A GM vs. The Timbers Army: A Comms Strategy to Keep the Patients from Running the Asylum

There’s a battle brewing for control of the Timbers.  It looks like it’s about to get ugly, but it doesn’t have to.

The Portland Timbers story is one of the greatest success stories in franchise sports teams — in the stands. Almost every game is a sellout and the team seems to be financially successful. On the field however, they’ve underperformed and are tied for last place in the league.

The current General Manager, Gavin Wilkinson, was coach from 2006 – 2010. In 2011, he became the GM and earlier this summer he named himself acting coach after firing the popular John Spencer.

Gavin was never a fan favorite, on numerous occasions in the USL days Gavin attempted to create team sponsored fan groups and enforce controls on the Timbers Army. The fans making up the Timbers Army saw this as an attempt to control the fan base and dilute their influence.

In the last few weeks, Gavin has fired Spencer and traded two very popular players. Now fans are out for blood.

 I’ll leave it to the soccer experts to decide if these were smart moves. But from a communications perspective Wilkinson failed on all accounts. His reasons for the firing and trades came off as insincere and even blatantly dishonest.

Many fans and members of the Timbers Army want Wilkinson out. In wanting him out they want to flex their muscles and influence.  The Timbers Army in many ways is an incredibly sophisticated and well organized group of super fans.  However, the Timbers Army is also in many ways is a concept rather than a thing. “If you want to be in the Army, you are in the Army.” So how does the front office partner with an organization that doesn’t exist? At the heart of the Army is a formal group, the 107ists they help guide the actions of the Army, but in general don’t engage in the “political” side of the game and focus on philanthropic efforts and helping organize fan support.

How bad have things gotten? There is serious talk of concession boycotts, refusal to sing and chant for a game, and even some talk of trying to buy the team. The hash tag #GWout is almost used as much as the designated fan hash tag. With each game, more and more #GWout signs are showing up in the stands.

So why does this matter? The product that the average fan is paying for isn’t the on-field game. The product that the sponsors love and what really draws the fans, the TV cameras and articles in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times is the Timbers Army. To maintain a vibrant fan and sponsor base you need to maintain a generative relationship with the Army and avoid blatant in-stadium conflict.

So how should the front office address the current issues?

  1. Identify a new spokesperson. For the short term the relationship between the Army and Wilkinson is too strained.
  2. The Timber’s front office and ownership needs to share their roadmap for putting a better product on the field. They need to provide context for future firings and trades before they the next round of trades happen.
  3. Spokespeople need to be brutally honest, the statements following the recent trades have eroded the trust between the front office and fans.
  4. The front office needs to continue to work to find the balance between listening to the Army and letting the Army make personnel or business decisions. Focus the Army’s efforts on helping improve the game day fan experience.
  5. Ownership and Wilkinson need to demonstrate the level of passion the fans do.  One of the great moments last season, was when then coach John Spencer got kicked off the field and later fined for making comments about the officiating. The fans loved it because it showed he was as passionate about the game as they are.

Should Gavin Wilkinson be fired? Probably. Should he be fired because the Timbers Army demanded it? Probably not.

Note: I am a card-carrying member of the 107ists, but not an active member. I am also a self-proclaimed member of the Timbers Army.

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7 comments

  1. KeepCalm · · Reply

    “The Timbers Army wants Wilkinson out. In wanting him out they want to flex their muscles and influence.”
    I think you just identified a huge problem for the Army and the #GWOUT campaign. Maybe I’m just unreasonably stubborn, but If I was Merritt right now, the last thing I would want to do is give in to the shouting of the TA. I wouldn’t want it to look as though my fanbase was running the show. Not only could that make him look bad, but it could set a bad precedent for the management of the team.
    Maybe he is frustrated with Gavin right now, too. Maybe he would have reached the same conclusion as you all on his own, or with some gentle help. Who knows? I just think the Army approach this in the wrong way.

    Of course, this comes from someone who is not as adamant as most about the need to get Gavin out and someone who can see the positive in each of the trades we have made this year. (I also remember when folks were upset that Perkins was getting the start over Gleeson early last season, so I take the anger over the Perkins loss with a grain of salt.)

    So, feel free to disagree with everything else I said. :)

  2. Good post. Been think a lot of these things for a while as a fellow 107ist member / TA.

    Like ‘KeepCalm’ Merritt is in a no win situation right now. If he fires Gavin, it looks like the lunatics are ruling the asylum. If he stands by Gavin, he alienates the support. Frankly, it shouldn’t of gotten this far. Kind of feel bad for him to be honest.

    In retrospect, the smart move would of let Spencer see out the season and make all the changes the day after the season ended. Based on Gavin’s history in handling the media and fans, he should of never been put in this position.

    I know what you were getting at with point five, however I think the reason why we are in this situation now is that too many people in this organization have made their feelings public and have chosen to express their feeling in a less than professional manner.

