THE THOUSAND-STRONG CROWD in an airport hangar on a wet December afternoon was weird, even by Portland standards. Young women with green fauxhawks chomped mini-burgers alongside suits with crew cuts. Men sporting elaborate tattoos and ancient T-shirts drank free ale just yards from the buttoned-down son of an ex-cabinet officer. A punk drum corps teed up the prepared remarks from the president of Alaska Airlines.
Then the hangar door opened to reveal an Alaska 737 emblazoned with an extra splash of green paint: the image of a scarf bearing the logo of the Portland Timbers, the city’s newly minted Major League Soccer team. Hundreds of fans—many wearing the same scarf—greeted the sight with a rapturous chant: When I root, I root for the Timbers! Grit met glitz. And as the Timbers begin their first MLS season, the question will be: how well will those two elements play together for Portland’s first new big-league team in four decades?
Spurred by Alaska’s sponsorship and billboards festooning every downtown view, the Timbers reached 10,000 season ticket sales on January 3, and expect to pack up to another 9,000 into a radically revamped PGE Park through next fall.
It’s a huge moment for local sports culture, and especially for the fans who sustained the team for 10 seasons without glossy ad campaigns. Even though the Timbers played in an obscure second-tier league, an exceptionally loud fan base flocked to the green-and-gold banner, led by the anarchic (but deceptively organized) cadre known as the Timbers Army. Despite America’s reluctance to embrace real football, Portland adopted this low-budget team as a symbol of its own headstrong pride.
Enter Merritt Paulson, 38-year-old son of George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary and the Timbers’ ambitious owner, who bankrolled the team’s final push to MLS, the top level of US pro soccer. His timing was impeccable. Last season, the average MLS match drew more than 16,000 fans—creeping up on pro basketball and hockey attendences, and surpassing crowds for many venerable European soccer leagues. The Timbers themselves drew an average of more than 10,000 fans a game in 2010.
It all adds up to a lot of buzz, but also a lot of pressure. “We always wanted to do well,” says Gavin Wilkinson, a longtime Timbers player who’s now the club’s general manager. “But to sell more than 10,000 season tickets demands a different level of performance.”
The same goes for fans. Can the Timbers Army’s raucous, low-budget enthusiasm survive alongside the bottom-line demands of major league sports? As the Timbers’ MLS debut kicks off, both the club and its supp-orters will need to capture a very special lightning in a bottle. We’ll be rooting as much for our fans as for our team.