Merritt Paulson, majority owner of the Portland Timbers, spoke exclusively with Sportspress Northwest to share his thoughts on the building of the Timbers’ brand, the buzz created by its billboard and advertising campaign and the excitement the new MLS team is generating in Portland. Oh, and he wants everyone to know one of his top priorities this year — to beat the Seattle Sounders.
He spoke with staff writer Stanley Holmes on these and a number of issues regarding the Timbers and the MLS. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:
1. How would you describe your experience so far, joining MLS?
Its been a wild ride. Its been exciting. Were all tremendously enthused this team will have an impact on this city and on the MLS. Cant wait to start to play games.
2. What has surprised you, so far?
The tremendous public process (to expand and rebuild PGE Park in downtown Portland, a public-private partnership that was key to the Timbers securing MLS entry). Every move was covered myopically. It was a prolonged negotiation over a year. It was a difficult process. It’s structured in a way that has zero impact to taxpayers. It was a great deal for the city and enabled us to get a great facility.
3. From the beginning, how did you want to position the Timbers brand compared to the Sounders? How did you want to connect with the Portland community?
A big thing for us was a step up in division. Suddenly, we were relevant to a group that we weren’t relevant to before. Some people were just not going to go to anything that was minor league. Really highlighting that distinction was something we had to do.
Its very different here: we had a much bigger fan base in the lower division. I think the atmosphere is unique. It is very distinctive to Portland. I think what Seattle has done is terrific. But its a very different atmosphere here. This is like going to a game in England or Argentina that its a sophisticated, passionate fan base.
Our marketing campaign highlighting the fans I feel as good about that as anything Ive done in marketing. And Ive done a lot of work in marketing. I thought “Scarves Up, Seattle” was a great campaign for Seattle. Were really highlighting the fans of Portland in a cool and edgy way.
4. How did ‘We Are Timbers’ campaign originate?
We started with another agency originally. For a number of reasons, it was time for a change. It was the right time for Jelly Helm’s concept. The idea of a grand, impending event and communicating that. The genesis was entirely his concept. He pitched it once. I loved it from the get-go. Not using models, doing a casting call among our fans. You cant communicate civic pride more than that. Im frankly surprised other teams havent done it. Its all about the execution. Its generated a lot of buzz, which is what we wanted.
We cant be forced in anything we do. There is a tradition and there is a history on the field and in the stands for over 30 years. Even if we are going after a broader audience, we cant get away from that core authenticity.
5. What were you trying to achieve with the jerseys?
I wanted a distinctive jersey that you knew right away was Portland. And I wanted a jersey that gave the right head nod to our past, and it wasnt rocket science that our main jersey would be forest green. Lot of subtle touches to explore.
With Rose red, thats where we got more creative. We literally have another logo. We toyed with the idea of Rose City FC concept. I wont say which one is my favorite. And both jerseys have been popular. My first reaction to Rose City: it was killer.
6. Not everything has been a smooth ride. Explain the logo controversy?
First, I was the guy who pushed for a launch of the logo during the USA vs. England World Cup match. We did an unveiling in Portland’s Pioneer Square, where there was an outdoor viewing party. A bad image of the logo was leaked the night before. It looked cartoonish. There was a mini-uprising that had already built prior to the game.
We didnt do enough communicating with our fan base. As a result, the 107st (Timbers Army) earned its stripes, constructively communicating the issues and we made a stronger logo. Frankly, it got more play in the national soccer community due to the nature of the World Cup event. But it was a big deal with a core group of fans.
7. Timbers Army: how influential are they?
They are our best fans. They care the most. Theyve got a good voice within the organization and figured out a way that effectively communicates with us. We dont always agree. Weve shown we do listen, we do communicate and we do care, and its real.
We do some unique things with them. They earn a commission on every Timbers ticket sold in Timbers section. We open press conferences to season ticket holders. Accessibility to our fans is important. We are open to bloggers. As long as you conduct yourself professionally, you’ll be treated like any other member of the media.
People know they dont have to sit in the supporters’ section. And the supporters’ section provide the atmosphere. There are families in the suburban communities who were not interested in us in the minor league but now they are. It’s really not a tension point.
8. Seattle Sounders: your thoughts on the bar they have set?
Other than being relevant, it’s night and day in terms of Seattle and Portland. They are relevant as any team in Seattle. They have done a great job filling the stands. Done a great job of putting a great product on the field. I dont know if people appreciate how difficult it is to be so successful on the field. They have done a phenomenal job in terms of success theyve had.
But you’re not going to see marching bands and confetti here. Its more do-it-yourself here. The different nature of the two groups: you dont want to say Seattle is manufactured because thats disingenuous. Its just a different vibe here. I think its going to be a little bit louder and more intense here. Its smaller here. We aint ever going to have 30,000 season ticket holders.
But Seattles success was instrumental in our success in that we would not be in MLS today if we couldnt point to Seattle. We needed to convince Portland city officials to sign on to our deal (stadium renovation). It probably helped us with MLS, too. I dont think anybody expected the Sounders to be as successful as they were, particularly in an NFL stadium.
The biggest similarity: we both care about soccer. Its going to be a great I-5 rivalry.
9. What are your hopes for your first MLS season?
We hope we can come in and compete and play entertaining soccer. We are a team that has been promoted. Were not an expansion team. I want to be competitive. I want to make the playoffs and I want to beat Seattle. Those are my goals for the first year.