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Merritt Paulson

Portland soccer mogul with some major goals


Merritt Paulson, 39, is one of the fastest-rising sports executives in the nation. Named to the exclusive Forty Under 40 class by Sports Business Journal, Paulson is the owner and president of the Portland, Ore., Timbers; a success on and off the field not only in Major League Soccer but professional sports overall.

On Wednesday, March 21, Paulson will be the guest of the City Club of Boise to share his story of how an East Coast executive (he was top management with the NBA and HBO) became a West Coast sports mogul.

Prior to his Boise visit, Boise Weekly spoke with Paulson about soccer, his well-known father and being a late bloomer.

Were you any kind a jock as a kid?

I played everything. Baseball, tennis, basketball, and I first put on a pair of skis when I was 2 years old. I was certainly athletic, but I was really short until my senior year of high school. I was an extreme example of being a late bloomer. I'm 6-feet, 4-inches now.

I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your dad [Henry "Hank" Paulson was the assistant secretary of defense in the early 1970s, CEO of Goldman Sachs in the 1990s and Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush]. What was it like having such a high-profile figure for a father?

Through many of his years at Goldman Sachs, he was well-known in the business community, but none of my friends knew what my dad did. We lived a very modest life. That's just the way my parents are.

Why did you set your sights on Portland?

It was a city with a broad population of 2.4 million people with only one major league sports team. It was a very unique opportunity.

When you're assessing a sports market, how much of it is a science and how much an art?

There's definitely a science to it--everything from looking at the market on an analytical basis to the facility, the leases and everything that comes with the deal. And of course, the art is all about your gut feeling and what ultimately makes sense.

Everything I've read about the first season of the Timbers was that it was a huge success.

It was a very long haul to make MLS happen in Portland, and far from a certain thing. But I can tell you that out of the gate, we had one of the best expansion team launches in any sport that you'll ever see. On the field, we came very close to making the playoffs. Off the field, I would be hard-pressed to say what could have gone better.

You sold out every home game, even before your season started.

It was a lot of hard work with a great staff--putting everything together from our marketing, to our ticket sales, to putting a great team together on the field.

And you have a significant waiting list for season tickets.

About 7,000 people.

How do you manage a waiting list that size?

We sell 15,000 season tickets. We need the ability to do some group sales and some game-day sales, but season tickets are your life-blood.

What's the chance of 500 people from that list getting season tickets next year?

We actually had a lot more than that get them this year, because we increased our stadium capacity from 18,000 to just over 20,400.

What's your season ticket holder retention rate?

Ninety-seven percent renewal. That's really good in the sports world, even by NFL standards. Scarcity is a powerful thing. While we would love for our facility to get even bigger, right now, I like the fact that it's a really tough ticket.

There is clearly a generation gap when it comes to interest in soccer. Most young adults grew up around a soccer field, but older folks usually have little to no interest in the sport.

I get approached by older folks that tell me, "I'm a huge sports fan; I never liked soccer and had no interest in checking out a Timbers game until somebody dragged me to it and it's the coolest atmosphere I've ever seen." We have thousands of fans on their feet throughout the whole game, chanting and singing. And the energy and electricity comes completely from the fans, not some music or video that's being produced like you see in many other sports.

Pardon the pun, but what are your goals for the next few years?

To become an elite sports franchise, not just in Major League Soccer, but any sport. We're off to a good start, but complacency is our worst enemy. We take nothing for granted and continue to improve.