Portland Thorns FC owner Merritt Paulson to sell NWSL team amid investigation into former coach Paul Riley

Portland Thorns FC owner Merritt Paulson plans to sell the team after 10 years at the head of the club as one of the NWSL's founding franchises in 2012. Paulson won't sell the Portland Timbers of MLS, though.

This news comes after Paulson stepped down as the club's CEO in October following an investigation into the systemic abuse of players in the NWSL by U.S. Soccer and Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates. That report found Paulson and others at the club did nothing to stop former head coach Paul Riley, who has been accused of sexually assaulting multiple women during his time in the NWSL.

"The past year has been a challenging one for our Club and our players," Paulson said in a statement. "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 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."

In addition to selling the team, Paulson said in the statement that he will donate $1 million to establish a Player Safety Office at the NWSL. There is no timetable for the sale, per The Athletic. Paulson added that he would provide "favorable usage terms" for any new owner to keep the Thorns in Portland at Providence Park, where the Timbers also play.

A joint statement from independent supporters of the Timbers and Thorns suspended all relations with both clubs and called for Paulson to sell the team when the Yates report was originally released in October. Thorns captain Becky Sauerbaum also said in October that any owners, executives or U.S. Soccer officials who failed to protect players "should be gone.”

Paulson fired Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson and president of business Mike Golub soon after the release of the Yates report. Now, it looks like Paulson himself will be the next to go.

Portland Thorns' price

The Thorns could fetch a high price as one of the most successful clubs in the NWSL. Portland won three championships since its founding a decade ago, including the inaugural title in 2013 as well as the 2022 title. The Thorns also won the NWSL Challenge Cup in 2021.

Peregrine Sports, LLC – the holdings company which also owns the Timbers and is run by Paulson and his father, Hank Paulson – is reportedly seeking $30-50 million for the Thorns, according to Willamette Week, a local newspaper in Portland. The record for the sale of an NWSL franchise is $35 million, set by businesswoman Michele Kang when she bought the Washington Spirit earlier this year.

There are already a few interested buyers, according to The Athletic. The biggest party, per multiple reports, is led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong, who co-launched health and wellness tech start-up Next Ventures with cyclist Lance Armstrong in 2019.

Private equity firm Arctos Sports Partners also owns a 15-percent stake in Peregrine (and therefore the Thorns and Timbers) after a September deal with Paulson. Arctos also has an ownership stake in more than 20 other professional teams including the Utah Jazz, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Golden State Warriors.

Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is trying to sell his NWSL team. (Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).
Portland Thorns and Timbers owner Merritt Paulson is trying to sell his NWSL team. (Photo by Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images). (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)