Editor's Note: A previous version of this story claimed that the Portland Timbers are selling season tickets to members of the general public not on the team’s waitlist for the first time in more than a decade, which is not correct. The story has been corrected to accurately reflect the club's ticketing situation.
With the 2022 Major League Soccer (MLS) season fast approaching, the Portland Timbers are working hard to sell their remaining allotment of season tickets.
On Wednesday, Timbers fans received an email from the club with the subject line “Portland Timbers Annual Membership On-Sale.” The email included a note that “limited reserve seats remain.”
According to a club spokesperson, there are still thousands of people on the club’s season ticket waitlist—but, given their particular seat preferences, a number of season ticket spots remain unclaimed for the coming season.
“The Timbers season ticket waitlist is active, though many on the list have specific desired locations, which frees up inventory to sell once renewals and relocations are finished,” the spokesperson said in a statement provided to the Mercury.
The club declined to reveal exactly how many people are on the waitlist.
The current ticket availability situation represents a change from years past when Timbers tickets were exceedingly hard to obtain. The club initially sold out its complement of season tickets before the start of its inaugural MLS season in 2011, and opened a season ticket waitlist that at one point had more than 13,000 people on it—more than half the capacity of the entire stadium.
“That [waitlist] was a selling point for the league,” Joshua Duder, a longtime season ticket holder who did not renew for 2022, said. “The selling point is, look at the Timbers. Look at what the Timbers Army does to create atmosphere—and then look at the waitlist.”
The Timbers still likely have one of the league’s biggest season ticket bases and an enviable level of support. But that level of extraordinary demand, once the envy of MLS, has been complicated.
There are likely several reasons why. In 2019, the Timbers completed a renovation of Providence Park that expanded its capacity by some 4,000 seats—adding season ticket capacity and allowing thousands of supporters, many of whom had been on the waitlist since the inaugural MLS season, to purchase tickets.
That made a significant dent in the waitlist. Then, less than a year after the renovated stadium debuted, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The Timbers played all of their home matches in 2020 behind closed doors, and even after supporters were allowed to return to the stadium last year, many chose to stay away because of health concerns.
Some of the downturn in attendance almost certainly has to do with factors beyond the Timbers’ control. Attendance at sporting events in the U.S. generally has declined in recent years, though NFL attendance was up in 2021, halting a three-year drop.
In Portland, the combination of the expanded stadium capacity and significantly reduced decline in demand for tickets meant that the secondary market for the Timbers tickets last year was flooded—with tickets often being sold at lower price points than season ticket holders paid for them.
A number of season ticket holders who previously had no trouble reselling tickets for games they couldn’t attend were unable to sell their tickets at all, changing the calculus of what their season ticket actually cost them.
That dynamic hurt. But the situation for many fundamentally changed in September of last year, when The Athletic reported that former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley had harassed, intimidated, and sexually coerced Portland Thorns players.
One of those players, fan favorite midfielder Mana Shim, filed a complaint with the club. The club investigated and ultimately dismissed Riley, but failed to publicly disclose why he was being let go—framing his departure as a decision based on the team’s on-the-field results.
Riley quickly moved on to another NWSL coaching job, from where he and Timbers and Thorns owner Merritt Paulson exchanged a series of friendly tweets in the following years.
Several days after The Athletic article was released, Paulson published an open letter in which he stated his regret for the club’s role in a “systemic failure across women’s professional soccer,” but stopped short of holding anyone directly accountable for that role. The 107IST, the nonprofit that oversees the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters supporters groups, called for a boycott of club merchandise and for the firing of GM Gavin Wilkinson shortly thereafter.
Since then, the relationship between the club and its supporters groups has continued to deteriorate.
Many supporters felt coerced into renewing their tickets before the club’s deadline—and before investigations into the handling of Riley’s misconduct were complete—when the Timbers made renewal a condition for accessing a season ticket holder presale for 2021 MLS Cup tickets at Providence Park.
“That was the final straw,” Josh Lawrence, a season ticket holder since 2012, said. “To basically extort people who, on principle, were waiting to get more information about what this club was going to do about that situation, and then to tell them, no, you need to decide right now—that was it for me.”
Then, in January, the club told ESPN that it was permanently ending its traditional monthly meetings with the 107IST.
“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 club said in a statement.
That level of antagonism seems risky for the club, given that its season ticket numbers for the coming year were likely artificially inflated by the MLS Cup appearance and that, as Paulson has acknowledged in the past, the club’s supporters are its “biggest asset.”
Duder, who lives in Yamhill County, said that supporters have had issues ranging from the club’s television deal to its handling of the Iron Front controversy in 2019. He was willing to look past those issues for years. But not anymore.
“You’re seeing the cascading effect of multiple problems within the organization,” Duder said. “If they would have addressed each one of these in turn, they probably could have avoided [losing] that season ticket list. So it’s frustrating.”
Many Timbers fans see their decision to purchase a season ticket as not just a matter of going to matches, but of investing in an organization that they feel represents their values and cares about their support.
“The good old American outlook is like, this is my sports team, I love them, I love when they do great, and let’s go have fun,” Lawrence said. “It was that way for a long time. They were successful, it felt like the team was aligned with our values, and then it started to go sour.... The Paul Riley revelations—that’s inexcusable. It makes you feel like shit for supporting this team.”
The Timbers spokesperson said that the club will enter 2022 with the largest season ticket holder base in club history. But many of those season ticket holders will not be the people who were with the club for years and established its support as a national phenomenon.
Duder, one of those fans, is putting his time and money towards growing grassroots soccer in the area. He said that if his issues with the club are resolved, and if there is transparency in the investigation into the club’s handling of Riley, he’d come back. For now, however, he’s stepping back.
“Ten years prior, I felt like I was obligated to give my money to the [Timbers] organization because I believed they were doing the right thing with that money,” Duder said. “That mindset changed to, I don’t think they're doing the right thing with my money.”