Portland State has been playing football games regularly at Providence Park since 1967. In the early years, the venue was known as Civic Stadium. Through more than a half-century, coaches such as Mouse Davis and Pokey Allen and Tim Walsh and players such as June Jones and Neil Lomax and Chris Crawford and Joe Rubin have plied their trade there.
This season, the Vikings have only one of five home dates scheduled there — on Oct. 13 against Big Sky opponent Northern Colorado. The rest of the home games are at Hillsboro Stadium, a 25-minute drive (in good traffic) west of the PSU campus on Highway 26.
The city has owned the stadium since 1966, and city officials always had the intention to allow PSU football to play its home games there. Now, though, the Vikings are a poor stepchild to the Timbers and Thorns in what has become a soccer-only facility.
Providence Park is managed by Peregrine Sports LLC, the entity that owns the MLS Timbers and the National Women's Soccer League Thorns. In 2010, the stadium underwent a $36 million renovation — mostly from city funds — to increase capacity and bring the building up to MLS standards.
In recent years, the Timbers have sold out the 21,000-seat stadium and currently have a wait list for prospective season ticket-holders. Another renovation, which is expected to be complete by next May, will increase Providence Park's capacity by 4,000 seats to about 25,000. The $50 million cost will be covered by Peregrine.
Peregrine's operating agreement with the city, which runs through 2035, gives the Timbers and Thorns control of stadium dates. It has left Portland State football virtually out in the cold this season. The Vikings aren't happy about it, but realize they're between a rock and a hard place.
"I totally understand where they're coming from," Portland State athletic director Val Cleary says. "Do I like it? No. But it's a city-owned facility that leases to a private entity (Peregrine) that says you need to allow this public entity (PSU) to play there, but in super soft language.
"So what it comes down to is, if the dates work out for us (at Providence Park), great. If not, we have to find another location."
Peregrine says it's nothing against the Vikings.
"We enjoy working with them," says Mike Golub, the Timbers' president of business. "We like having them play (at Providence Park). Their program has a lot of history. This is not us having any agenda. It's just the realities of the situation."
A pre-2011 contract with the city had Portland State football covered for a minimum of three dates at the stadium that the Timbers couldn't touch.
"Peregrine retains full scheduling priority," the agreement read. "Licensee (the Vikings) will receive up to nine dates; three of the dates shall be protected each season. Protected dates shall not be changed by Peregrine for any reason whatsoever. Dates cannot be on consecutive weekends without permission from Peregrine. Peregrine will notify licensee of final dates promptly after the MLS schedule is available, but no later than March 1."
That agreement is no longer valid, replaced by one that has no protected dates and scant mention of PSU football at all.
"Val sometimes forgets that the reason why we have priority is we've put a lot of money into the building," Golub says. "Just a reminder that there's some history behind why we have priority and control of the building."
So Peregrine has bought its way into a position of control, which is the way it works in society today, right?
The Vikings have a little history at Hillsboro Stadium, too. They played entire football seasons there in 2000, when Providence Park was being renovated for the baseball Portland Beavers, and in 2010, when construction was being done for the Timbers. They've also played single games at Hillsboro Stadium in recent years when Providence Park was unavailable. But while Providence Park is a walk or short public transit trip from the PSU campus, Hillsboro Stadium is a substantial drive. All things even, the Vikings would like the former to be their permanent home.
The conference portion of Big Sky football schedules are issued five years in advance, says Cleary, who recently sent the conference schedule for 2019, '20 and '21 to Timbers management, "to get it on their radar."
"The ideal thing for us would be to have protected dates," the PSU AD says. "We could send over a schedule three years ahead of time, they would know the dates we have scheduled and there could be a blackout system with the MLS. Protected dates are the biggest thing, and we want them to be at Providence Park."
The MLS schedule is put out in the months prior to a season opening in March. Is there any consideration given to licensees such as PSU football in terms of setting up home dates for MLS teams?
"There is, but there aren't a lot of dates we can hold," Golub says. "There isn't a lot of latitude. It's more difficult this year and next for us with the stadium expansion. We have a higher concentration of games in the summer and end of the season, which exacerbates the challenge."
Besides scheduling home dates for the Timbers and Thorns, Peregrine must hold playoff dates for both teams. With the Thorns, that carries only until late September. This year, the Thorns were home for a NWSL semifinal on Sept. 15 and played host to the championship game on Sept. 22. The Timbers' season extends much longer, with the playoffs beginning in early November. The Vikings' final game this season is at home on Nov. 16, at Hillsboro Stadium — ironically set for a Friday night, since the stadium already had been reserved that Saturday for the state high school football playoffs. Providence Park is booked for a potential Timbers playoff game that weekend.
The Timbers generally don't know if they'll be in the MLS playoffs until shortly before the end of the regular season, which causes a problem for November dates for the Vikings.
