Every great city needs its own sports franchise. And Victor Young is giving Sarasota a soccer club, the Sarasota Metro FC Blue Dragons. “Everyone likes a dragon,” Young said about the dragon mascot as he was passing out team merchandise in May on opening day at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex.
Dragons or not, it’s true that professional sports teams provide a sense of pride, relevancy and unity to cities. Whether it’s really an economic boost is debatable. Nonetheless, city officials around the country have been willing to subsidize the demands of sports team owners with taxpayer dollars. In North Port, taxpayers picked up almost half the cost of the $100 million Atlanta Braves CoolToday Park. For the most part, North Port residents seem thrilled with the cachet of providing a home for the Braves. If Young has his way, the Blue Dragons will provide the same sort of pride and be part of the region’s growing stature and a path to Major League Soccer (MLS) for players.
Young, the president and co-owner of Lamborghini Sarasota, only recently became a fan of the sport after reading in a business magazine about the investment value of soccer franchises. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, soccer is expected to overtake baseball in spectator popularity and become the third most-watched sport in America. Among the younger demographic (18-34) soccer is No. 2 behind football, and immigrants to this country are coming from soccer-playing countries. Miami is set to have its own soccer franchise, Inter Miami, in the MLS by 2020. The franchise, headed up by English soccer star David Beckham and a handful of area investors, promises to seat more than 25,000 fans in its stadium and generate about $425 million in revenue each year.
In exchange, Miami is handing Beckham and Co. a 99-year, no-bid lease for the development of Miami Freedom Park, a $1 billion retail, office, hotel and stadium complex, along with public soccer fields and a 58-acre public park.
Footing the bill to create the Sarasota Metro FC Blue Dragons all by himself (he won’t say how much), Young pitched the idea of a Sarasota franchise to the United Soccer League 2, which is basically the equivalent to a Single A league in baseball. They granted his wish in January 2019. Attendance at the Blue Dragons’ home games, played at the Robert Taylor center and on IMG fields, has been between 150 to 200 fans. So far this season, Sarasota Metro FC has won two games, drawn two and lost four.
The team is mostly made up of young players who play for their college teams, although older players aspiring to the MLS play for Sarasota Metro FC, too. They come from all over the world and in Sarasota. Because of the NCAA’s strict athletic eligibility rules, none of the 28 Sarasota Metro FC players is financially compensated. The team provides housing and a food stipend for the players who do not live in the area.
For players like Blake Dean, who grew up in Englewood and lives there with his parents, having a local team in the USL League II helps to foster his professional ambitions. Dean, a 20-year-old sophomore who plays for Florida Atlantic University’s Division I soccer team, is hoping to go pro. “Obviously, I have other plans in place,” Dean says. “You can’t just bank on going pro; there’s the possibility of injuries and other things.”
Sarasota Metro FC provides Dean with the opportunity to improve his skills and be seen by MLS scouts who attend the games. Every day, Dean trains on his own from 7 to 11 a.m. The team practices every evening for two hours. If Dean could pick any team, it’d be Miami. “I grew up in the States, so I want to keep it in the States,” Dean says. “Everyone wants to play for the big teams, Real Madrid or Barcelona, but I think it’d be cool to play for that new Miami team with David Beckham.”
Young, who says he’s not in it for the money, may not be aiming for a David Beckham-like franchise. But if he does make a profit, he says he’ll donate a percentage to cancer research and at-risk youth. “I could have bought another boat with this money,” he says about his investment so far. “I’ll be happy if I break even. I just wanted to give something to the community.”