Timbers CEO Heather Davis Steps Onto the Pitch
- Written by Jason Cohen
- Published in Arts and Entertainment
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The Aloha native steps in for team owner Merritt Paulson after several years of winning on the field, and turmoil off it.
As she said herself upon being introduced as the Portland Timbers and Thorns FC CEO, Heather Davis has worked in a triumvirate of male-dominated industries: politics, big corporate law firms and sports. That included a stint working for then-U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and nine years as senior counsel for the National Football League.
Davis first joined the Timbers and the Thorns as general counsel in the spring of 2022, and she now takes over after a tumultuous several years that began with a report by The Athletic about sexual misconduct and harassment by former Thorns coach Paul Riley (and the team’s failure to report it at the time). That ultimately generated two different investigative reports (one commissioned by U.S. Soccer and led by former Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates and another by the National Women’s Soccer League) — and resulted in the departure of longtime Timbers and Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson, as well as president of business Mike Golub. It also prompted team owner Merritt Paulson to resign as president and CEO.
Davis was officially introduced as CEO on Jan. 25; two weeks later, Oregon Business spoke with her about her love of both Oregon and professional sports, what it means to “do the work” and why Paulson will continue to own the Timbers even as the Thorns are up for sale.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So what made you come work for the Timbers and the Thorns initially?
Well, I’m a fourth-generation Oregonian. I came back to be closer to family during the pandemic, with remote work, and then my husband and I decided to relocate. I always wanted to work for the Timbers. And so when they started looking for a new general counsel, I got introduced to them through friends at the league office. I’ve spent my career — legal career, at least — primarily in sports. So this was really my dream job, to be able to come back here and work for this brand.
Had you followed them enough from afar to have a “most memorable moment” watching the teams?
Well, I lived on the East Coast, so much of that time it was a little bit difficult to have followed closely. But last year’s [NWSL] semifinal game here at Providence Park was, I would say, the most exciting live sporting event I’ve ever been to. And I’ve been to quite a few Super Bowls.
You not only worked for the NFL but were involved in their deal with Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League. What’s different about the business of running an American soccer team compared to the NFL or European football?
Well, there are a lot of similarities. [But] the NFL is a juggernaut. Here in the U.S., soccer’s still very much in growth mode, which I think makes it really exciting. There’s so much more possibility for innovation, and the Apple TV deal is a really good example of that. You get to be on the cutting edge of some things that the more established leagues are sometimes a bit later to adopt.
You’ve talked about how a city’s sports team is something of a public trust.
Oh, absolutely. These are community properties. People feel so passionately about their local team. It is an asset that everyone feels very invested in, and [everyone] has a very vested interest in their success. And I think that’s true of sports in the U.S. in general.
Of course, what’s interesting about the Timbers fan base is they’re not just going to tell the coach how to do his job, but they’ll also have strong opinions about the team’s role in the community. I have one colleague who’s even suggested the front office would be happier with just a run-of-the-mill fan, and if they didn’t have to deal with supporters groups in quite the way you do.
Oh, gosh. It wouldn’t be soccer if you didn’t have the supporters group. That’s what makes soccer soccer. We have a very passionate fan base, and it’s the magic — the secret sauce here. We wouldn’t trade that.
You talked in the introductory press conference about some of the changes that have happened with the team and about “doing the work.” Can you articulate what that has meant on a day-to-day basis?
It’s a journey. There’s no silver bullet for any of it. I think we continue to learn and evolve. One thing that we’re doing right now that is proving to be really impactful is our task force, [which] kicked off work in January. We have a group of people from both inside and outside the organization that are looking at the league investigations and our own policies and practices, and talking through what we need to do in order to comply with those recommendations in the league investigation. And also getting feedback, including from the Thorns player representative on the task force, about how these investigations can be done differently. What some pain points were, and questions they have. I think it’s going to be really useful for us here at the club, and useful for the league as well when we get to the end of that.
Who is on that task force?
It’s led by an attorney named Laura Sack [of Davis Wright Tremaine], who is based out of New York and has extensive experience in employment-related practices. We have Beth Flagler from Providence, who’s obviously one of our partners. She’s their head of human resources but also participated in college-level sports. So she brings a really interesting perspective. And then internally we have Stephanie Ludwig, who’s our head athletic trainer on the Timbers side. And then [goalkeeper] Bella Bixby is the Thorns’ player representative, and she’s been a great addition as well.
More recently, and separate from the Sally Yates and NWSL reports, Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson resigned after self-reporting a relationship with a player, while an assistant coach was fired for inappropriate and unwanted contact with a player. Disheartening as that was, would you say that is a sign of progress in a way?
Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s what accountability looks like. This is a club that is focused on compliance and player health and safety. And, you know, we followed all of the policies and processes and took the right steps. And I think that’s what the players expect of us. It’s what our fans expect from us, and I think it is absolutely progress.
One thing that I think people are struggling with is if Merritt Paulson had to remove himself from day-to-day operations, why is it still OK for him to own a team?
Well, he didn’t have to remove himself from day-to-day operations. That was a decision that he made that was entirely voluntary. He’s made that decision for his own personal reasons, and it wasn’t forced. He remains engaged as an owner, and we’re all supportive of him in that way, and he’s supportive of us and our vision for the club.
OK, obviously you can’t speak for him, but he also seems to be saying that, because of what happened, he has to sell the Thorns, the women’s team, but the same standard doesn’t apply to the Timbers, the men’s team.
We made the decision to sell the Thorns because we think that they need a fresh perspective at the league level. It was not any more complicated than that. This is a league and a team that’s going into the second decade. It is a league that’s undergoing a significant amount of growth and change. And there has been a cloud over them over the last year. We felt like giving them a fresh start was the right way to go. It doesn’t have to do with being capable or qualified to manage the team at all.
So ticket sales are trending back up?
Yeah, we’ve had a great off-season of ticket sales. On the Timbers side, the home opener is expected to have more fans than in 2022. All of our early matches are outpacing those same matches last year. And group sales are really coming back to pre-pandemic levels. Obviously, there have been a lot of challenges for live sports over the last three years, and we’re finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel there. The Thorns start about a month later than the Timbers, so some of that is still just picking up, but we’re expecting to hit, I think, 10,000 annual memberships by the start of the season for the Thorns.
So do you read Twitter? Do you stay away?
I stay away.
Does someone read Twitter for you?
My husband occasionally reads Twitter for me. But I told him he is only allowed to tell me the good things. So I do not get a lot from him.
What would you say was formative for you about working for the Clintons?
It was very unique and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, working for people with the leadership skills and talents that the Clintons had. And I have found myself, over the last six or seven months since I’ve been here, really thinking back a lot on what I think Hillary taught me: her resiliency and that ability to stay the course. You asked if I look at Twitter, and I said no, and that’s true. But that doesn’t mean you don’t hear all of that. The ability to just keep doing what you think is right, and tuning out some of that other vitriol and noise, is something that she obviously had to spend a lifetime doing. I have tapped into a lot of that sort of resiliency and courage and integrity over the last few months.