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Q&A: MLS Timbers Are Kicking Up A Storm In Portland

Major League Soccer concluded its 16th season last week with the Los Angeles Galaxy taking the title. However, this year’s big winner for business success may have been the first-year Portland Timbers.

In its inaugural season of MLS play, the Timbers sold out all 17 league games at Jeld-Wen Field, have already sold all tickets for the 2012 season and have a season ticket waiting list numbering well over 5,000.

Helping to drive the Timbers’ success is Chief Operating Officer Mike Golub. Included among his 25 years of marketing and executive experience are tenures with Nike (1996-99), evp for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies (2000-05), svp-business operations and CMO for the NHL’s New York Rangers (2005-06) and COO for the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers (2006-08).

For his efforts, Golub was named the 2011 MLS Executive of the Year.

In addition, Timbers svp-business development/broadcasting Ryan Brach was named the MLS Corporate Partnerships Executive of the Year, vp-ticket sales Joe Cote was named the MLS Ticketing Executive of the Year, vp-business operations and marketing Cory Dolich was named the MLS Marketing Executive of the Year and Timbers director of digital media Brian Costello was the recipient of Local Digital Editor of the Year for 2011. On the team side, the Timbers were awarded Operations Staff of the Year.

Big Lead Sports spoke with Golub about the Timbers, MLS and the landscape of pro sports.

Big Lead Sports: What was the biggest key to success from a business standpoint in Portland this year?

Mike Golub: A couple of things. At every level of the organization we tried to build the organization in a way that authentically reflected Portland.  We have an ethos in the company of really listening to and understanding our fans and making decisions with their best interest in mind.

BLS: Portland already had a history of pro soccer success, especially in the NASL. Did that base give you a boost this year?

MG: Absolutely. The Timbers were born as an NASL team in 1975 and enjoyed remarkable success on and off the field. They were the impetus for Portland becoming a hotbed for the sport at every level and earning the moniker Soccer City USA. Manifestations of that include one of the strongest and best supported collegiate soccer programs at University of Portland and the best supported minor league soccer team in the country, during the Timbers Division 2 years, immediately preceding our ascendancy to Major League Soccer. Soccer has long been in the DNA of our city and was a big reason why our owner Merritt Paulson and the league were convinced the Timbers would be a huge success.

BLS: Were there any best practices learned from your time at the Trail Blazers that helped with the Timbers success?

MG: Over their 40-year history the Trail Blazers have helped make Portland such a vital sports city. The Blazers have always done a great job connecting their past with their present. While we don’t have quite as extensive a history as the Blazers, the Timbers still have a very rich heritage in Portland. We like to think of ourselves as an expansion team with 35 years of history and believe we have done a very good job at connecting the Timbers’ past with our present status as an MLS team.

BLS: What did you take from your time in the NHL and NBA to help the Timbers spur fan engagement?

MG: In all my years in sports, I have never seen a more avid, dedicated and passionate group of fans than Timbers fans. The [New York] Rangers are a close second. Like our fans, Ranger fans bleed for their team. And like soccer players, for hockey players it’s all about putting the team first. The Rangers organization know that for the fans it’s all about what happens on the ice and don’t need to resort to all the game presentation “bells and whistles” that are so prevalent in modern day sports. We approach our game experience similarly and having seen it carried out so successfully at MSG with the Rangers was a great lesson for me.

BLS: How were you able to drive Portland’s corporate community to support the Timbers?

MG: While Portlanders are undoubtedly huge outdoor and individual sport enthusiasts, they are also some of the most loyal and passionate sports fans in the country. There is a huge civic pride for all things that are local and that reflect positively on our city and region. We think have done a good job at giving Portlanders something new to be experience and be proud of. We also like to think we have one of the most robust and comprehensive community relations programs of any sports team. The breadth and depth of our community platform is remarkable and we have been recognized in each of the last three years as one of the 10 most philanthropic businesses in the state. We believe it’s our duty to give back the way we do. But it also helps connect the Timbers to a wide swath of our community in very meaningful ways.

BLS: What are the biggest next steps the franchise has to take from a business perspective?

MG: Our owner has always preached building this franchise for long-term sustainable success. Our relationship with our fans and with our corporate partners is predicated on that philosophy. Most our sponsorship deals are long-term and are typically with the most iconic and established local/statewide companies. We will look to strategically grow our corporate partnerships this coming year. On a ticket side, we are fortunate to have sold out every game in our first year and have an astonishing 97+% renewal rate. We are already sold out of season tickets for next year and will again sell out every game. We will work very hard this year to continue to build our season ticket waiting list, which currently numbers more than 5,000.  So for us, it is continuing to deliver to our fans and our partners a first class experience with industry best service and activation to maintain the momentum and goodwill we currently enjoy.

BLS: Are there there opportunities you can take advantage of working with the Trail Blazers, or is it a different fan base?

MG: We have a good relationship with the Blazers and are very happy for them and their fans that the lockout is over. We have already done a number of promotional and community things together during our first season and at the end of their last season and will continue to look at ways to partner with them. Many of their players love coming to Timbers games and I know many of our players love going to Blazers games.  Civic pride is so strong here and many of our fans are fans of the Blazers.  Our seasons are so complementary it allows fans to cheer for a home major league team year round.

BLS: Where do you see the MLS’ biggest potential for fan growth?

MG: For a league that is only in its 16th year of existence, the trajectory of MLS is extremely impressive. The success that clubs are enjoying in Portland, Seattle, Kansas City, Toronto, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Salt Lake City, Houston just to name a few, makes it hard not to be optimistic that the league will continue to flourish. If we can continue to grow supporters groups and fan bases that we’ve seen in Portland and many other MLS cities and continue to improve the quality of play, I have no doubt the league will continue its impressive growth.

BLS: What do you see as MLS’s key to success moving forward?

MG: For me, one of the qualities that truly differentiates  soccer from other sports is the intensity and sheer passion of our clubs’ supporters.  In my view, soccer fans are truly different than fans of other sports.  I have had hundreds of friends and colleagues say, after seeing a Timbers game, that they have never seen a sporting event as exciting. At the same time the quality of players and quality of play continues to get better. The league and its board of governors are committed to keep improving the on-field product, a critical initiative for the league.

PHOTO: Tim Vizer/Icon SMI

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