PORTLAND, Ore. — The relationship between the Portland Timbers and Thorns and their influential fan organizations is changing.
The deadline to renew season tickets is Friday, Jan. 21, but some of the soccer clubs' most dedicated fans do not plan to buy this time, instead demanding more transparency and information about the investigations of sexual misconduct by a former coach.
In fall 2021, The Athletic published an article featuring two former Thorns players, who joined accusations against former head coach Paul Riley.
In 2015, when one player brought up complaints, Riley was suspended, then let go a week later. Club leadership did not publicly acknowledge misconduct allegations at the time, and Riley went on to coach another team. Riley denied allegations.
The Portland Thorns and Timbers promised a new independent investigation after The Athletic article. The U.S. Soccer Federation also launched an investigation.
At the time, team owner Merritt Paulsen said the issue did not become public for this reason:
"We then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley's contract...guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy. I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women's professional soccer."
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Months later, some members and leaders of the Portland club's largest fan groups said they're frustrated more information isn't available.
"I feel really sad about what's happening right now honestly," said Rachel Greenough, member of the Rose City Riveters.
The fan organization falls under the umbrella of the Timbers Army and 107 Independent Supporters' Trust (107IST), which have historically had close relationships and collaboration with Timbers/Thorns leadership.
Before the latest investigations, 107IST leadership met monthly with the Portland Timbers and Thorns administration. Those meetings have stopped.
"We'd love to come to a place where we can work with them productively," Greenough said.
"This is an important issue that we can't allow to go away or be ignored," said Sherrilynn "Sheba" Rawson, a board member of 107IST for about 10 years.
Rawson emphasized the problems lie in a lack of transparency and the way Riley's case was originally handled.
"If those allegations are true, then that means the front office allowed an abuser to continue to work in the league for years," Rawson explained.
Rawson said 107IST is now getting copied on messages from other fans who are telling the club reasons for not renewing their season tickets. Rawson did not know how many, but said the messages are coming in more frequently than ever before.
Greenough is one of the ardent fans who does not plan to renew.
"Feels like something that would have been really unthinkable a while ago," she said.
A spokesperson for the Timbers and Thorns released a statement about renewal numbers:
“Renewals for both the Timbers and Thorns are going extremely well and we will finish at or near the top in both leagues by our Jan. 21 deadline, which is the latest it’s been in club history. Renewal numbers industry-wide are down due to the pandemic, but we will exceed 90% for the Timbers and close to that for the Thorns. Additionally, new season ticket sales have been robust as we continue to grow both fanbases and we expect both teams’ season ticket base to be equal or higher than last season.”
Another statement originally issued to ESPN then addressed the conversations with 107IST:
“For most of the last decade we have enjoyed a fair and balanced relationship with the 107ist board and have given them unprecedented access, input and transparency into the club. Most recently we allotted 7,250 MLS Cup tickets at $60 or less per seat in the Timbers Army section and adjacent reserved seating sections, granted the 107ist request to purchase 110 MLS Cup tickets for their own use before the general public had access and facilitated on-field photo credentials for the MLS Cup Final. That said, over the last three years the relationship with the 107ist board has changed. We believe the 107ist needs to be more inclusive and open to differing viewpoints from its small group of leadership. If a relationship is one-sided in a desire to drive protest over facts and player’s desires, it isn’t sustainable. We’ve come to the conclusion that the previous framework for dialogue and communication is due for a refresh and we will no longer be holding 107ist meetings in their current form as we look to increase our broader communication and input loops to the entirety of the supporters groups.”
The Timbers/Thorns spokesperson clarified to KGW Sunday afternoon that the club is not cutting ties with fan organizations, but rather looking to change the way it engages with fans. It hopes to establish broader ways of reaching more fans, such as town hall meetings, instead of simply meeting with board members of fan groups.
"We're all volunteers. We do this because we love our teams," Rawson said. "The last thing any of us really wants to do is engage in protest. We'd much rather go to a stadium and sing and cheer for a team we love."
"We'll have to see what it looks like going forward," Greenough added.