Merritt Paulson (pictured) has announced his intention to sell National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) club the Portland Thorns in the wake of revelations made in the Yates Report into abuse and misconduct throughout the league.
In a statement yesterday (December 1), Paulson said: “The past year has been a challenging one for our club and our players.
"I regret the role our organization played in the failures identified by the investigations. 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 has been under pressure to sell both the Thorns and the related Timbers, the men’s Major League Soccer side, since a report released in October by former US deputy attorney general Sally Yates and the King & Spalding law firm detailed abuses and misconduct in the NWSL had been “systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims” and that the league, its teams, and US Soccer failed to “respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse.”
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Specific revelations were made regarding misconduct against former Thorns manager Paul Riley, for which he was fired in 2015, and the club, which sought to keep quiet the reasons for Riley’s departure, allowing him to continue working at other NWSL clubs.
In the wake of the report, Paulson stepped down from his role as executive of the Thorns, while Alaska Airlines, a long-standing primary sponsor of the Thorns and the Timbers, redirected its club funding to the NWSL Players Association. Other sponsors severed ties with the Thorns altogether.
Paulson said ownership change for the Thorns “will not impact” his ownership of the Timbers through Peregrine Sports, the parent company that officially owns both teams, adding: “We are committed to continue to work collaboratively with the NWSL to ensure we find the right group to take the reins.
“We will not rush into a decision as we want to get it right for our players, for Portland, and for women’s soccer.”
Earlier in the day, US media reported an all-women investor group led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong is set to formally submit a bid to acquire a majority stake in the Thorns that would value the team at $60 million.
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said she supports Paulson’s decision to sell the club, which won its third league championship in October.
In a statement, she said: “The Thorns, its players, its dedicated fanbase, and the entire Portland community have played a key role in our league's first decade and are critically important to the future success of the NWSL.”
Meanwhile, fellow NWSL team Chicago Red Stars have also reportedly been put up for sale by majority owner Arnim Whisler, two months after the club’s board of directors removed him as the club’s chairman and handed operational control of the club to the executive team amid the backlash of the report.
Revelations made in the report included Whisler dismissing multiple concerns brought to his attention by players about the abusive behavior of coach Rory Dames dating back to 2014. The coach eventually resigned in November 2021 amid accusations of verbal and emotional abuse by several players.
In response, the players of the club demanded Whisler sell the club.
A person familiar with the franchise told news outlet Sportico, Whisler has formally engaged investment bank Inner Circle Sports to facilitate the sale. Inner Circle is also currently leading the NWSL’s expansion round.
Whisler was a founding owner of the Red Stars in 2007, which went on to become an NWSL franchise upon the league’s launch in 2013.
A simultaneous investigation is still being conducted jointly by the league and the players’ union, which new NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman has said will be concluded by the end of the year.