"In the past, we'd hold the dates (at Providence Park) for the Vikings until it became known whether they were usable, and they rode with that," Golub says. "They were flexible. This year, they chose certainty, which I can understand."
"When Hillsboro (Stadium) was less busy in previous years, we have put in for provisional games there," Cleary says. "They've been nice enough to let us put a hold on it for free. Then, if the Timbers or Thorns wound up with a playoff game (at Providence Park), we'd have an alternative site to go.
"These days, though, (Hillsboro Stadium is) pretty much booked every weekend with youth events, band competitions, club soccer and high school football. They want to know in advance if we're going to play out there."
This year, the Timbers have no regular-season home dates on Saturdays after Sept. 29.
"It was completely open for (Portland State) to schedule in October," Golub says.
That's not quite right. The Timbers have Sunday home games on Oct. 21 and 28.
"In the past, they've blocked out the weekend if it's a Sunday game," Cleary says. "They say they need to set up their (TV) truck. There's always an issue with the football lines being scrubbed off and with the soccer lines being painted."
"Converting the field (after a Saturday night PSU football game) in wet weather is sometimes challenging," Golub says. "We've done it in the past, but it's tricky. You can't paint lines when it's raining."
Portland State has scheduled a Friday night game at Providence Park a couple of times in the past, but the change from a Saturday game must be approved by the visiting team. Last year, Montana balked at a Friday night game.
Under its current agreement, Portland State pays rent to Peregrine for each game it stages at Providence Park. The rate has nearly doubled in four years, from $17,500 in 2014 to $25,000 in 2015 to $28,500 in 2016 and '17 to $32,000 this season.
"We're very much in line with what other MLS teams charge (licensees)," Golub claims. "It's an expensive building to operate. It's going to be more so when we finish expansion. There is a lot of labor; a lot of staff all built into that price. To rent a major league stadium in any city is expensive.
"We want to be reasonable. We like having them here. It's a good thing for us and for our suite-holders and our sponsors, but it also has to make financial sense. If they were drawing 10,000 to 15,000 a game, it would seem more reasonable."
Portland State football might have a louder voice in this if it drew better. For its four home games at Providence Park a year ago, PSU announced crowds of between 3,000 and 4,500. Attendance was small even though the Vikings had only half the stadium to use due to construction on the east side. Cleary said she found out in early September that only half the stadium will be available for its Oct. 13 game against Northern Colorado, too. She has asked Peregrine to trim its $32,500 rental fee, but hasn't yet received a response.
"I don't know if it's a fair rate," Cleary says. "But for us, it's a substantial increase (from 2014 to now) in that short a time period."
Portland State pays $12,500 per game at Hillsboro Stadium, so financially, it makes more sense to play there. The capacity of 7,600 better fits the Vikings' current situation, too.
For other reasons, it's a lousy fit. It's a long drive for PSU students, who would much prefer to walk to games at Providence Park. For its game against Montana at Hillsboro Stadium a year ago, the PSU athletic department paid for buses to transport students from campus to the game, and they'll do it again on Oct. 13. It's an additional cost they don't need when they're losing money at either venue.
"We look at Providence Park as our home field," Cleary says. "We sell it during recruitment as our home field, and we have a history there. The ideal thing is for us is to play in town, to have the engagement of the city of Portland. Hillsboro means transportation challenges; it's not on the MAX line. Hillsboro has been great to us, but it's still hard to play only one game at Providence Park."
PSU coach Bruce Barnum says recruiting is the biggest challenge for him in terms of the stadium issue.
"My opponents are going to bury me," Barnum says. "They'll tell recruits, 'They don't even have a home field.' That's the negative that happens. I love the Hillsboro group. They are very accommodating. But the recruiting part of it is a mess."
When the Vikings play at Providence Park, there is a traditional "Viking Walk," where the players walk together from the locker room on campus to the stadium prior to a game.
"That was one thing that bonded us together," junior tight end Charlie Taumoepeau says. "I love Providence Park. We've learned to adjust. Hillsboro Stadium is our new home, and I'm happy to play ball there. But Providence is definitely home for us. That's where we want to be."
In the short term, at least, it's not where the Vikings will be. It would be nice if the MLS and the Timbers and Thorns were to make provisions to allow Portland State to play its five home games at Providence Park every season. But it's not a priority for them.
"The Timbers and Thorns have all the leverage," Cleary says, "and I understand. They're selling out the stadium. We're not. They have a vested interest in the stadium. They've done the modifications and the upgrades. They want it to be a soccer-only stadium, and it's working for them. It's unfortunate we're on the other end.
"We just want protected dates and a reasonable rate. Those are the only two things. We're not getting either of them, and this is the way it's going to be from now on."