PORTLAND – Not far from Seattle’s Qwest Field, a billboard went up recently above an auto repair shop. In bold letters it reads: “Portland, Oregon. Soccer City, USA. 2011.” It includes the double-sided ax insignia of the Portland Timbers.
The billboard is a not-so-subtle marketing ploy to stoke the competition between the Timbers, who join Major League Soccer next year, and the MLS Seattle Sounders, who play at Qwest Field.
With Vancouver, B.C., also home to an expansion team next season, the MLS has smartly positioned itself to capitalize on a three-way Pacific Northwest rivalry that stems from the 1970s, when the teams were part of the old North American Soccer League.
“Sports are built on rivalries, and that’s such an asset that we have — not just with Seattle, but also with Vancouver,” Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said. “It’s a good thing for the league. And, you know, the billboard got some national attention, so I think it can heighten the national consciousness to the rivalry that’s going on here.”
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MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week he was amused by the billboard. The league is keenly watching the development of the renewed rivalry in the region and whether the trio can build on the momentum of the Sounders’ incredibly successful launch.
“We’re a young sports league in a very crowded market,” Garber said. “Our teams have to aggressively and creatively carve out their piece of the pie.”
The hype has been building in Portland as the Timbers play out their final season in soccer’s minor leagues. In the past month, the team has named a new head coach and brought aboard Alaska Airlines as its jersey sponsor, a coup in the lackluster economy.
After the Portland Beavers baseball team wrapped up their season at PGE Park recently, construction equipment moved on the field to transform the stadium from a multi-use facility to a soccer-specific venue.
The Timbers, who aren’t releasing specific numbers yet, have sold more than 7,500 season tickets and are on pace to sell 10,000 by New Year’s Day. It is expected that PGE Park will seat about 20,000 when the renovation is finished.
The Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, were left with no home and are now up for sale after several failed efforts to build the team a new ballpark in and around Portland.
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, are renovating BC Place Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the Vancouver Olympics were held. They will open their inaugural season at Empire Fields, also the temporary home of the CFL’s B.C. Lions.
The Whitecaps, whose ownership group includes Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, reports they’ve sold more than 14,000 season tickets. The Whitecaps’ kit sponsor, by the way, is Bell Canada.
Both teams already have rabid fan groups: Portland has the Timbers Army and Vancouver has the Southsiders. And both teams are looking to follow the lead that the Sounders established.
The Seattle franchise sold 22,000 season tickets before the start of its inaugural season last year. The Sounders sold out every home game in their first season and set a league record for average attendance.
The Sounders’ success helped Portland and Vancouver win MLS franchise bids.
“What drove us throughout this process was knowing that if we prevailed, we would be able to capture something very special — the uniqueness of a passionate regional rivalry across three cities,” Garber said.
The rivalry has been simmering in the Pacific Northwest since all three teams played in the NASL, which existed from 1968 to 1984.
After the Whitecaps won the league championship in 1979, some 100,000 people attended their homecoming parade – believed to be the city’s biggest crowd prior to hosting the Olympics.