Think Out Loud

What 2024 may hold for the Portland Thorns

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Jan. 9, 2024 6:25 p.m. Updated: Jan. 9, 2024 11:16 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Jan. 9

The Portland Thorns celebrate their 2017 NWSL championship with fans at Providence Park Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017.

Portland Thorns fans celebrate a team win in this file photo.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB


The Portland Thorns have a new owner. Merritt Paulson sold the team to RAJ Sports, a family company that owns other franchises, including a stake in the Sacramento Kings in the NBA. The sale was more than a year in the making and came after years of investigations and reports of sexual harassment and abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League and the Thorns specifically.

Other changes for the Portland team are in the offing, with the seasonal draft just around the corner. The team already lost two players in the December expansion draft due to a couple of new teams in the league: Bay FC in San Jose and the Utah Royals near Salt Lake City. We learn more about what new ownership will mean for the Thorns and the impact of draft changes from Associated Press sports reporter Anne Peterson and Gabby Rosas, chair of the Rose City Riveters and 107IST president.

The following transcription was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the Portland Thorns. The three-time champions of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) have a new owner. Merritt Paulson has sold the team to RAJ Sports. It’s a southern California-based company focused on sports and real estate. The sale comes just before the 2024 draft. For more on the new owners and the future of the team, I’m joined by Associated Press Sports Reporter Anne Peterson and Gabby Rosas, the chair of the Rose City Riveters and the president of the 107IST. That is the overarching fan group for both the Thorns and the men’s team, the Portland Timbers. It’s great to have both of you back.

Gabby Rosas:  Thank you.

Anne Peterson:  Yeah, it’s great to be in person.

Miller: Likewise, I’m happy to have you right in front of me physically. Anne, many people in the audience know this backstory inside and out, but it may be new to other listeners. Why did Merritt Paulson announce in December of 2022 that he was gonna sell the Portland Thorns?

Peterson:  So in 2021 in September, there was an explosive report published by

The Athletic which had allegations against former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, leveled by two former Thorns players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. And those allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment touched off a greater investigation into misconduct in the NWSL, which was found by Sally Yates, the former U.S. Attorney General, and the NWSL itself, to be systematic across the League.

In early 2023, the NWSL levied fines against some of the teams that were implicated in these investigations and found to have had improper dealings with all of this. And Merritt Paulson was fined a million dollars. The story tumbles along. So I guess in 2022, let me rewind just a little bit. Merritt dismissed his general manager and another official in the team, the vice president with the team, for their roles in the misconduct scandal and failing to report et cetera, et cetera.

That didn’t seem to satisfy a lot of the fan base that was concerned about this misconduct on behalf of the team. And on December 1st, 2022 Merritt said he was going to sell the team. He was still fined in early 2023 the million dollars. Flash forward to last week when he sold the team for an NWSL record of $63 million. It’s actually $62 million because a million of that will go to settle that fine. So, as far as the scandal and the misconduct going on, it is now a closed chapter basically of the Thorns and the new owners kind of open up a new chapter for the team.

Miller:  Gabby, what were you hoping for when Merritt Paulson said he was going to sell the team. And I should say the team, singular, just the Thorns, not the Timbers. Who did you want to buy it?

RosasYeah, I think the optimistic side was somebody local, somebody with ties to Portland. Because the initial reaction is a lot of fear that, “OK, your club is up for sale, who’s gonna purchase it and relocate it? Is this gonna become another Texas team or another team down in California?” And [we were] really trying to figure out who, with local ties, would be purchasing it. And there were a couple of people who were kind of front running and trying to be that local resource. And I guess at the end, we did go with somebody out of California and without that local tie. But I think that was probably the best case. Maybe a group that had female leadership and was driven to keep the Thorns here in Portland, because that was really part of the roller coaster of emotions. Does this mean that this team is going to get relocated?

Miller:  So, Anne, the new owners are a sister, brother duo from Southern California, Lisa Bhathal Merage and Alex Bhathal. What can you tell us about them and their business?

