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Report: Merritt Paulson in talks to sell Portland Thorns

Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson sought to keep the cause of coach Paul Riley's dismissal from the club under wraps. (Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Portland Thorns could soon find themselves under new ownership, Portland alternative newspaper Willamette Week reported.

Paulson and his NWSL club found themselves at the center of the NWSL abuse scandal in the wake of the Sally Yates report released in October.

When coach Paul Riley was fired by the Thorns in 2015 after sexual harassment and coercion allegations, Paulson kept the reason for his dismissal under wraps publicly, which allowed Riley to continue coaching in the league. Riley’s misconduct, and the Thorns’ role in allowing him to continue coaching, made up a significant part of the findings of the U.S. Soccer-commissioned investigation.

Now Paulson is in talks to sell the Thorns, though he aims to maintain control of his MLS club, the Portland Timbers, sources with knowledge of the situation told Willamette Week.

One potential buyer for the Thorns is a group of women led by Melanie Strong, a former Nike executive. She left Nike to begin investment company Next Ventures VC in partnership with Lance Armstrong. The Oregonian listed Strong as a possible buyer for both teams in October.

Strong confirmed the negotiations to Willamette Week but declined to say if the talks only involved the Thorns.

“Nothing we can talk about yet, but I will share everything I can soon,” she said in a text message.

Paulson is hoping the sale of the Thorns to a group of women would allow him to keep the Timbers, the stadium deal and media rights, sources told Willamette Week. (The MLS commissioner said in early November that there is no reason for Paulson to sell the Timbers.)

Paulson stepped down as the CEO of the Timbers and Thorns in October in the wake of the NWSL abuse investigation. But calls have increased for Paulson to sell the Thorns, and reports indicated that the team could garner an NWSL record sale price even before it won its third NWSL championship.

Both the Thorns and the Timbers are owned by Peregrine Sports LLC, which is controlled by Paulson and his father. The group is reportedly seeking $30 million to $50 million for the Thorns, Willamette Week reported.

“The worst thing that could happen is selling the Thorns out from under the Timbers,” said Chris Henderson, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who has studied the Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army fan groups for the past few years. “If that happens, the Thorns would be in trouble. They are more vulnerable than they are as a package with the Timbers.”

Portland officials were supportive of the possibility of a women-led ownership group for the Thorns, though none were aware of negotiations to sell the Thorns apart from the Timbers.

“I would love to see a women-led group come forward and successfully purchase the Thorns,” commissioner Carmen Rubio said. “That would be a moment to celebrate.”

Others, though, continued to call for Paulson to sell both teams, including commissioner Mingus Mapps and the fan groups.

“If he’s unfit to own one team, why should he be fit to own the other?” said Gabby Rosas, president of the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, a nonprofit that represents the Rose City Riveters and Timbers Army. “You can’t tell me that one half of the club is broken and the other is fine.”