“Look, Portland’s a great soccer market, there’s no question about it,” said Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Thorns and their affiliated Major League Soccer club, the Portland Timbers, who have sold out 122 consecutive home games and counting. “But there are other great soccer markets in this country. The N.W.S.L. can succeed, and succeed well, in a lot of markets. We don’t have fairy dust that’s unique to Portland.”
That may be true, but it hasn’t made replicating the club’s success any more straightforward. As Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, put it: “If we knew exactly why it worked as well as it has, for either the Timbers or the Thorns, then we’d bottle that and take it elsewhere.”
Portland’s advantages, at least in soccer, are clear. The city has supported the game in some form since 1975, when the Timbers were launched as a professional men’s team that would come and go over the years. The only competing big-time professional team in the city is the N.B.A.’s Portland Trail Blazers, and the city happened to have a stadium in the heart of downtown — walkable from the densest urban neighborhoods — that it was willing to convert into a soccer-specific home for the Timbers and, later, the Thorns.
But given the troubled history of women’s club soccer in the United States, including two previous leagues that collapsed after only three seasons, N.W.S.L. organizers, including U.S. Soccer, knew they would need a more sustainable approach when the league was started in 2013. Gulati contacted several M.L.S. clubs to pitch them on joining the federation-backed league before it took the field for its first season, but he said the Timbers, comfortably selling out every home match, were the only ones to say yes.
“The more I thought about it, the more I felt like I owed it to put our best foot forward,” Paulson said. “In my mind, if it couldn’t work in Portland, it wasn’t going to work anywhere.”
When the Thorns became the first women’s team to be affiliated with an M.L.S. franchise, the team instantly inherited a large support staff, which now consists of 130 employees, almost all of whom work for both clubs. That’s a distinct advantage over the independent clubs that make up the majority of the N.W.S.L., where human resources are scarcer and a general manager’s responsibilities can range from scouting and signing international stars to writing the game day program.
But front-office help alone wasn’t enough: The Timbers also put an emphasis on taking the Thorns seriously. A large Thorns logo, the same size as the Timbers logo on the other side of the marquee at Providence Park, greets fans at games — a symbol of the club philosophy that the Thorns are not a niche product complementing the Timbers, but a partner.
“We get treated as equals to the Timbers,” said the Thorns’ captain, Christine Sinclair, the career scoring leader for Canada’s national team. “I don’t think many female athletes can say that. I wish every player was able to experience this day in and day out — world-class training facilities and an organization that makes sure everything we could ever want, we have.”
The fans take the team seriously, too. Before the team’s debut match, Paulson and the Timbers front office hoped for turnouts of around 6,000 fans a game. In their first season, the Thorns averaged more than double that (13,320).
Because about a third of Thorns season-ticket holders are also Timbers season-ticket holders, a supporters culture from the Timbers migrated to the Thorns. The Rose City Riveters, the women’s team’s main fan group, give Thorns games their electric, pulsating atmosphere, and members of the group have become evangelists for the club.
One research study looking at the Thorns’ uncommon support found the atmosphere created by that fan culture was the most-cited reason the Thorns fans surveyed said they liked going to games, with the on-field product a close second.
“They’re almost a community outside of what’s happening on the field,” Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath said. “They love us and support us, but they love each other and support each other, which is cool. What we’re doing on the field is inspiring this idea of community.”
Other N.W.S.L. clubs, notably the Orlando Pride, have had moderate success after using a formula similar to the one forged in Portland. Affiliated with Orlando City in M.L.S., the two-year-old Pride set an N.W.S.L. attendance record of 23,403 at one match last season.
Orlando’s average attendance of 8,785 this year is still only about half of what the Thorns drew, but it ranked second overall in the N.W.S.L. The bigger statistic was off the field: the Pride says it is profitable and has been since its debut season. In a five-year-old league that continues to endure expected growing pains — including issues with substandard fields, substandard treatment of players and meager salaries — that is noteworthy.
Orlando’s average attendance of 8,785 this year is still only about half of what the Thorns drew, but it ranked second over all in the N.W.S.L. The bigger statistic was off the field: The Pride say they are profitable in their second season. In a league that has made news for substandard fields, substandard treatment of players and meager salaries, that is noteworthy.
“Perhaps the most important thing the Thorns have been able to do,” Gulati said, “is show that it can be an economically viable business.”
For the moment, though, the Thorns run their business better than anyone else — so well, in fact, that the club has agreed to share its success through a profit-sharing arrangement with the rest of the league.
“You’ve seen the end result of taking it seriously,” said Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager of the Thorns and the Timbers. “Investing time, investing resources and having objectives at every single level. Taking it seriously is mirroring what the men’s game has successfully done and replicating it on the women’s side.”
Said Paulson: “We’re not asking for charity here. When we ask people to allot their free time to the Timbers and the Thorns, it’s for no other reason than it’s what they’d prefer to be doing — and that’s the only reason you should ever ask people to do it.”
The team with the best chance at replicating the Thorns’ success, those familiar with it said, may come from the N.W.S.L. It could be the Pride; the M.L.S.-affiliated Houston Dash; or even a club like the Courage, who are affiliated with a lower-division men’s pro team and had a capacity crowd of 10,017 for their playoff semifinal match last week. Then there is a city like Cincinnati, which is looking to join M.L.S. and drew 30,596 for a United States women’s national team match last month.
“I think it’s closer than we think,” Heath said of finding the next Thorns. “There are gold mines that haven’t been discovered.”
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