A sea lion in the Galapagos Islands didn’t like the look of Merritt Paulson.
Then a college student, now the owner of the Portland Timbers, he was on holiday with his family, including father Henry (Hank) Paulson, a Goldman Sachs banker and more recently secretary of the United States Treasury under George W. Bush.
Snorkelling, Paulson was playing with a sea lion when a nearby male took notice. The bull wasn’t impressed. It shot toward Paulson and rammed him with its mouth opened and teeth bared – one of which “impaled” the young man and left a two-inch-wide gouge, down to the ribs.
“If the sea lion closed and ripped, he would have taken out a big chunk,” Paulson said. The stitch job, without painkillers, hurt more, his grandmother’s sewing kit employed to do the work. “Her sewing needle was a lot bigger than a typical needle.”
Henry Merritt Paulson III, 38, has always had in-the-action instincts. He imbues this passion and exuberance in his current job as owner and president of the Timbers, the expansion Major League Soccer side that rival expansion squad the Vancouver Whitecaps visit this weekend.
Growing up rich, Paulson for years dreamed of his own sports team, a dream that came within realistic reach as his father piled up fantastic wealth. Dad left the chief executive chair at Goldman in 2006 with a half-billion dollars. Paulson, after scouting more than a dozen ideas, found his score in Portland, Ore., and, using his father’s funds, put up $16-million (U.S.) for the Beavers, a AAA baseball team, and the Timbers, a second-tier soccer side he aimed to elevate to Major League Soccer.
As he convinced the cash-strapped City of Portland to ante up $31-million to renovate a downtown stadium, Paulson won entry to the MLS, paying a $35-million expansion fee to join the league alongside the Whitecaps. Unlike the Whitecaps’ opening campaign – which has been a disaster, with the team mired in last place – the Timbers have fared relatively well and could make the playoffs.
Paulson is unlike other MLS owners, and a rarity in professional sports. Early on, he exhibited Mark Cuban-like tendencies, such as taking the field in his first year as owner to discuss matters with the referee. Thereafter he has resisted the temptation to indulge in the histrionics of the oft-fined Dallas Mavericks owner – but is deeply involved in the club.
“When we play, I’m holed up with our GM, totally focused on the game. I don’t need people to see my reactions, because I can get fairly demonstrative during games,” Paulson said. “It’s important it’s a soundproof area. And the GM’s in with me at his own risk of bodily harm.”
Some times, sounds escape. After a 4-0 demolition on the road at the hands of FC Dallas in June, Paulson tweeted: “disgraceful. from top to bottom. you can’t win them all but you cannot tolerate many like that.”
Still, he isn’t a panic-button type. In July, rumours swirled about an axe above the head of Portland coach John Spencer. Paulson stood by him resolutely, describing Spencer as a key part in building the franchise. This contrasts significantly with the Whitecaps, who this month announced their third head coach in six months.
Paulson has carefully cobbled together the foundations of a winner in Portland, a city that in the 1970s declared itself Soccer City USA in the fiery Pacific Northwest rivalry with the Seattle Sounders and the Whitecaps in the North American Soccer League.
While much like his father in personality – “a little impetuous and stubborn,” sister Amanda has said – Paulson didn’t chase investment-banking fortunes. Sports, not deal making, was his drug. After a Harvard MBA, he eventually landed in a marketing gig with the NBA. He has injected the Timbers with marketing oomph. Ahead of this season, he spent $200,000 on a billboard campaign in Portland dubbed “We are Timbers” (echoing the Vancouver Canucks’ “We are all Canucks” campaign). And, showing his competitive side, he put up a “Portland, Oregon, Soccer City USA, 2011” billboard in Seattle near the Sounders’ stadium.
Jeff Mallett, a Whitecaps co-owner, compares Paulson with other newer MLS owners, such as those in Vancouver, Seattle and, next year, Montreal.
“He personifies the new investors in the league – passionate, focused owners who really care about the sport,” Mallett said. “He cares about details and he wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s fun to watch a match with him. I love his energy.”
In Portland, Paulson has the advantage of the ferocity of Timbers fans – the team has sold out every game this season, a singular MLS accomplishment. The Timbers Army, the supporters club, boasts a membership of more than 3,000. The team’s stadium is especially raucous, and when the home side scores, mascot Timber Joey wields a chainsaw and hacks off a section of a large log in celebration, an effort called to action three times in early August when the Timbers felled the league-leading L.A. Galaxy 3-0 (after the Galaxy gutted Vancouver 4-0).
Paulson exclaimed on Twitter: “hell to heaven in 90 min. absolutely love it. tough games show character.” As always, he ended the tweet with #rctid – “Rose City till I die,” a supporters’ slogan that borrows the city’s nickname.
Paulson and his wife Heather, who works for Nike, have embraced Portland. Lovers of the outdoors, hiking and skiing, Paulson replaced an absentee owner and has set down roots in the city. The Paulsons welcomed a second child in July.
The Timbers, Paulson and family insist, are no mere plaything for the idle rich. While the venture is father funded, it was not some gift, sister Amanda assured. “He owes the money back to my dad,” said Amanda, who describes her older brother as “very determined and single-minded.”
“He has to make this work. This can’t be a pastime.”
Paulson breaks out an old joke, about the best way to become a millionaire: Start as a billionaire and buy a sports team. On just the hard dollars-only measure of return on investment, Paulson said he wouldn’t have been able to convince his father, but sold him on the bigger story, the city, the growing sport and the promising league.
“There are a lot of businesses that are bigger that are less interesting and impactful than sports,” Paulson said. “What we can do from a community outreach standpoint with the bright spotlight that is sports – because so many people care – that’s the really exciting thing here. We’re very vested in every sense of that word – financially and emotionally.”