âLook, Portlandâs a great soccer market, thereâs no question about it,â said Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Thorns and their affiliated Major League Soccer club, the Portland Timbers, who have sold out 122 consecutive home games and counting. âBut there are other great soccer markets in this country. The N.W.S.L. can succeed, and succeed well, in a lot of markets. We donât have fairy dust thatâs unique to Portland.â
That may be true, but it hasnât made replicating the clubâs success any more straightforward. As Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, put it: âIf we knew exactly why it worked as well as it has, for either the Timbers or the Thorns, then weâd bottle that and take it elsewhere.â
Portlandâs advantages, at least in soccer, are clear. The city has supported the game in some form since 1975, when the Timbers were launched as a professional menâs team that would come and go over the years. The only competing big-time professional team in the city is the N.B.A.âs Portland Trail Blazers, and the city happened to have a stadium in the heart of downtown â walkable from the densest urban neighborhoods â that it was willing to convert into a soccer-specific home for the Timbers and, later, the Thorns.
But given the troubled history of womenâs club soccer in the United States, including two previous leagues that collapsed after only three seasons, N.W.S.L. organizers, including U.S. Soccer, knew they would need a more sustainable approach when the league was started in 2013. Gulati contacted several M.L.S. clubs to pitch them on joining the federation-backed league before it took the field for its first season, but he said the Timbers, comfortably selling out every home match, were the only ones to say yes.
âThe more I thought about it, the more I felt like I owed it to put our best foot forward,â Paulson said. âIn my mind, if it couldnât work in Portland, it wasnât going to work anywhere.â
When the Thorns became the first womenâs team to be affiliated with an M.L.S. franchise, the team instantly inherited a large support staff, which now consists of 130 employees, almost all of whom work for both clubs. Thatâs a distinct advantage over the independent clubs that make up a majority of the N.W.S.L., where human resources are scarcer and a general managerâs responsibilities can range from scouting and signing international stars to writing the game day program.
But front-office help alone wasnât enough: The Timbers also put an emphasis on taking the Thorns seriously. A large Thorns logo, the same size as the Timbers logo on the other side of the marquee at Providence Park, greets fans at games â a symbol of the club philosophy that the Thorns are not a niche product complementing the Timbers, but a partner.
âWe get treated as equals to the Timbers,â said the Thornsâ captain, Christine Sinclair, the career scoring leader for Canadaâs national team. âI donât think many female athletes can say that. I wish every player was able to experience this day in and day out â world-class training facilities and an organization that makes sure everything we could ever want, we have.â
The fans take the team seriously, too. Before the teamâs debut match, Paulson and the Timbers front office hoped for turnouts of around 6,000 fans a game. In their first season, the Thorns averaged more than double that (13,320).
Because about a third of Thorns season-ticket holders are also Timbers season-ticket holders, a supporters culture from the Timbers migrated to the Thorns. The Rose City Riveters, the womenâs teamâs main fan group, give Thorns games their electric, pulsating atmosphere, and members of the group have become evangelists for the club.
One research study looking at the Thornsâ uncommon support found the atmosphere created by that fan culture was the most-cited reason the Thorns fans surveyed said they liked going to games, with the on-field product a close second.
âTheyâre almost a community outside of whatâs happening on the field,â Thorns midfielder Tobin Heath said. âThey love us and support us, but they love each other and support each other, which is cool. What weâre doing on the field is inspiring this idea of community.â
Other N.W.S.L. clubs, notably the Orlando Pride, have had moderate success after using a formula similar to the one forged in Portland. Affiliated with Orlando City in M.L.S., the two-year-old Pride set an N.W.S.L. attendance record of 23,403 at one match last season.
Orlandoâs average attendance of 8,785 this year is still only about half of what the Thorns drew, but it ranked second over all in the N.W.S.L. The bigger statistic was off the field: the Pride says it is profitable and has been since its debut season. In a five-year-old league that continues to endure predictable growing pains â including issues with substandard fields, substandard treatment of players and meager salaries â that is noteworthy.
For the moment, though, the Thorns run their business better than anyone else â so well, in fact, that the club has agreed to share its success through a profit-sharing arrangement with the rest of the league.
âYouâve seen the end result of taking it seriously,â said Gavin Wilkinson, the general manager of the Thorns and the Timbers. âInvesting time, investing resources and having objectives at every single level. Taking it seriously is mirroring what the menâs game has successfully done and replicating it on the womenâs side.â
Said Paulson: âWeâre not asking for charity here. When we ask people to allot their free time to the Timbers and the Thorns, itâs for no other reason than itâs what theyâd prefer to be doing â and thatâs the only reason you should ever ask people to do it.â
The team with the best chance at replicating the Thornsâ success, those familiar with it said, may come from the N.W.S.L. It could be the Pride; the M.L.S.-affiliated Houston Dash; or even a club like the Courage, who are affiliated with a lower-division menâs pro team and had a capacity crowd of 10,017 for their playoff semifinal match last week. Then there is a city like Cincinnati, which is looking to join M.L.S. and drew 30,596 for a United States womenâs national team match last month.
âI think itâs closer than we think,â Heath said of finding the next Thorns. âThere are gold mines that havenât been discovered.â