Marcus Walfridson wasn't feeling well on June 3.
It was the night of Sarasota Paradise's first home game, and Walfridson, the team's owner, was stuck in the press box at Sarasota High School’s Charlie Cleland Stadium. Walfridson and the Paradise, a "pre-professional" soccer team competing in the United Soccer League's League 2, came to Sarasota to build something special in the community, Walfridson says. He saw a city desperate for a soccer team to call its own, for athletes that kids can emulate when playing in their backyards. At the team's initial announcement party in November at the Sarasota Art Museum, Walfridson said he wanted the team to unite the city in pride; on the team's website, a banner reading "It's time for Sarasota" ripples across the home screen.
Yet in an ironic twist, despite the emphasis on community, Walfridson was separated from the crowd on opening night due to not feeling well. Toward the end of the game, with the Paradise up 2-1 on FC Miami City, he couldn't take it anymore. Walfridson walked down to the front of the bleachers, and what he heard moved him to tears.
"The crowd was yelling at the refs for making a bad call and cheering on our guys," Walfridson says. "The fans were engaged from the first moment. People were hungry to support a local team. For me, that was like, 'Now we're here.' Now we're up and running."
The Paradise would win the game, and the crowd would stay loud until the end.
The team has continued its success since then, on and off the pitch. As of July 9, the Paradise is 5-0-5 with a +4 goal differential, good enough for third place in USL League 2's Florida division. In the process, the team has begun to generate loyal fan support — averaging 426 fans per game.
While that’s short of Walfridson’s stretch goal for year one — 600 fans per game — it’s a solid foundation on which the team can build in 2024. Walfridson says he expects those numbers to grow significantly in year two. After the club was announced in November, the Paradise had approximately six months to get everything in order. Now, the club will have an entire offseason to get in front of businesses and form corporate partnerships, as well as collaborate with youth soccer organizations in the area. That should increase the club's revenue as well as its word-of-mouth relevance in the community.
"We want a bigger base, and we want to do more for them," Walfridson says.
Walfridson is also thinking about changes he'd like to make to the fan experience in 2024, like finding a better price point for tickets — they ranged between $16 and $24 in 2023, with VIP tickets sitting at $124 — as well as adding more to the game day experience.
But for all the talk of next season, it will not be 11 months before the community hears about the Paradise again: Walfridson says the club plans on holding multiple youth camps to "spread the love" and give kids instruction from the Paradise's professional coaching staff, as well as holding non-athletic community events and showing up to places like local farmer's markets to stay in the community's consciousness.
Walfridson knows winning will also bring people out to the park. While the Paradise played well at times, Walfridson says there were also missed opportunities for more wins. Much of the team's roster is collegiate players, and Walfridson says the combination of gaining USL experience plus another year of college training should lead to improvement in 2024. That also means Walfridson and the Paradise plan on bringing back much of its roster, which is a rarity at this level of soccer, but Walfridson says Paradise players have expressed a desire to return because of how much fun they've had and what they've learned. An example: the team took a trip to the Florida Studio Theater to take a group improvisational comedy class, and Walfridson says the response was "phenomenal."
Walfridson and the Paradise have put an emphasis on signing players with ties to the Sarasota area when possible. Not only is there a lot of natural talent in the area, Walfridson says, but having local players mean local family and friends of those players can attend the games, and they are more likely to do so than anyone else.
But Walfridson also knows there is a limit to how many fans will shell out to watch a "pre-professional" soccer team. That's why the club is aiming to not be "pre-professional" for long: Walfridson says he would like the organization to make the jump to USL's League 1 by 2025, or 2026 at the latest. The 12 teams currently playing in League 1 are fully professional, and two more expansion teams have already been announced. The biggest hurdle to League 1 for the Paradise is its stadium situation; the field at Cleland Stadium is currently too narrow for professional play, Walfridson says, so some sort of change would have to be made.
All of that is for the future. In the here and now, regardless of level, the Paradise has earned a spot in the hearts of Sarasota soccer fans, giving them a team to call their own. And on the evening of that first home game, the crowd's response was enough to make Walfridson forget he wasn't feeling well. It was a fork in the road moment, Walfridson says, and it told him he and the club were on the right path.
"The splash we have made in the community has been a real highlight," Walfridson says. "They finally have someone to root for. We represent the city, and that's the main thing."
This article originally appeared on sister site YourObserver.com.