Celebrity athletes workout at IMG Academy in Bradenton so often a Tim Tebow or Kobe Bryant sighting is a fairly common occurrence.
But some of the current work going on inside the gated, world-renowned 450-acre sports-training enclave is a genuine rarity: Construction cranes, concrete supply trucks and large hard-hat crews are scurrying around amid a $40 million expansion project that includes new dorms, fields and high-end training facilities.
“We call them the zombie team,” quips Chip McCarthy, IMG vice president of finance and operations. “Because no one is getting any sleep.”
The work is particularly unusual in the Sarasota-Bradenton region, where large-scale, multifaceted construction projects are hard to find.
Of course, IMG Academy itself is unique. A few blocks from the State College of Florida main campus in Bradenton, IMG trains more than 20,000 athletes a year, from young children to college players and pros.
The athletes come from 80 countries, and some who started young have gone on to professional stardom. The campus is also home to a boarding school with 800 students.
That activity, and the bustling economy it generates, is notable not only for IMG, but for many area businesses, such as hotels and restaurants. Local officials have followed IMG’s recent growth with more attempts to recruit and retain sports-related businesses and expansions. That ranges from spring-training sites for Major League Baseball teams to a new rowing park in Sarasota County. Many of these expansion or retention projects, including some at IMG, are aided by state and local financial incentives.
“IMG is a global business,” says Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Sharon Hillstrom, “so the visibility it provides the business community is quite significant.”
And the current construction project, part of a $197 million, 15-year master plan designed in 2009, likewise has a larger purpose for IMG Academy, which has 750 employees. “We are in a major growth phase,” says McCarthy. “In order to grow more we have to have the facilities.”
Plus, executives want IMG, and the students and athletes who learn, train and live there, to become the best in everything. One specific goal is to have the prep school, home of the Ascenders, move up significantly in nationwide academic rankings.
“We believe we already provide excellence in athletics,” McCarthy says. “Our objective is to provide equal excellence in academics.”
IMG Academy revenues have also been excellent, with an increase of 20% a year each of the last few years, says McCarthy, though executives decline to release specific figures. That growth, says McCarthy, provides most of the funds for IMG to move ahead with the first two phases of its master plan.
The first phase, a 50,000-square-foot dorm that houses 500 middle school and high school students, opened in May. The dorm, IMG spokesman John Esfeller says, was built with today’s young students in mind, which means a lot of Wi-Fi and other high-tech amenities. Adds Esfeller: “It’s first class all the way.”
First class is a theme throughout IMG, from its Gatorade sports science center, one of two in the country, to its John R. Wooden Center for Character and & Leadership. Those centers opened in the past year.
IMG Academy is a unit of IMG Worldwide, a sports, media and entertainment conglomerate with more than a dozen divisions and 3,000 employees. IMG Worldwide has a presence in everything from New York fashion shows to sports licensing to representing elite athletes, names such as Peyton Manning, Venus Williams and David Beckham.
New York-based private equity firm Forstmann Little & Co. bought IMG Worldwide in 2004. The firm, which paid $750 million for the company, originally called International Management Group, recently put the entire operation up for sale, according to Bloomberg News reports.
The New York corporate happenings, however, haven’t had much impact on IMG Academy’s day-to-day operations, local officials say. Still, IMG Worldwide, just prior to the master plan, initiated a significant leadership overhaul at the top of the academy. That began in January 2009, when four local IMG Academy executives were forced out, including then-CEO Greg Breunich.
IMG Worldwide executive Sam Zussman, who had previously worked for McKinsey & Co., a prominent global management consulting firm, replaced Breunich. A native of Israel who spent four years in the Israel Defense Forces when he was a teenager in the late 1980s, Zussman was given unambiguous turnaround orders. “It was clear that (the campus) was financially struggling,” Zussman told the Observer Group’s Business Observer in a 2010 story. “But it was also clear that it had tremendous potential.”
Executives hope that potential will come to fruition with Phase II of the expansion, the part that’s generated the current activity. This portion of the project will provide space for both physical and mental activities at IMG Academy.
The mental side is wrapped around IMG Performance, an event, education and research-and-development arm launched last year. That side of IMG, spokeswoman Kim Berard says, matches the academy’s teenage athletes with national brands such as Gatorade, Under Amour and Prince, the tennis firm. Those companies come to Bradenton for market research with 13- to 18-year-olds, a segment of the population, says Berard, “where little performance data exists.”