PetersonSo the Bhathal family made their money initially off of swimwear, which is kind of interesting. And then they diversified. They’re based in Southern California, but they are tied to Sacramento because they own the Sacramento Kings. They also own the Stockton G League [basketball] team there and they own the Sacramento River Cats, a minor league baseball team. If you know anything about the NBA, the Sacramento Kings went through a terrible period where the team was going to be sold and relocated to Seattle. There was upheaval. There was talk about stadiums and all of the usual things that come in when teams threaten to leave.

And the Bhathal family was part of a group that stepped in to save the Kings and keep them in downtown Sacramento. And last year the Kings ended their 16-year drought and made it to the playoffs. It’s a really feel good story. The city has really rallied around the teams. There’s been a lot of revitalization of downtown because of that ownership group and some of the projects that they have decided to implement. And one of the fun things is the light, the beam. They have a beam that shoots [purple light] into space whenever the Kings win. And so it’s kind of a rallying cry for the team. It’s like, “Light the beam.”

So I think that given that kind of experience, they’ll be good shepherds of Portland. They didn’t move the Sacramento Kings when there was clearly an opportunity to do so. And I think that they’re not gonna move. They’ve already vowed that they’re not gonna take the team from Portland. But I think that those experiences with the Sacramento Kings and also the River Cats having done well… that will guide them in this franchise.

Miller:  Gabby, what went through your mind when you heard about the new ownership group?

RosasRelief. Excitement. Happy to have this chapter of the roller coaster we’ve been through since the investigation and the club’s been for sale… have that chapter closed. I’m optimistic, cautiously optimistic about what is coming. I really want to pour some positive energy into the stadium towards the team. I hope the players are feeling optimistic about this as well.

Miller:  What have you heard of anything from the players?

RosasWe shockingly haven’t heard much, but it’s also their off season. So I imagine that they’re probably off doing vacation time and stuff like that, not responding to too many emails.

Miller:  As part of this sale, the new owners are going to build a dedicated practice facility for the Thorns as opposed to practicing where the members of the Timbers practice. How significant is this?


RosasIt’s huge. It’s huge for the Thorns. It’s huge for Portland. The Thorns have actually been practicing at Providence Park itself, so on the same surface that they play matches on and the same surface that Timbers play and where they host graduation. So it’s a pitch that sees a lot of wear and tear and that’s been their practice facility more often than not. They will occasionally go out to where the Timbers play in Beaverton and practice at that facility. But having a dedicated facility for the Portland Thorns is just so clutch and so key. We’ve seen significant growth in the league over the last few years and more and more clubs are coming to the league with these types of facilities and these types of amenities either on the plan or it’s already part of their package.

Miller:  Meaning if the Thorns didn’t get it, they would be at a disadvantage? We’ve heard that kind of the arms race. I’m thinking about the University of Oregon football team. I mean that the Ducks have this sort of death star practice facility and it was seen as a recruiting bonus. If you don’t have this kind of fancy place with amazing looking locker rooms, recruits would be less likely to want to go. Is that an issue in the NWSL?

RosasAbsolutely. I think the teams and the landscape are so competitive in the NWSL that teams need to use all resources to try to recruit the best players. Free agency is something that’s new, that the players association worked really hard to implement. That’s new this year. So now we’re seeing players decide where they want to go. And so having facilities like that is going to be really critical to attracting players but also retaining players.

In the last year we’ve heard from a lot of players that they do not like practicing at Providence Park. It’s hard on their bodies. The pitch is extremely tough. From a wear and tear standpoint, they would prefer to be practicing on grass, be practicing at their own facility where they can control the schedule. If we think about Providence Park, there’s a lot of activity that happens in that building. And so limiting the schedule for when the team can come in and practice around everything else has just gotten to be tiresome.

Miller:  Anne, the team sold for a reported $63 million as you mentioned or $62 when you take $1 million away from it. What does that number tell you? What does it say about where the Thorns rank right now in terms of value, of fan base, of just the business side of this league?

