Supporters of the Portland Thorns and Timbers are calling for a boycott of stadium concessions and team merchandise in response to the sexual abuse scandal rocking women’s soccer.
The Rose City Riveters, the Timbers Army and the 107IST asked fans to withhold their dollars in protest of the club’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against former coach Paul Riley. The move comes shortly after The Athletic reported that Riley harassed and sexually coerced players, including during his time coaching the Thorns.
The Thorns conducted an internal investigation into Riley in 2015 but did not disclose it publicly.
“This past week has been harrowing as we learned the extent of abuse and suppression that has taken place in Portland,” the supporter groups said in a statement Tuesday. “It is clear that the Portland Thorns organization is complicit in the NWSL’s failures by actively sweeping incidents and complaints under the rug and passing issues off to others without holding offenders accountable. It is also abundantly evident that the PTFC leadership team knew about the incidents when they were reported in 2015. This is inexcusable.”
The Thorns declined to comment on Wednesday morning.
The supporter groups called for additional overhauls to the organization, including the firing of general manager Gavin Wilkinson. They asked the club to publicly disclose who it has hired to review its 2015 investigation into Riley.
In an open letter Monday, owner Merritt Paulson said the organization had retained new outside lawyers, including a “female former federal prosecutor” to investigate its original investigation. He did not name the former prosecutor.
Paulson also apologized to former Thorns players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, who went public with their allegations against Riley. Paulson acknowledged the organization’s lack of transparency in 2015 when it made an “opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination.”
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which later relocated and became the North Carolina Courage. The Courage fired Riley last week.
The Portland supporter groups said their boycott of merchandise and concessions does not mean fans should stop attending Thorns and Timbers soccer matches.
It's Match Day! We root for the Thorns. We support players on and off the pitch. And effective immediately, we don't buy stuff at in-stadium concessions- from hotdogs to pints to jerseys. Grab food & drink nearby + make a donation to @nwsl_players instead.— Rose City Riveters (@PDXRivetersSG) October 6, 2021
See ya there! #BAONPDX
“On game day, we will continue to show up and safely support our teams,” their statement read. “The players deserve our loud and visible support — and to withhold it would send an incorrect message to the players. We want to make it abundantly clear that we are there for the players, but that we remain in protest against the PTFC organization until such time as demands for transparency and change have been met.”
In the soccer world, there is precedent for pressure campaigns that fall short of full boycotts. For Thorns’ supporters, squeezing revenue may not be the point.
“The financial pressure is probably not as important as the media pressure,” said Bettina Cornwell, chair of the department of marketing at the University of Oregon.
She pointed to a recent example from England, involving Norwich City FC. Some fans revolted on social media when the club announced a new shirt sponsor — the gambling company BK8 — that used sexually provocative images of young women in its promotions. The sponsorship was canceled within days.
Cornwell noted that Thorns supporters aren’t targeting the funding that comes from club sponsors such as Alaska Airlines or TikTok.
“They’re not out to, if you will, damage the sponsors who have supported the teams or others. They’re out to make a point and to get that point in social media,” she said.
The Thorns are scheduled to play the Houston Dash Wednesday night at Providence Park.
The supporter groups asked fans to wear red in solidarity with the Thorns players and to donate any money they would have spent during games to the NWSL Players Association.
“Talk about a photo op,” Cornwell said.