The NWSL's Portland Thorns, who won their third league title in October to cap a turbulent season, is for sale in the aftermath of a lengthy independent investigation into abuse within women's soccer and the NWSL. Owner Merritt Paulson, who also owns MLS' Portland Timbers, announced his decision to sell Thursday. He will retain ownership of the Timbers.
The investigation, conducted by former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates for U.S. Soccer, indicted Thorns leadership with failing to take appropriate action in light of allegations of player abuse and sexual misconduct against the club's former head coach, Paul Riley. Yates' firm also said the Thorns were one of three clubs, along with Racing Louisville FC and the Chicago Red Stars, that failed to cooperate throughout the investigation, leading to calls for Paulson to sell the team. (The Thorns have since pledged to fully participate in the NWSL and NWSLPA's still-ongoing joint investigation.)
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"I regret the role our organization played in the failures identified by the investigations," Paulson said in a statement. "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 [the] 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."
Paulson did not establish a timeline for a sale, saying only that the organization was committed to finding "the right group to take the reins" and would not rush the process. Paulson's Peregrine Sports, the umbrella under which both the Thorns and Timbers are held, will retain its ownership of the MLS club. Peregrine Sports also operates the Thorns' home venue, Providence Park; Paulson articulated a desire for the NWSL club to continue to play at the venue.
An all-female investor group led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong is reportedly already preparing a bid for majority ownership of the Thorns that would value the franchise at $60 million, according to ESPN.
One of the few profitable NWSL clubs, Portland's sale price will give a good indication of the new floor for a successful franchise. The Washington Spirit was valued at $35 million earlier this year when Michele Kang acquired controlling ownership, and both Gotham FC and Angel City recently raised capital at record valuations ($40 million and more than $100 million, respectively)-markers of significant growth for the league. As recently as 2020, teams paid between $2 million to $5 million to enter the NWSL.
Paulson, the son of former Goldman Sachs CEO and U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, sold a 15% stake in Peregrine Sports to Arctos Sports Partners last year. The combined Timbers-Thorns business is worth $685 million, according to Sportico's MLS Valuations, though that accounts for several sponsorship deals that include both clubs as well as Peregrine's operating rights at Providence Park, which will presumably not transfer to new ownership.
In his statement, Paulson also committed $1 million as seed funding for a department dedicated to player safety within the league.
"I support [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," NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. "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."
Paulson and the Thorns had long set the standard for "success" within the NWSL-at least externally. Until the arrival of Angel City this season, Portland led the league in attendance by a landslide year after year (the Thorns averaged 15,543 fans this regular season, good for second in the 12-team league behind the Los Angeles expansion team), boasted top-notch facilities for the team and saw consistent success on the field. But the club's public image plummeted when it was caught in last year's widespread NWSL scandal.
Yates' report dove deeper into accusations against Riley, both during his time in Portland and with the North Carolina Courage, and several others within the league. It found that Thorns executives enabled Riley after allegations of harassment and sexual misconduct were brought against him by two Portland players. An internal investigation led to the disgraced coach's firing; neither the investigation nor the reason for his departure was made public, and Thorns executives went on to vouch for Riley for head coaching positions with other teams that ultimately brought him back to the NWSL.
Yates' report also said Thorns management withheld information around Riley's 2015 departure and tried to impede her investigation.
After the report's release, Paulson removed himself as CEO of both clubs. He also fired the Thorns former president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson, as well as former president of business Mike Golub, who was accused of making an inappropriate sexual remark to current U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone in 2013 when she coached the Thorns. In Paulson's absence, general counsel Heather Davis was tapped as interim president to oversee business operations for the Timbers and Thorns.
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