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?
- Identify a new spokesperson. For the short term the relationship between the Army and Wilkinson is too strained.
- 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.
- Spokespeople need to be brutally honest, the statements following the recent trades have eroded the trust between the front office and fans.
- 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.
- 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.