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Portland Thorns sale to Bhathal family closes at NWSL record $63M

New owners commit to building training facility, sign lease to stay at Providence Park through 2035

Photo Copyright Soobum Im for USA TODAY Sports

The sale of the Portland Thorns to the Bhathal family, through family-owned RAJ Sports, has closed. The Bhathal family bought the Thorns for $63 million, per a National Women’s Soccer League source. The family also committed to building the team a new training facility and signed a lease at Providence Park through 2035.

Lisa Bhathal Merage will serve as the controlling owner and primary NWSL governor of the Thorns, with her brother, Alex, serving as the alternate governor. The family already holds a major sports investment, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

The $63 million sale of the Thorns sets a new NWSL record and keeps what has been the league’s most successful franchise historically in downtown Portland long-term. Peregrine Sports LLC, led operationally by Merritt Paulson, owned the Thorns since the league’s inception in late 2012. The Thorns led the NWSL in attendance — often by exponents more than most teams — every season until 2022, when expansion into California brought immediate success at the gates for Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC.

Portland has been one of the NWSL’s most successful franchises, winning three championships and two NWSL Shields. Portland most recently won the NWSL Championship in 2022. The Thorns’ most recent championship, however, was set against the backdrop of a franchise in upheaval and a rabid fanbase that demanded change from ownership.

A pair of year-long investigations into league-wide misconduct revealed further details about the franchise’s handling of a sexual misconduct complaint against Paul Riley when he was coach of the Thorns in 2015. Paulson especially came under fire — as he had a year earlier when a detailed report of the incident was first published — for allowing Riley to leave at the end of his contract without repercussions. Riley was soon hired by competitors Western New York Flash, the franchise that became the North Carolina Courage. Riley coached in the NWSL until late 2021. On Jan. 9, 2022, the NWSL announced that Riley was banned from the league for life.

Further sanctions from that announcement included a $1 million fine for the Thorns for their role in Riley’s alleged abuse in 2015. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman’s edict also formally required Paulson to follow through with his previous promise to sell the team. Per a league source, the $1 million was collected from Paulson via the closing of the sale of the Thorns.

Finding a buyer for the Thorns was a complicated process.

A group led by former Nike executive Melanie Strong emerged in late 2022 but talks hit a standstill. A major hurdle for many prospective investors was the entanglement of staff and resources between the Thorns and MLS sibling club Portland Timbers FC. Deciphering which assets were truly specific to the Thorns affected the valuation of the team and the ease of a potential sale.

The Bhathal family has agreed to a service agreement with Paulson for 2024 which will allow the two parties to continue sharing resources as the new ownership group adds staffing. Bhathal Merage will need to figure out how to rebuild the entire front office as an independent team.

“Having female-led ownership and a commitment to construct the Thorns a dedicated training facility are tremendous positives,” Paulson said in a statement. “I remain committed to the Thorns’ success at their Providence Park home, and we are excited about making our operating partnership with the Bhathals smooth and successful for all involved, and most importantly, seamless for Thorns players, staff, and fans.”

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Her biggest impending expense is a new training center for the Thorns. For over a decade, the NWSL team has primarily trained on artificial turf at Providence Park, which has been a point of criticism recently from some players.

“Our vision is to support new, widespread growth for the Thorns, the people of Portland, and for women’s sports as a whole,” Bhathal Merage said in a release. “Specifically, we bring deep experience in professional sports and large-scale real estate developments that create thriving community centers, making us well-positioned to deliver valuable assets that will support further growth for the players, staff, and fans.”

Keeping the Thorns in Providence Park is a win for a fan base that will require a restoration of trust from ownership. How that tenancy works logistically, with Paulson still owning the Timbers — who will almost certainly, even if not explicitly, be the primary tenants — will be a story to watch. Peregrine Sports controls the lease of Providence Park from the city of Portland.

OL Reign, Portland’s rival to the north in Seattle, remains for sale. The Reign franchise is expected to be acquired by a group including Seattle Sounders ownership. That deal is expected to close later this quarter.

The Bhathal family, which includes parents Raj and Marta Bhathal, is based out of Newport Beach and holds investments in a wide variety of industries, including real estate. The family bought into the Sacramento Kings in 2013.

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