We've all spent a lot of time on this site dissecting the play of the Timbers, the coach of the Timbers, and the direction of the Timbers. We've talked about getting rid of certain players, we've talked about firing the coach, and we've even sort of touched on what I think is the real problem, even though I have no way of proving it.
For the first several seasons of the Timbers' MLS existence, Merritt Paulson was everywhere. He made himself the center of attention when he didn't really need to, he picked fights on social media when it was probably smarter to stay quiet, and from 2011-2019 or so, he basically made himself the public face of the Timbers. He made his team his identity - no longer was he merely "Hank Paulson's kid", but he was The Owner Of The Timbers, who were, at the time, one of the premier franchises in MLS.
And at first, it was all great! MLS loved having a team in Portland, Portland loved the Timbers. MLS brought the All-Star Game here, and then in 2015, the Timbers went to Columbus and beat the Crew for their first MLS Cup victory. After the game, as we all celebrated all night in a bar in Columbus, I said to my friends that I hoped this title was the building block for long-lasting success, and not a one-off that will remain nothing but a warm nostalgic memory in a sea of unremarkable seasons. And yet look where we are!
We all know the issues with the PTFC front office, so I won't re-hash them here, but I have a theory as to why the Timbers are where they are. This theory has absolutely no factual knowledge behind it, I have no inside information, so take all this with those grains of salt in mind.
What if...Merritt Paulson just doesn't give a shit any more?
After the entirely avoidable clash with the TA over the Iron Front flag, after all the FO investigations, the brutal findings, and all the fallout from everything relating to that over the last few years, Merritt decided to "step back", which he defined as selling the Thorns (good!) and only being the owner/funder of the Timbers but not having day-to-day involvement (jury's still out!).
But what if that "step back" is him sulking because nobody likes him any more, and basically saying "if they don't like me, I'll just do the bare minimum and let the team rot". What if he just makes sure payroll runs on time, the lights stay on, and that otherwise things just sort of...sit there, not actually getting better or changing in any meaningful way?
This approach has sort of worked out in the last few years - the Timbers keep sneaking into the playoffs, and in 2021 they snuck into the MLS Cup final. But there hasn't been a season since 2019 when the Timbers looked like legitimate threats to dominate the league, or even to be strong contenders to win much of anything. They do, however, scrape into the playoffs enough to keep a fairly large section of the fan base happy, and that fact seems to be enough for Merritt to justify doing only what he's doing now, and no more.
But what if Ned comes to him and says "hey boss, we've done the numbers, and in 2024 we have X dollars to spend and these roster slots coming open, what do you think of this strategy for the next few seasons" and MP is just sitting at home, with his feet up, going "yeah, sure, fine, whatever"? What if Ned brings MP a couple prospective signings, and MP goes "let me get back to you on that", then three weeks later, after no word back from MP, those two players have signed elsewhere? Unless Ned has 100% autonomy, MP will always have the final say in things, and what if MP just doesn't say anything?
Hold on, you may be saying - on the surface, this looks like a reasonably successful team! Two Cup finals in three years! Playoffs almost every year! Well, sure. But look around the league, and you'll see teams both new (LAFC, Austin, Atlanta) and old (Seattle, Philadelphia, Toronto) pushing the quality and style and level of the league - both on pitch and off - forward, and Portland by comparison looks very much like last year's news. The Timbers have given the league no reason to care that they exist, and the league has moved on and said "fair enough! See ya!" and evolved itself quite a bit, while the Timbers want it to still be a 2015-era league.
Yes, the Timbers signed Evander this off season, and that's not nothing. But, in the last two or three offseasons, the Timbers have shown very little ambition, and very little motivation to elevate themselves into the top echelon of the league. And I have to believe a lot of that comes from the very top.
The part of owning a team that sports owners know, but will never advertise or publicize, is that owning a sports team is a guaranteed, nailed-on, gold-plated, no-strings-attached investment dynamo. You'll hear a lot about how teams "struggle" to make money every season, and you'll hear owners talk about how their team "takes a loss" every year, but that's only their right hand, distracting you from what happens in their left hand.
What happens there? That's where the money from actually selling a team goes. That's why some owners don't bother to put much money, time, or energy into their teams year over year; they know that they can sell at any time and absolutely rake it in, and that's what they count on. This is a very extreme example, to be sure, but the Steinbrenner family bought the Yankees in 1973 for $8.8 million. Forbes' latest estimates show the Yankees, still owned by the Steinbrenner family, to be worth about $7 billion. The Wilpon family bought the Mets for $80M in 1986, and sold them for $2.4 billion a couple years ago. And there are countless examples of this. There are, on the other hand, no (0) modern examples of a sports team selling for less than it was bought for.
That principle holds true for literally every sports team in every league in the US - the money is not in the operation of a team, but the sale of it. And there is a lot of money to be made in selling a team. Which brings us back to Merritt. He paid $40 million in MLS expansion fees for the Timbers in 2010. The Forbes valuation of the Timbers as of last year is $685 million. If MP sold today, that'd be a 1600% return on his investment, or an annualized 24%. How's your retirement plan doing?
So. Given the set of existing circumstances here:
- Wildly unpopular owner shrouded in controversy
- Team stagnating year over year, sneaking some good seasons here and there but not really building on success in a measurable way
- League exploding in popularity nationwide, driving up expansion fees from Merritt's $40M to St Louis City's $200M
- Overall team valuations skyrocketing, both in MLS and in US sports in general
it is entirely possible that Merritt took a look at the landscape and has decided to do whatever the own-a-team equivalent of shoving a new shirt he bought in the back of a drawer somewhere and never wearing it is. It's possible that this is who the Timbers are, and this is who they will be, until Merritt decides to sell the team, which may happen in a couple years and may also never happen, depending on his particular economic wants and desires.
That's possible entirely because he knows that whenever it is he does sell, he will make an absolute ton of money, so he's in no rush to actually do anything active with that nice shirt he has stuffed in that drawer. He has no reason to. Any action he takes runs the risk of turning his eventual massive windfall into just a huge windfall, so why rock the boat?
All this may mean that until that sale happens, we as fans are stuck with whatever half-decent product that gets thrown out on the pitch in the meantime, vainly hoping for an owner who wants to actively manage a team in order to build a sustained and sustainable winner. And all because Merritt seemingly can't put his hurt ego aside and do what's best for the team long-term.