Portland Timbers, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson steps down as CEO, takes responsibility for ‘organizational failures and mistakes’

In the face of mounting public pressure from fans, sponsors and the Portland football community, Merritt Paulson announced on Tuesday that he is stepping down as CEO of the Portland Timbers and Thorns effective immediately, stepping back from operations of a club he has owned and operated since 2007.

In a lengthy Tuesday morning statement revealing the news, Paulson also apologized to the players, organization and community, saying “the failures and mistakes of our organization were ultimately my responsibility.”

“As you know, I have removed myself from Thorns decision making,” Paulson said in the statement. “Yet for the organization to move forward and unite, I feel another step is needed. Effective immediately, I am stepping down as CEO of the Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers, and announcing a global search for a CEO of the organization.

Paulson will retain his stake in PTFC. But he will no longer be involved in day-to-day operations. A team source confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive that Paulson will no longer be involved in operational decisions for either club.

General Counsel Heather Davis will step in as interim president and chief executive of both clubs, and Davis-appointed chief operating officer Sarah Keane will lead the search for a permanent chief executive. Both Davis and Keane are committed to having players from Thorns and Timbers meet their final CEO candidates, Paulson said in his statement. A team source confirmed to The Oregonian/OregonLive that Davis and Keane will be the ones making operational decisions at the PTFC.

Paulson’s decision to switch franchises to get away from team operations comes after he fired top executives Gavin Wilkinson and Mike Golub last week following a damning investigative report from US Soccer that revealed Paulson and Wilkinson activated and vouched for former Thorns coach Paul Riley, who was accused by former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly of sexual misconduct. Golub was accused of making an inappropriate sexual remark to former Thorns coach Cindy Parlow Cone in 2013 and has previously been criticized for fomenting a “toxic” work environment for his employees.

“The Portland Thorns were created to be a beacon of what is possible in women’s sport,” Paulson said in her statement. “A successful team is built on trust, equality and responsibility, and today I hold myself accountable for not doing enough. I owe Sinead and Mana, the Thorns players and the NWSL my tireless efforts to ensure that what happened in 2015 never happens again.

“I apologize to our players, the organization and the Portland community for the mistakes we made, including not being publicly transparent about Paul Riley’s firing. The failures and mistakes of our organization were ultimately my responsibility, and my only responsibility.It is devastating to me that my goal of creating the shining example of what a women’s sports team could be has become synonymous with heinous and predatory behavior.

Paulson said while the future of the organization is unclear, ensuring the “long-term health and success” of the Thorns franchise – far more tenuous than that of the Timbers – is of “critical importance. ” for him. A sale of one or both teams is still a possibility, but Paulson did not address the issue in his statement.

“While a decision has yet to be made on the future of Merritt’s ownership of the Thorns, her North Star is to ensure the franchise’s continued viability and that she remains in Portland,” a statement said. team source at The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Paulson, 49, son of former Goldman Sachs CEO and US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, bought the Timbers in 2007 and joined Major League Soccer in 2011, paying a $35 million expansion fee. The Thorns joined the NWSL as one of its founding member teams in 2013.

The club, known as PTFC – combining the Timbers and Thorns under one business umbrella – is reportedly valued at $685 million today.

Paulson’s accomplishments as owner include transforming Providence Park into one of the top football venues in the United States, establishing two perennial field contenders in the Timbers and Thorns – they combined to win three championships – business relationships with tendrils all over the city of Portland and beyond, and helping to build and embrace Portland’s reputation as “Soccer City, USA”.

Famous for his outspoken, brash and often intemperate social media, Paulson has earned a reputation as a new kind of professional sports owner: one whose constant accessibility has often served as a double-edged sword. He could be basking in cheers chopping a slab of log with Timber Joey’s chainsaw one day, then sitting in hot water for calling a hypercritical fan a “loser” on Twitter the next. He was also no stranger to calling out game officials, in real life and on social media.

The early years of Paulson’s tenure as landlord were relatively scandal-free, despite his pompous personality. But according to the US Soccer report, Paulson knew as early as 2014 that Riley was verbally abusing players, and in 2015 the club quietly fired the Thorns coach after Shim accused Riley of sexual harassment. The reason for his dismissal – and that he was fired at all – was not made public until October 2021, when The Athletic reported on Shim and Farrelly’s allegations.

Additionally, Paulson, Wilkinson, US Soccer and the NWSL did not pass on details of the dismissal to future teams Riley would coach, according to the US Soccer report.

Paulson continued to vouch for Riley in the years following his firing, neglecting to inform the Western New York Flash of the reasons for Riley’s firing. In March 2016, according to the US Soccer Report, Paulson told the Flash president in an email: “Good luck this season and congratulations on hiring Riley. I have a lot of affection for him.”

Meanwhile, in an open letter to fans following The Athletic’s report, Paulson called Riley “a predatory coach”.

Off-court scandals have plagued Paulson and the PTFC front office over the past year.

Adding to the issues surrounding Riley, former Timbers player Andy Polo was accused of domestic abuse by his partner Genesis Alarcon in February. The Timbers terminated Polo’s contract shortly after, but the club were aware of Alarcon’s previous allegations and sent club representatives to the couple’s residence after an alleged incident in May 2021.

The Timbers failed to report the incident to the league, an action that ultimately resulted in a $25,000 fine from MLS. Wilkinson later renewed Polo’s contract, but claimed the club were looking to trade him. The alleged mishandling of the incident underscored fans’ frustrations with how the club handles issues when women are the victims.

Front office relations with the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters have frayed in recent years, reaching a point where the groups regularly stage in-game protests and long periods of silence, while sometimes even boycotting concessions. Some longtime fans canceled season tickets due to the myriad off-field scandals, although attendance at Timbers and Thorns games was down only slightly.

Paulson was eventually asked by the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters to sell the clubs – after the American Football Inquiry was published – driving an already deep rift between the club owner and his fans. . Fan group leaders said they would cut off all communication with the PTFC front office until Paulson sold both teams and fired Wilkinson and Golub. He has now done everything but divest himself of his financial interests in the teams.

“As a leadership group, we have been lied to,” the statement from TA, Riveters and 107IST said hours after the American Football investigation was released. “While we remained cautiously optimistic in every meeting and every interaction with PTFC management, reading the report highlighted the multiple bold lies we were told, both in meetings and at town halls.”

As he steps away from the operations side after 15 years at the helm, Paulson has a complicated legacy initially defined by his creation and nurturing of a unique and beloved Portland sporting institution, but marred by scandals. off the field and a broken relationship with some of the most passionate football fans in the country.

Read the full American Football report here.

— Ryan Clarke, rclarke@oregonian.com, Twitter: @RyanTClarke

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