In addition to those companies on campus, IMG Academy plans to hire at least 15 scientists and sports psychologists in the next few months, to further the research side.
“On a small scale,” says McCarthy, “this is turning into a Silicon Valley of sports.”
The physical side, meanwhile, includes a high-end, multi-sport complex, where the centerpiece is a 5,000-seat stadium with the ability to double capacity. The stadium field, says Berard, will have professional-quality Bermuda grass, and TV-ready lights will blanket it. A Jumbotron, at a cost of about $1 million, will top off the project. The entire complex, expected to open in August, also includes baseball fields and an eight-lane, 400-meter track.
The next part of Phase II, scheduled for completion by the end of the year, will feature a 40,000-square-foot fieldhouse with locker rooms, meeting spaces and offices. The meeting space, says McCarthy, will hold up to 200 people and be available to teams and local businesses.
McCarthy has been with IMG Academy since 1990, when he took a finance position three years after the academy opened on 300 acres of former tomato fields in Bradenton. Prior to that move, the academy was a tennis-only school run by Nick Bollettieri, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the sport.
Bollettieri, who launched his school in 1978 at The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key, has a long list of pupils that includes Andre Agassi and Monica Seles. It also includes McCarthy, who played tennis for Bollettieri at the Colony.
Bollettieri partnered with IMG in 1987, and sports such as soccer, golf and baseball were phased in over the next decade. Sports at IMG have since grown to include football, lacrosse and track and field.
“The growth,” says McCarthy, “has been phenomenal.”
Bradenton-based IMG Academy, a unit of New York-based IMG Worldwide, could be on the verge of getting a new corporate owner.
Bloomberg News reports that Forstmann Little & Co., a private equity firm that bought IMG Worldwide in 2004 for $750 million, hired M s xorgan Stanley and Evercore Partners to find a buyer. Evercore is a New York-based investment banking firm.
The potential sale, according to Bloomberg, hasn’t been confirmed. But the news agency reports that IMG Worldwide could sell for $2 billion — a hefty profit for its owners. IMG Sports President George Pyne, although not commenting directly on the sale reports, did mention the rumors at a recent sports business conference, Bloomberg reports. Pyne, says Bloomberg, indicated IMG Worldwide, including IMG Academy, could be sold within four months to two years.
Bloomberg says possible bidders for the company include Guggenheim Partners, the firm that recently bought the Los Angeles Dodgers; Silver Lake Management LLC, which has a stake in William Morris Endeavor Entertainment LLC; and Creative Artists Agency, a longtime Hollywood power-broker firm.
Top executive: Sam Zussman
Employees: 750 (900 in summer for camps)
Year founded: 1978, under the name Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Bollettieri started at The Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key. He merged with IMG in 1987.
Divisions: Prep school, sports camps, collegiate and professional training, team training and adult programs.
Sports: Baseball, basketball, football, golf, lacrosse, soccer, tennis and track and field.
Facilities: 52 tennis courts, including hard-court, clay, indoor and outdoor; 12 soccer fields; three full-size baseball fields and four practice diamonds; an 18-hole golf course with practice areas; four basketball courts; two lacrosse fields; two football fields; and a 10,000-square-foot weight room.
Academics: School goes from pre-kindergarten through high school; enrollment is around 800 students from 80 countries. About 60% of the students are from outside the U.S.
Prominent alumni who trained at IMG: List includes NFL quarterback Eli Manning; pro golfer Paula Creamer, a part-time Bradenton resident; Major League Baseball player Adam Dunn; and U.S. Soccer goalkeeper Tim Howard. IMG alumni have won 32 Olympic gold medals, five national titles and three Heisman trophies.
Prominent staff: Chris Weinke, a quarterback from Florida State who won the Heisman Trophy in 2000, is the director of the football program; Kenny Natt, a former assistant coach in the NBA and onetime interim head coach of the Sacramento Kings, runs the boys basketball program; and Bill Shatz, a nationally known lacrosse player and executive, who founded the Tampa Bay Fire Lacrosse Club, runs the lacrosse program.
Source: IMG Academy