Rekindling a 36-year rivalry for the first time in Major League Soccer, little bro wants a piece of big bro, on the pitch and at the cash register.
Such as: Their fans are fond of firing up chainsaws and wielding double-bladed axes.
They also like their soccer. They like it a certain way, as they like their Rose City: Pretty and prickly.
In the fashion of their microbrews, they believe they are flavorful, distinct and superior to Seattle. In Portland, they like to tell you they are the one, true “Soccer City, USA.”
Facts suggests otherwise, such as attendance and win-loss records in this regional rivalry now called, with Vancouver, the Cascadia Cup. The Sounders win hands down during the days of the North American Soccer League. They won far more matches and sold far more tickets than the Timbers. It changed in the 1990s during years of second-division competition. The Timbers sold more tickets than the Sounders. The record is split.
But no matter. The competition between the cities has often been intense. The NBA rivalry between Sonics and Trailblazers was strong for a time in the 1970s nd 1980s. In the 1960s, fans and players of the Seattle Totems and the Portland Buckaroos in the Western Hockey League made a big deal of minor league hockey.
Then there is the athletic contempt between the University of Washington, which long held sway, and University of Oregon, which now rules the rivalry.
Seattle has always taken the role of smug big brother, delighting in pounding the little brother to the south. Little bro has to live by his wits and quick feet, creating myths of valor, strength and bombast to distract cleverly from basic fact checking. It’s a survival mechanism.
Portland drew on all of its legendary creativity to come up with a new collection of urban myths: Feisty. Independent. Progressive. Traditional. Outdoorsy. Urbane. Clever. Rugged. Ironic. Fit. Brainy. Brawny. And true.
They are proud of their roots sunk deep in the timber, farming, ranching and fishing industries back in the day.
They like where they’re headed. It’s as if the Timbers’ image reflects the spirit of prankster novelist Ken Kesey, the worldly ethos of the tech industry and the heritage of Timber Jim, all rolled into one, as they share a Bridgeport Ale at Burgerville.
Welcome to Stumptown.
This is where visiting MLS teams will confront some of the most devoted, intense and passionate North American fans, led by the Timbers Army.
More than 1,500 Timbers fans recently waited hours to have have their photos taken with chainsaws and axes for for the team’s webite. Timber Joey — who fires up his chainsaw every time a Timbers’ player scores a goal– will cut a slab from a massive log, an event called “the cutting of the round.” The team slogan? “No Pity in the Rose City.”
Timbers owner Merritt Paulson has turned the team and brand into something more than season-ticket sales. The Timbers did what all consumer companies covet — created near instant brand authenticity. Partly through its provocative billboard campaign called “We Are Timbers,” the franchise seems to have captured the cultural nuances of a people, a city and a region, as well as filled their pocketbooks.
On the field, the Timbers have surprised everyone, perhaps even themselves. The Timbers have won four in a row at Jen-Weld stadium downtown, including a victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy. They are tied with the Sounders on points (13) heading into their first MLS meeting Saturday night at Qwest Field but in fewer games.
If the Sounders set high the marketing and attendance bar when it entered the league three years ago, the Timbers may elevate it to an art form. They won’t surpass Sounders attendance figures at the 36,000 soccer capacity of Qwest Field, but they appear to have created a deeper, tighter, perhaps more authentic, connection with their community.
The MLS is marketing the culture of soccer to a country and to communities that still struggle to comprehend the game. Seattle, and now Portland, are finding a way to make professional soccer relevant. In Portland, it may be as simple as listening to their key constituents and staying out of the way.
“We havent done everything right, for sure,” Paulson said in an earlier interview with Sportspress Northwest. “But the biggest thing Im proud of is that we have lines of communications with our fans that dont exist with other teams.”
So far, the Timbers’ elevation of its sports brand has generated better-than-expected returns, say Timbers officials. Season-ticket sales have hit 11,000 for a 19,000-seat stadium. All home matches so far have sold out. The corporate suites, the club section seats and the Timbers’ Army’s three sections all sold out. Media attention has blossomed and is all-encompassing. Jen-Weld received a massive makeover and is destined to be one of the league’s showpiece soccer-specific stadiums.
“Our jersey sales are going very, very well,” said Mike Golub, chief operating officer of the Timbers. ” We’re on this really great trajectory.”
Sponsorship deals have gone briskly. They include jersey sponsor Alaska Airlines and local companies Burgerville, Widmer Brothers Brewery, Fred Meyer and Providence Hospital. The team web site had been the most visited of any team in the league, say Timbers officials.
The Timbers even project a net profit in the first year of MLS existence. In a pro-forma balance sheet submitted to the city of Portland as part of the requirement to persuade the city to help fund renovations at Jen-Weld, the Timbers’ projected first-year net income of $1.8 million on total revenues of $14 million.
Following the first year, the Timbers project net income will rise to roughly $3 million annually. This is a rare feat in a league where most teams continue to post operating losses, except, of course, Seattle, profitable in each of its first two years.
“I do think they’ve done a terrific job connecting their brand with the community,” said Jeff Bliss, president of Javelin Group, a Washington D.C.-based sports marketing firm that specializes in soccer. “The territory is ripe for soccer, and Portland has a great history.”