Peterson:  Sportico, the business journal, had the team valued at $65 million. That’s fourth in the NWSL because you have Angel City in Los Angeles, which is doing incredibly well. And the San Diego Wave in San Diego. It tells you that this is a viable enterprise. Women’s soccer is a viable enterprise. And that number is going to go up exponentially because of the NWSL’s new media rights deal, which is going to put the games in front of more eyes, more often, with less barriers.

The last year of the games were on Paramount+, which was great. But it wasn’t what they’re going to be doing going forward, where there’s a collaborative deal between CBS, ESPN and all of these others. It’s a huge media rights deal. So I think that that is going to be jet fuel for the league. We also have a new Boston team coming into the league. That’s just gonna increase. We’ve got two teams coming in next season, the Bay Area team and the new old Utah team. So that’s gonna bring the league to 16 teams and, in terms of business, all of those things make the NWSL an attractive property.

Miller:  Gabby, as I mentioned earlier and as listeners over the years will probably remember, you’re the president of the fan organization that supports both the Thorns and the Timbers. These are teams that have been really intricately tied and, until very recently, just last week, with the same ownership. Is fandom, is your organization going to change now that there are different owners for these two teams?

RosasI don’t foresee change needing to happen. Given different ownership groups, the clubs are still going to play at the same facility at Providence Park.

Miller:  At least for the next 12 years, right?

RosasAt least as long as the City is okay with that. So I think if we can continue to be good stewards of that environment and keep the stadium district alive and hoppin’ and everything. I don’t foresee the 107IST seeing much change. What we’re really preparing for right now is new members joining, new people coming to Thorn’s games.

Miller:  Do you think because of the ownership change, people will come out of the woodwork?

RosasIn droves.

Miller:  Meaning, people who left it or people who were just not interested, you said before, because of Merritt Paulson?

RosasProbably, mostly [the former, but] a little bit of both. Yeah, I’ve heard from so many of my close friends who have not felt comfortable going to the stadium, giving money to an organization that was involved in silencing players and not reporting instances of abuse and coercion. So many of my friends walked away and said, “I can’t right now, I can’t, as long as this leadership team is still involved.” And in the last week, there’s been such a positive outpouring of people calling to renew their tickets and purchasing those tickets.

And I think this is where cautiously optimistic comes back. I am really hoping that the new ownership group is receiving of what this community will bring to the table and will be engaging with the community. That’s what will help grow this as well. We’ve seen amazing growth happen after World Cups. This is an Olympic year. Women’s soccer will be featured in the Olympics. So there will be additional new eyes. I think the Thorns and the Timbers have so much growth still in Portland.

You know, we’re not nearly as popular as the Blazers and we’ve got U of O football right down the way and all those sports. I think there’s just so much growth potential that’s where we’re really focused on, how do we receive new members? How do we get new members engaged in our community, participating in events, engaged with what happens in the North End? And really trying to create a powerful community that supports these clubs.

And when the new ownership does reach out and wants to get involved, I think we’ll still have the same leadership teams that have been engaging with the Timbers and Thorns in the past, we’ll still have them involved. It’s just that it might be a little bit different because it’ll be a different set of meetings or a different set of conversations being had.

Miller:  Just briefly, the 2024 draft is happening on Friday evening. What are you most hoping for from the draft?

RosasChaos. Absolute chaos.

Miller:  That’s not what you’re expecting, but what you’re hoping for?

RosasYeah. Yeah. Yeah. No, I’m hoping that the Thorns can move up in the draft order a little bit. Currently, their number one pick, or their first pick, is the 11th spot in Round One. And so, I imagine that there will be some chaos. But when the dust gets settled hopefully we’re in the top three.

Miller:  Meaning after some trades?

RosasYeah. And we’ll be able to select, hopefully shore up our defense a bit. I think the Thorns could use some additional defenders. We did just sign Isabella Obaze and I really hope that we move up in the draft order a bit and that we kind of see the fruits of all of the labor that hopefully Karina and other people in the front office side have been doing this off-season.

Miller:  Gabby Rosas and Anne Peterson, thanks very much. Gabby Roses is the chair of the Rose City Riveters and the president of the 107IST. Anne Peterson is a sports writer for the AP.

Contact “Think Out Loud®”

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.