When the portland Timbers made their playoff debut last fall, it might have been the first time casual followers of Major League Soccer had even heard of the young team, which launched just three years ago. But in their short life, the Timbers have quietly become a fixture in the league—and are changing the way MLS teams think about marketing themselves.
Every city gets excited for a new professional sports franchise. Sustaining that momentum is extremely difficult, however, especially if the team isn't immediately successful on the field. But with the Timbers headed into their fourth season, it's now becoming clear that the team's innovative launch approach is paying off in a more permanent way. It's hard to think of any team, in any league, that has kicked off with the kind of runaway success enjoyed by the Portland Timbers. Jeld-Wen Field has been at 100% capacity for every league game, with fans in the general-admission section often camping overnight to get in, and there's a waiting list of 10,000 for season tickets. In 2013, Forbes ranked the Timbers as the third-most-valuable franchise in MLS, with revenue of $39 million.
But Portland's most important contribution to American soccer might be the way in which the team and its fans have redefined the live experience, creating an atmosphere that is every bit as passionate as you'd find at games featuring Europe's top clubs. The crowd churns and chants, whether the team is winning or not, and every time the Timbers score, an actual lumberjack cuts a slice from an actual log using an actual chain saw and hands the wood slice to the crowd, where it is passed from seat to seat, row to row, like the head of a vanquished foe. "What they amplified is the connection between the club and the fans," says MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott. "The emergence of this fan-group culture is now a defining characteristic of the league."
Before debuting the Timbers, owner Merritt Paulson (son of Hank) knew that Portland—with its underserved market (just one other pro sports team) and stadium smack in the city's center—was a good location. But he underestimated just how ready the city was for big-time soccer. It turned out Portland was full of people who already loved the game, dating back to the original incarnation of the Timbers, which played in the North American Soccer League (remembered now mostly for Pelé and the New York Cosmos). The team's supporters club, the Timbers Army, traces its roots back to 2001, when a different team called the Timbers played to small crowds in the United Soccer Leagues. But by 2007, fans were dying for something bigger to rally behind.
Paulson and his COO, Mike Golub (who had served in the same capacity for the city's NBA Trail Blazers), suspected that one key to launching the Timbers was to tap into the city's inherent passion for authenticity and counterculture—to try and capture the same magic that helped Pacific Northwest brands such as the Ace Hotel and Stumptown coffee become national successes without losing their street cred. The Timbers asked a former executive creative director for Wieden + Kennedy, Jelly Helm, to help come up with a campaign that would capture the team they aimed to build, while also selling season tickets. Helm, who'd worked on soccer for Nike, was optimistic. "[But] a sellout was beyond their hopes at that moment," he says.
The resulting campaign was, in true Portland fashion, unconventional. Understanding that young locals prefer to discover things instead of being told what to buy, Helm suggested a subtle campaign focused on billboards. "It had no call to action, no name of the team, no mention of the sport, no URL," says Helm. Instead, the team recruited members of the Timbers Army (male and female, young and old, tattooed and otherwise) and ran their photos on billboards with just a small Timbers logo and the words spring 2011. No players, no uniforms, not even a soccer ball.
Overnight the billboards became the talk of Portland. "They nicely expressed what the Timbers' greatest asset was at the time: a fan base that was 100% real," says Helm. "And that attracted other people who wanted to be part of that sort of passionate soccer environment. So the campaign not only filled seats, it self-selected passionate fans." The simple, relatively inexpensive strategy, Paulson says, "captured the ethos of Portland" and activated a latent store of passion for a sport that wasn't yet mainstream.
When the Timbers made their home debut in 2011, the team chose not to have a celebrity sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Instead, the national anthem would be sung by the fans—all 18,627 of them. The ensuing rendition was thunderous, if occasionally off-key, and as it trailed off, three gigantic banners unfurled from the second deck in the stadium's north end, where the Timbers Army had set up camp. Simultaneously, all 5,500 fans seated there raised colored cards that, together, formed the club's green-and-white flag, and on the wall in front of the section, a final set of banners was unveiled: it takes an army to raise a club. "It was a magical moment," recalls Abbott. "At that point, we knew we had something special."
To maintain that connection, Paulson has given the Timbers Army—which has now re-formed into a not-for-profit with a board of directors—great influence. He or his staff meet regularly with the board, and at its urging they agreed to keep the traditional Army section general admission and low-price. That presence is formidable: an organized throng of feverish fans who sing and chant in unison and who communicate in advance via message boards and social networks. Even on television the games have a palpable excitement, and the combination of perceived fun and ticket scarcity makes the Timbers a kind of cult sensation across the league. "We're still only three years into this thing," Paulson says. "I'd like to get to the point where, when you talk about the great pro sports organizations in the world, the Portland Timbers are on that short list."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.