Merritt Paulson to sell the Portland Thorns FC

Paulson says he feels the Thorns need a fresh voice to lead the team into the future.
Published: Dec. 1, 2022 at 9:00 AM PST
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Merritt Paulson has decided to sell the Portland Thorns Football Club, but maintain ownership of the Portland Timbers. Paulson says he feels the Thorns need a fresh voice to lead the team into the future.

FOX 12′s Nick Krupke sat down with Paulson for an exclusive interview on Tuesday.

“Only people who never make mistakes are people who don’t make decisions, and we are not perfect all the way through, but we’ve leaned into this challenge as an opportunity to get better,” Paulson told Krupke. “What has been built with the Portland Thorns is something I am as proud of as anything. It’s shown the world what women’s sport can be.”

After three NWSL Championships in 10 years of ownership, Paulson is now selling one of his two professional clubs in Soccer City, USA.

“I believe that at this point in time, to capitalize on the foundation that has been built and put in place over the last decade and continue the growth trajectory that the Portland Thorns have been on, that the club will benefit from a fresh voice at the league office from an ownership level.”

While Paulson will continue to own the Timbers in Major League Soccer, he is seeking a female-led ownership group to guide the Thorns’ franchise into the future.

“Over the last decade, I’ve been a driving force at the league office to help sustain and grow the NWSL, and the Thorns need an owner who has a powerful voice in the league level, and I do believe my voice is compromised,” Paulson said.

FOX 12 asking Paulson about how under his leadership the Thorns front office became one of the prime examples of systemic abuse around the league.

“I do very much regret that we didn’t do things better in 2015 and that we made mistakes in 2015. We also got some critical things right in 2015,” he said.

What the Thorns got wrong seven years ago was not being truthful and open with the public as to why former head coach Paul Riley was let go, stating at the time that it was based on his desire to work closer to home on the East Coast. What Paulson says they got wrong was not making sure Riley didn’t coach again after claims of sexual harassment by former Thorns player, Mana Shim.

For the first time, Paulson told FOX 12 in his own words what happened in Sept. 2015.

“Immediately after getting our first ever complaint of sexual harassment for the then coach, Paul Riley, we put him on leave. We investigated him. We terminated him for cause, and we communicated everything we knew in that investigation to the league and the league and the league office, which was U.S. Soccer at that point in time. Of the three parties who knew of that complaint, we were the ones who acted and who terminated him, and I do really wish on behalf of the players and everybody else that the league had done more, U.S. Soccer specifically had done more, but we did have failings,” Paulson said. “We didn’t announce the termination for cause transparently to the public. We followed our legal advice and how we announced that. We shouldn’t have said anything positive about Paul Riley, at all. He never should have coached another day after he was fired and I think a lot of questions have arisen, ‘how could he have coached?’ and we didn’t know about Sinead Farrelly’s abuse story until the article was published last year but we knew enough from our investigation that there wasn’t any cause, whether it was professional courtesy or congratulating somebody on a win, etc., to say a single thing positive about him. We did have failings and I have deep regrets there.”

“What do you look back upon now and say, ‘Man, I wish we would have done that differently that time and then we wouldn’t be at this point?” Krupke asked Paulson.

“That’s a tough question, Nick. There is so much I wish if we could, I will tell you, we continue to try to put our best foot forward and do our best with the best of intentions and that’s what I will continue to pledge,” he said.

Paulson says he will continue to work with the new owners of the Thorns for the club’s own training facility to be built while pledging a million dollars to the new NWSL Players Safety Office.

“We’ve got passionate fans in this market as well who care deeply and have louder voices than teams in other markets do, and I am actually grateful for all of that but yes, it’s painful, but ultimately doing something that is right for the club is something I have always been motivated by. That has always been by intent for right or wrong, and I am trying to do the right thing by the club now in making this decision and by continuing to own the Timbers, I am actually in a position to much better set the Thorns up for success in this market under very favorable terms so it’s basically a seamless experience that fans and players won’t see a difference.”

One year after the article in The Athletic exposed the failings from the top of PTFC, the report released this October by former US Attorney General Sally Yates stated the Thorns were “uncooperative” in her investigation.

“It’s unfortunate that our cooperation was categorized as Sally Yates characterized it. We just disagree completely with that characterization. We did over six hours of live interviews, person-to-person with Sally Yates and her team, gave them all of the documents they requested. We were by definition, cooperative and did everything we could to help her and her investigation.”

SEE MORE: Abuse in women’s pro soccer league was systemic, report says

Paulson looks forward to more favorable facts being revealed from the clubs internal investigation and another by the NWSL Players Association.

