By Corey Paul
UPDATE (Jan. 3, 2011): Indeed, the Timbers have surpassed 10,000 season ticket sales, the team announced Monday. Also, the team decided upon the 12,000 cap, and all 23 suites have been sold on a multi-year basis. Remaining season tickets start at $18 per game.
The Portland Timbers expect to surpass 10,000 season tickets sold by the end of the year in advance of their inaugural season as a Major League Soccer franchise.
"Coming down to the deadline here we've seen a nice push with the unveiling of the new program," says Timbers spokesperson Chris Metz. He's talking about the Axe Society, a promotional group offering membership to all who buy tickets before Dec. 31 and benefits including the permanent display of their names in the stadium and discounts in the team store.
Also contributing to sales are the announcements of new players, including Friday's trade of goalkeeper Steve Cronin to D.C. United for Troy Perkins, a veteran who was the second-highest paid goalkeeper in the league last season.
Then there are billboards of men and women wielding axes that popped up around Portland in the past few months, and the MLS' unveiling on Monday of the 2011 openers. The Timbers on March 19 will play the defending MLS Cup champion the Colorado Rapids in Denver. On April 14, the Timbers play their first home game against the Chicago Fire in a newly renovated PGE Park.
In late September, the team reported 15 sold-out sections and four nearing sold-out status, and fans speculated on blogs that 10,000 season tickets had already been sold.
Now, The Timbers' web site states that 20 sections have sold out as well as 75 percent of season tickets — or about 9,000 — but those figures are misleading. For one, says Metz, the numbers need updating. For two, a hard cap of season tickets hasn't been set, although Metz said the team is considering capping season tickets at 12,000.
If the team falls short by the time it releases details of season ticket sales and section availability on Jan. 3, it will still have months to reach its goal. Prices for individual games still haven't been set; nor has a date when they will go on sale.
By way of comparison, the Vancouver Whitecaps' sales boomed since the team was granted MLS status in March 2009. A week after that announcement, the Whitecaps began selling season ticket deposits. The Timbers chose a similar strategy, selling 1,000 deposits in 10 days. But the Whitecaps sold 5,000 in 48 hours. Demand was high enough early-on, says President Bob Lenarduzzi, for the Whitecaps to set a season ticket cap of 16,500 for its 20,000 seat stadium. That's about the same capacity as the renovated PGE Park.
It remains to be seen whether the Portland area can generate a long-term fan base for an MLS team. Soccer in America is growing, and Vancouver, of course, is in Canada.
Both the Whitecaps and the Timbers look to Seattle as they launch their seasons in the big league. There, MLS soccer proved a moneymaker in the first two seasons, with 22,000 season tickets sold their inaugural season and 32,000 for the 2010 season. The Sounders averaged over 30,000 fans a game in 2009 at Qwest Stadium, then increased capacity to 36,400 and sold out every game in 2010.
Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.