    The ‘scummy up’ policy that the team has employed in the treatment former employees needs to stop. The twitter outbursts need to stop. The bitter backhanded post game press conferences need to stop.

    Those actions by the team have been more embarrassing than any loss to CalFC. Frankly it’s the real reason why so many fans – like me – are angry and calling for Gavin’s head.

    When it comes down to it, this is a case of two distinct sides who are acting like children. However, one – the fans / TA / everyone not employees of the Timbers – can afford to act like children while the other – the organization – cannot. Whether Gavin, Merritt and the rest of the team like it or not – they have to be the bigger person.

    One group has the power to stop this and it’s not the fans, TA, 107ist, talk radio, Sam Adams, or Barrack Obama. It’s the team and specifically Merritt.

  3. Should he *not* be fired just because the Timbers Army is demanding it? Probably not! If it’s the right thing to do, it needs to be done, even if it might look like kowtowing to the TA.

  4. Trades are to be expected in professional sports. What isn’t expected is this organization’s classless “trade-then-trash” behavior. The Timbers’ front office has a history of trading players and then denigrating them in the media, with little or no evidence to back up their statements. Or in the case of Troy Perkins, evidence that overtly contradicts the statements.

    It’s as if our beloved club is being run by a clique of teenage Mean Girls. Not only is it unprofessional, it is embarrassing. What the front office doesn’t seem to understand is that their tacky behavior says a lot more about them than it does about the former-players they are maligning. And if it keeps up, no skilled footballer will ever want to play for the Timbers, regardless of the stadium atmosphere provided by the TA.

  5. Are people really that upset about him saying that he sees Ricketts as an upgrade over Perkins? I would hope that he would see it as an upgrade over Perkins, why else would he make the trade? Would you rather him come out and say “Ricketts isn’t as good as Perkins” and then have to explain why he is trading a player he values higher for someone he doesn’t think can fill the first guy’s shoes? I don’t get what all the uproar is about. We’ll soon learn whether or not Wilkinson is right in his assessment about Ricketts, but I just don’t understand why the fans are trying to handcuff their GM/Coach for having an opinion and making it known.

  6. What people need to realize is that the #gwout movement is reaching a peak now but it’s been at a slow boil for the better part of 6 years. A respected GM would have been given a lot of leeway here by the fans to make moves as a last place team and even backhanded comments would be overlooked. But Gavin has zero respect. None. And no room for error with fans who have watched his antics pollute the club they love so much for years. This isn’t about Perkins or any trade it’s about trust. We have zero trust in GW, and increasingly trust in MP’s, competency. It’s not that things are happening its who is pulling the trigger. In the end, a careful examination of GW’s career shows GW is very good at doing what’s good for GW, not the teams or clubs he manages.

  7. The anti-TA behavior on the part of Gavin Wilkinson during the USL days were done in his very first year as coach and general manager, which was also his first year as a front office employee of Merritt Paulson. People are glossing over the role Merritt has played, and is still playing. He is very controlling. He demands obedience from his employees, and he also is not the type of person that will willingly tolerate the TA. He eventually came around to somewhat working with the TA because he saw the monetary value in it. That is all. He grits his teeth and bears it, but he does not like it. He never did.

    It is unfortunate that Gavin, despite whatever personal flaws he may or may not have, gets the brunt of the blame for those initial anti-TA policies. It is also unfortunate that Gavin gets the brunt of the blame for the poor manner in which the team has performed. In this area, Merritt too has poked his head and gotten involved with practice sessions, coaching decisions, and player transfers/acquisitions. He has no soccer knowledge whatsoever, so this is a very bad sign. It is also the very reason why John Spencer was fired. It was not because Gavin whispered in Merritt’s ear. It is because John Spencer told Merritt where to shove it.

    To be clear here, this is not unfortunate for Gavin’s sake. Yeah, it is too bad that he is bearing the brunt of it, and it must suck for him to have to bite his lip in order to keep his job. He knows better than anyone what kind of owner Merritt Paulson is. But the real reason this is all unfortunate is because Merritt Paulson is getting off scott free while Gavin Wilkinson is his scapegoat. Getting rid of Gavin will not change anything. Merritt Paulson will still be the president and owner. Any new general manager and coach will face the same organizational dysfunction that John Spencer and Gavin Wilkinson had to deal with.

    I really wonder if the majority of GWOUT people just haven’t put enough thought into the root problem, or maybe they have but are too scared (or too clever?) to be more direct and call out Merritt the way he should be called out. All we hear that Gavin is some kind of Rasputin whispering into Merritt’s ear, and that the buck should stop with Gavin. Everything is supposedly his fault. As president, the buck should stop with Merritt. But even moreso, due to Merritt’s behavior and tinkering in places he really shouldn’t be tinkering, the buck really should emphatically stop with Merritt, and more blame should be directed his way. Merritt Paulson is the root problem.

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