The Timbers do not consider themselves an expansion team. They consider the team to have been promoted to the first division.
The faithful will point out that the history goes back to the North American Soccer League era. It can even be more narrowly captured in one of the first loosely organized supporter groups in America — the Cascade Rangers.
The Rangers started out as two or three rabid supporters that grew as the team grew. Loosely organized, they sat in the bleachers, banging drums at NASL matches back when few knew or cared about soccer.
Like the original Timber Jim, who offered to rappel from the rafters and cut logs during those NASL days, the Cascade Rangers became a pulsating presence — supporting their team win, lose or draw — as supporter groups do in Europe. The Rangers morphed in the 1990s into the Timbers Army, which is a more organized supporter group that has grown into an influential force with the ownership.
Timbers management had to tap into this history without over-hyping it. The advertising campaign had to be true to this serious and fanatical base, or it could flop.
“I think you can see the roots of the Cascade Rangers in the campaign,” said Jelly Helm, creator of the No Pity campaign. “This is a lifestyle. The soul of this team is in Europe somewhere. They want to win but theyre not going to change loyalties if they lose. Its all real. It cant be manufactured.”
Helm previously worked for Wieden+Kennedy, which has long been Nike’s top advertising agency. It was Wieden that came up with Nike’s iconic “Just Do It,” among many other now legendary Nike advertising slogans, campaigns and TV spots.
Helm said he pitched Paulson on this idea of capturing the culture by showcasing real fans and keeping the entire billboard campaign understated. He was interested, Helm said, because Paulson convinced him that he wanted the Timbers to be bigger than purely a business.
“I wouldnt be interested if Merritt didn’t have a vision for Timbers soccer in this community,” Helm said. “Merritt believes that soccer can play a role in this community that is much bigger than being a sports team. The power of sports can connect and unite like nothing else.”
The result: showcasing Timbers supporters in provocative poses wielding axes or chainsaws on billboards scattered in strategic locations around the city. The billboards capture the history without saying a word.
“The marketing before that was all about asking for something,” Helm said. “What we tried to do is give something back to the people.”
This enthusiasm for the Timbers spread to Adidas North America, which designs jerseys for all MLS teams. Portland is its North American headquarters.
From the beginning, Adidas wanted to get the Portland design right, said Antonio Zea, director of soccer for Adidas North America. The company went through more than 30 design renderings, including creating 12 different prototypes — a higher number than usual. There was a lot of back and forth.
The Timbers, Zea said, wanted to own the color green and wanted both a contemporary look and nod to tradition. The result: a forest green that incorporates different shades highlighted by the split down the middle of the jersey — a two-tone chevron pattern. There are nods to the past with the axe on the back of the neck, and the logo above the left breast. The secondary jersey is more compelling — Rose City red — wtih the Rose City badge and a two-tone thorns pattern.
The jerseys were unveiled at an aircraft hangar with Alaska Airlines supplying a 737 decked out in Timbers’ colors in front of more than 1,000 people. But for Zea and the Adidas team, validation came later at a pub frequented by the Timbers Army.
“The day we launched the jersey the Army came up and said we did a really good job,” Zea said, who added that Adidas is happy with the sales. “They said we didnt destroy it and stayed true to its roots.”
Not everything has worked perfectly. The new logo generated controversy and some of the original advertising fell flat before the Timbers switched agencies.
In a smaller market such as Portland with such a powerful supporters group in the Timbers Army, there is bound to be tension between fans and the owners. Managing that relationship while expanding the reach of the Timbers to the suburbs is going to be one of the key narratives as the Timbers head beyond their first MLS season.
There’s been a steep learning curve on both sides they worked through issues about chants, language, flags and pyrotechnics and smoke, said Garrett Dittfurth, president of the 107th Timbers Army. Initially, management didn’t recognize the level of individualism and culture within the ranks of the Timbers Army, Dittfurth said.
For now, though, all is well in the Rose City.
The working-class lunch-bucket team ethic that Timbers Coach John Spencer has built is surprising everyone. The team is sixth in the Western Conference, tied with Seattle. Forward Kenny Cooper, midfielder Jack Jewsbury and wingers Darlington Nagbe and Kalif Alhassan have proved to be difference-makers.
I truly believe that in the modern game youve got to be a good athlete, youve got to have that desire to compete from the first minute to the 90th minute because if you dont, youre not going to win games, Spencer said. Right now, were competing and were winning games.
Beyond the pitch, supporters of the Sounders and Timbers will be waging their own competition — a tradition that has continued in some form for three decades.
Though Portland has made a splash in the MLS, tightened its bond with its fans and helped to generate national interest in American soccer, the Timbers are visitors in Seattle’s house, even though the MLS limited the amount of tickets for away supporters to 500.
Seattle’s supporter groups will be in force to remind their brothers and sisters in Portland the identity of the older bro.
“I hope (Roger) Levesque scores the winning goal and again torments the scum and we come away with three points,” said Keith Hodo, president of the Emerald City Supporters group, the club’s biggest independent group. “At the end of the day, then they will really know who the kings of Cascadia really are.”