people.”
This enthusiasm for the Timbers spread to Adidas North America, which designs jerseys for all of the MLS teams. Its North American headquarters happen to be located in Portland.
From the beginning, Adidas wanted to get the Portland design right, said Antonio Zea, director of soccer for Adidas North America. The company went through more than 30 design renderings, including creating 12 different prototypes — a higher number than usual. There was a lot of back and forth.
The Timbers, Zea said, wanted to own the color green and wanted both a contemporary look and nod to its tradition. The result: a forest green that incorporates different shades of green that is highlighted by the split down the middle of the jersey — a two-tone chevron pattern. There are nods to the past with the axe on the back of the neck, and of course, in the logo above the left breast. The secondary jersey is even more compelling — Rose City red — and it incorporates the Rose City logo badge and a two-tone thorns pattern.
The jerseys were unveiled at an aircraft hangar with Alaska Airlines supplying a 737 decked out in Timbers’ colors before more than 1,000 people. But for Zea and the Adidas team, true validation came later at a pub frequented by the Timbers Army.
“The day we launched the jersey the Army came up and said we did a really good job,” Zea said, who added that Adidas is happy with the sales. “They said we didnt destroy it and stayed true to its roots.”
Not everything has worked perfectly. The new logo generated controversy and some of the original advertising fell flat before the Timbers switched agencies.
And in a small market such as Portland with such a powerful supporters group in the Timbers Army, there is bound to be tension between the army and the owners. Managing that relationship while expanding the reach of the Timbers to the suburbs is going to be one of the key narratives as the Timbers head into their first MLS season and beyond.
There’s been a steep learning curve — on both sides — as the front office and supporters worked through issues about chants, language, flags and pyrotechnics and smoke, said Garrett Dittfurth, president of the 107st, Timbers Army. Initially, management may not have recognized the level of individualism and culture within the ranks of the Timbers Army, Dittfurth said.
For now, though, all is well in the Rose City.
“They’re obviously building for the future and I think it’s a very good thing they’ve created buzz around the team and been able to sell so many season tickets without signing any really big names,” Dittfurth said. “The league would benefit tremendously if our front office put together a guide for other clubs about the care-and-feeding of supporters groups.”