“I think it’s been so challenging and difficult but as challenging and difficult as it has been for us, it’s been more challenging and difficult for the real victims in this scenario, but I have never been more challenged, I have never learned more. I have tried to lean into doing better and learning, I am always trying to do that, and I do believe that will have a positive impact on us moving forward.”

NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman issued a statement supporting Paulson’s decision to sell the Thorns.

“I support Merritt Paulson’s decision to sell the Thorns, his commitment to aid in a smooth transition for a new ownership group in Portland, and the $1M contribution to the league. This money will be used to launch a new NWSL Player Safety Department - coming out of this chapter in the NWSL’s history we will emerge stronger than ever before and make this a league the players are proud to play in. The Thorns, its players, its dedicated fanbase and the entire Portland community have played a key role in our league’s first decade and are critically important to the future success of the NWSL. 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.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber also sent a statement, saying:

“For more than a decade Merritt Paulson and the Timbers have played an important role in the growth of Major League Soccer. He was also instrumental in the launch of the NWSL, and the Thorns have achieved great success in many ways during the past decade. 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.”

The Rose City Riveters sent an initial statement following news of the sale. Here is what they said:

“Our top priority is for the players to know that we will continue to support them. As the club goes through more changes in the coming months and years, one thing will be consistent - our respect and appreciation for the PTFC players. We also want to reiterate the board and steering committee’s statement from October, in the aftermath of the Yates Report being published and the initial changes the club made at the executive level: 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. 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. Again, 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.”

According to ESPN, citing sources, an investor group led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong is poised to submit a formal offer to Paulson in a bid to acquire a majority interest in the Thorns with a valuation of $60 million.

ESPN reported the two sides have had a series of meetings over the last two months, and the offer is expected to be submitted within the next week.

FOX 12 has reached out to Strong, the Timbers and Thorns to confirm. While Strong has not responded, the Timbers provided a statement, saying:

“We appreciate the interest that exists in potential ownership of the Club. The sale process will be a collaborative process between Peregrine Sports and the NWSL to ensure we find the right group to lead the Club during this next chapter. We will not rush to a decision or put weight on rumors surrounding potential offers, as we’re solely focused on getting it right for our players, for Portland and for women’s soccer.”

Karina LeBlanc, the General Manager of the Thorns, released a statement saying:

I respect Merritt’s decision to invite new ownership to lead the path forward for Thorns FC. This decision reflects his priority for the evolution of our game and what is now needed to help the club and our players move forward. I am grateful to Merritt for bringing the Thorns to Portland as a foundational member of the league. He took a chance on Women’s soccer when few others would. I love this club, this team and our fans and am honored to serve them. I am excited to work with the new owners to be a champion for the game on and off the pitch.”

Full statement from Merritt Paulson:

“The Portland Thorns are special. They mean a lot to me. They mean a lot to the City of Portland. They mean an incredible amount to women’s sports globally.

The previous iterations of top-flight American women’s professional leagues had not made it past three years, and when I decided to join the newly formed NWSL in 2013, I had no illusions that it would be easy. Yet I believed in women’s soccer, and I believed we could create something in Portland that had never been done before.

At every step of the way, the Portland Thorns exceeded expectations. Our success on and off the pitch garnered global attention, but the work that was done at the league level, in many ways has been the most impactful in sustaining the NWSL to its position of growth and success today.

The Portland Thorns are the first three-time NWSL Champions, and since 2013 have been breaking attendance records. The Club has been at the forefront of building what women’s soccer has become in this country and the world.

The past year has been a challenging one for our Club and our players. I regret the role our organization played in the failures identified by the investigations. Despite these challenges, the Portland Thorns have a bright future ahead and a lot left to accomplish.

To fully realize that potential, I believe it is in best interest of the Thorns to have a new owner so that the Club can operate at the league level with a fresh voice to be a driving force for the NWSL. 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.

We are committed to continue to work collaboratively with the NWSL to ensure we find the right group to take the reins. We will not rush to a decision as we want to get it right for our players, for Portland and for women’s soccer.

An ownership change with the Thorns will not impact Peregrine Sports’ ownership of the Timbers, and 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.

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. Additionally, in evaluating the new owner we want to be certain that our ongoing efforts to secure a top-flight training facility continues for the team.

Lastly, I will be making a one-million-dollar pledge to establishing a NWSL Player Safety Office. I love Commissioner Berman’s vision and I’m proud to seed the founding capital for the project.

I’m so proud of what the Portland Thorns have accomplished. I’ve had the honor to work alongside these incredible athletes as they’ve made history on and off the pitch. While this decision is not an easy one for me, I believe it is the right one for the Club, the league and Portland.”