Some of the greatest success stories in sport in the past few years have come when an organization has embraced the community and is a key part of the fabric of their city or town, and also turn that success into excellence on the field. We saw it last year, and again this year, with the Golden State Warriors. The Detroit Tigers and the Arizona Diamondbacks have done the same in baseball, the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks in hockey and the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. However it seems like no team sport in North America has done a better job of that sense of community than Major League Soccer.
Part of the reason is necessity; MLS is still the newest property and the sport in North America has been built from the grassroots up in the past 20 years or so. The clubs have come along and looked at the ways European followings were built, and in the best cases have implemented those traditions, created their own and have found great levels of success. Of course it’s not all rosy, some clubs whose stadia were built in suburban areas at a time when communities are migrating back into cities have struggled to draw and gain market share, some clubs are looking for better homes, and some have not had the right mix of community and onfield success, but for those who have had, Orlando, the LA Galaxy, Seattle, Vancouver, Kansas City, the recent work of the New York Red Bulls, the results have been textbook examples of how the system can work best for all, and not just for professional soccer.
One of the best, if not the best, examples of community success leading to onfield growth is in Portland, where the Timbers last week captured the MLS crown. Led by owner Merritt Paulson and an elite front office group headed by longtime sports executives like Mike Golub, the Timbers have embodied all that is positive about sport since their inception. More importantly they have taken those best practices learned elsewhere…the NBA, Nike etc…and applied them on a micro level to all that has worked with their club, and all that hard work paid off with their fans, their partners and their staff, enjoying a championship on the field to go along with their elite status as a business off the field.
That type of success is not easy to achieve, and when both pieces, the business side and the onfield side, hit stride together it can be magical and sometimes hard to sustain. The key is being ready for when that happens, and Portland has the business and the community pieces well in place as their soccer fortunes rose on the field. Some of it was luck, some of it was great timing, some of it was taking advantage of a community that fits the culture of soccer (and it doesn’t hurt to have a stadium, Providence Park, whose location became beneficial as people moved back downtown after years of neglect), but most of it was smart thinking for the long term. Since joining the league, the Timbers have sold out every match for 90 straight home games. The season-ticket renewal rate last year was 99%, a league record, and that was not predicated on national stars or huge on field success at first.
May of those thoughts were intimated by Golub when we did a q and a in 2011 for The Big Lead, and he talked about how the business was being built as he was hailed as MLS Executive of the Year. Those thoughts then were pretty prophetic, and here were some of those principles that came to bear last week in Columbus:
Be Authentic: At every level of the organization the Timbers built an organization in a way that authentically reflected Portland. They have an ethos in the company of really listening to and understanding fans and making decisions with their best interest in mind, whether that was retro-fitting their stadium, conducting community outreach or having unprecedented access to coaches, players and fans year-round. The colors, the logo, the traditions with supporters groups were not forced; they were a product of partnership.
Understand The History: The Timbers were born as an NASL team in 1975 and enjoyed remarkable success on and off the field. They were the impetus for Portland becoming a hotbed for the sport at every level and earning the moniker Soccer City USA. Manifestations of that include one of the strongest and best supported collegiate soccer programs at University of Portland and the best supported minor league soccer team in the country, during the Timbers Division 2 years, immediately preceding their ascendancy to Major League Soccer.
Soccer has long been in the DNA of the city and was a big reason why owner Merritt Paulson and the league were convinced the Timbers would be a huge success. That history connected an older demo to the current team, and gave younger fans a great understanding of all that the current club had dome over the years.
Learn From Others: Over their history the Trail Blazers of the NBA have helped make Portland such a vital sports city. The Blazers have always done a great job connecting their past with their present and taking those best practices and applying them to the Timbers growth was also a key. Inclusion, not alienation.
Understand The Community: While Portlanders are undoubtedly huge outdoor and individual sport enthusiasts, they are also some of the most loyal and passionate sports fans in the country. There is a huge civic pride for all things that are local and that reflect positively on the city and region. The breadth and depth of their community platform is remarkable and has been recognized multiple times as one of the 10 most philanthropic businesses in the state. The organization believes it’s their duty to give back the way they do. It is not just a matter of talk and writing a check, they find many ways to build sustainable programs that can have an effect on housing, education, women’s issues and health, and those initiatives make the Timbers, and their NWSL team the Thorns, a key part of the city and the state.
Long Term Success: Owner Paulson has always preached building this franchise for long-term sustainable success. Their relationship with our fans and with corporate partners is predicated on that philosophy. Many sponsorship deals are long-term and are typically with the most iconic and established local/statewide companies. That success is not predicated on on-field performance, which is surely unpredictable. It puts long term goals ahead of the shortest, but it also means that when winning comes, the rising tide lifts all boats; business, avid supporter, community, casual fan and performance on the field. It does not go away when the winning stops or the balls are put away until the spring. It is ongoing and it continues to innovate.
Now none of this is new, and it big markets it may be hard to replicate. What makes it work is that the Timbers organization has taken the time, and the effort to make sure they understand all aspects of the business, with one part lifting the other. Often times in professional, and even college sports, groups operate in silos. Business operations has no understanding of broadcast, sales never talks to player development, coaching has a myopic vision of the business side, and it makes it hard for it all to work. It does not have to be that way, no matter what the market size, and the Timbers are the best example of having all work together for a big win, on and off the pitch.