COLUMBUS, Ohio — Presumably none of the old-guard MLS owners who arrived for the league’s owners meetings and the MLS Cup final were lamenting this week’s death of former Stone Temple Pilots lead singer Scott Weiland. But Merritt Paulson, the 42-year-old owner of the Portland Timbers, isn’t like most MLS owners.
“I’m bummed out,” he said on Friday as his team readied for Sunday’s final against Columbus. “I like a lot of the old STP stuff. You could grill me on my musicology trivia on them and be shocked at the stuff I know.”
A few hours later in another downtown hotel, Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt, 45, discussed another topic you won’t hear about from old-guard MLS owners: His Twitter strategy. “It’s a great opportunity for me to have access to the fans to hear what they’re thinking,” Precourt said. “Our best ideas come from our fans, and I’m on Twitter regularly just to listen to what others are saying.”
Sunday’s MLS Cup final (4 p.m. ET, ESPN, Unimás) pits the two hottest teams in the league over the last two months. But it also marks the first time the final has included two teams that are run by young, new-age owners. For a league whose demographics trend young, Paulson and Precourt are symbols of where MLS is right now—and where it wants to go.
“They are two really smart, committed young guns who do this for a living,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber, who has gone tarpon fishing with Paulson in the Florida Keys and fly-fishing for trout in Colorado with Precourt. “They bring a fresh new point of view around our board table, and I like them both. I’m really pleased to see how they’ve developed as sports executives.”
When Precourt was exploring the possibility of buying an MLS team in 2011, he paid a visit to Paulson in Portland. Precourt’s background is in investment management, where he was a director of research, and he wanted to know how Paulson had gone about building the Timbers, especially off the field. They ended up speaking for a long time that day.
“He’s one of the reasons I got interested in being a part of MLS,” said Precourt. “The atmosphere they’ve created in Portland is tremendous for the league, and Merritt’s passion is tremendous for the league, so I wanted to go meet him.”
When he first contacted MLS, Precourt (who lives in the Bay Area) was interested in becoming a minority owner in a team. But the more research he did, he came to the conclusion that he wanted to be a majority owner somewhere. And so that’s what he did, buying Columbus from the Hunt family in 2013.
Since then he has worked quickly. Later that year, Precourt replaced coach Robert Warzycha with Gregg Berhalter, who has heavily upgraded the team’s performance on the field, and last year the club rebranded with a dynamite new logo that replaced the three “Village People” hard-hat guys on the old badge. Anyone who’s on the ground this week can feel a new vibe around the Crew that exudes professionalism and class.
Paulson has his own MLS story, of course. In 2004, after working for five years at the NBA and helping to launch HBO On Demand, Paulson sat down with his father—Hank Paulson, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and CEO of Goldman Sachs—and tried to persuade him to go into business owning an MLS team. Keep in mind, MLS wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders in 2004 as a 10-team league that had euthanized two teams two years earlier.
“I basically sold him,” said Merritt Paulson, who was living in New York City at the time. “I said, ‘Look, this is the next thing here. It’s the world’s game, and this is the most important global market and ironically the last frontier for the world’s game. The growth is going to be off the charts. It skews young, all those things. So we talked about buying the San Jose Earthquakes for a number less than $5 million at the time.”
But there was a caveat: The league said if the Paulsons bought San Jose, they would have to build a $90 million soccer-specific stadium in San Jose. They declined on the idea, San Jose moved to Houston and eventually San Jose came back into the league as an expansion team under different ownership. (A soccer stadium finally came online in the Bay Area this year.)
Merritt Paulson stayed in touch with Garber, though, and a few years later another opportunity came in Portland. Paulson led a push to remodel the downtown stadium that’s now known as Providence Park, and the Timbers debuted in MLS in 2011. The team has been a league gold standard from Day One in terms of fan atmosphere, and on Sunday they’ll be the first Cascadia team to play in an MLS Cup final.
On Saturday, the elder Paulson was in the lobby of the MLS hotel, expressing his pride that his son had gone all-in on running the Timbers, moving to Portland and making it his full-time job instead of checking in from a distance from time to time. As for the former Treasury Secretary, he has gone down the rabbit hole and become a big-time soccer watcher himself from his home in Chicago.
“To say he’s into it would be an understatement,” said Merritt. “He’s not public in his support of the Timbers, but he has never not watched a game. He’s at a decent number of games, and now in his downtime he watches more soccer than he watches anything else. My mom is a huge fan too.”
Passionate would be an accurate term to describe Merritt Paulson as well. Described at times as the Mark Cuban of MLS, Paulson hasn’t held back at times on the Twitter machine. He got fined $25,000 by the league in 2012 for tweeting that the NFL replacement referees were better than the best MLS referees. And last year he apologized after responding to the Timbers Army account on Twitter with “whoever is running this feed stfu.”
The story ended up on Deadspin, and Paulson was suitably chagrined. “That was my big a-ha moment on Twitter, which is one little deal can have such a downside and you can do more damage in some ways than good with it,” he said. “On the whole it’s been a positive for me. But this year I’ve done a lot less social media and I’ll probably continue to do a little less.”
While Paulson lives in Portland, Precourt continues to make his home in the Bay Area with his wife and their three kids. But he says he’s in Columbus at least once a month and is regularly on the phone with his lieutenants in Columbus, including Berhalter. Precourt still runs a private investment management company, but he adds: “The Crew is my first priority. My family business is also a priority and I have the capacity to do both.”
As Paulson did with Caleb Porter, Precourt appears to have made a strong hire in Berhalter, who has taken Columbus to the final in just his second season. You might think a coaching hire would be a difficult decision, but it wasn’t to Precourt.
“That was the easiest decision, and probably the best decision I’ll make,” he said. “Gregg’s been instrumental in our turn-around on and off the field. He’s a true pro, and we’re lucky to have Gregg leading us. We cast a very wide net and talked to a lot of great coaching candidates. But with Gregg it was clear the moment I met him. We just saw eye to eye and had the same vision. Gregg was pretty much a no-brainer.”
Paulson uses the term “earnest” to describe his friend Precourt, and it’s true that the Columbus owner hasn’t had any of the Twitter dustups that Paulson has. But they’re both bullish on the league. Precourt wants to continue upgrading the Crew’s business side, and his plans include the potential pursuit of a new stadium in the distant future. “As we continue to make improvements in the business, we’ll start to look at our infrastructure, including a long-term stadium plan here in Columbus,” he said.
Paulson said he sees MLS as a league with 28 teams (“maybe 30”) in 20 years, while also predicting league-wide results much sooner than that. “There’s no question in my mind the league will be a top league in the world in 20 years,” he said. “And there’s no question in my mind we’ll be bar none the best league by any metric in the Western Hemisphere in the next five years.”
What’s cool is that by the time 2035 comes around, Paulson and Precourt figure to still be involved in the league. Such are the benefits of having young owners.