From a tennis school on a tomato farm 20 years ago, IMG has grown into the standard for sports training.
By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2002
BRADENTON -- Gabe Jaramillo was up at sunrise, like every morning for the past 20-odd years at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy.
Jaramillo, director of tennis, has been there since the early days, 1981, when Bollettieri moved his upstart academy to 34th Street W, just off State Road 70, onto what was a tomato farm. He helped Bollettieri become famous by producing legends such as Andre Agassi and Monica Seles.
In 1987, IMG, the sports marketing behemoth, purchased the academy. Executives Greg Breunich and Ted Meekma established a model for expansion and development into other sports. In the 1990s, with tennis at a plateau, the place began to grow.
And grow and grow and grow.
IMG Academies now consists of six sports academies -- Bollettieri's tennis academy, David Leadbetter's golf, plus soccer, baseball, hockey and basketball -- as well as the International Performance Institute, the Pendleton School and more.
The campus covers roughly 200 acres and has 525 full-time students, most paying in excess of $20,000 in tuition. It has more than 100 condominiums for families of students who live on site.
About 10,000 athletes will shuttle through the grounds this year for short-term, intensive training sessions or camps. Dozens of furnished villas accommodate them, along with the hundreds of courts, fields, putting greens, coaches and trainers, etc.
IMG Academies will generate about $25-million in revenue this year. Nothing in the sports training industry approaches it in scope and comprehensiveness. And it has plans for more expansion.
Jaramillo has watched it all.
"One morning, like two, three weeks ago, Greg, Nick and myself were here at 6 in the morning," Jaramillo said. "We were talking, and there was a pause, and then we said, "My God, can you believe what we've done here?' "
IMG Academies resembles a luxury resort (the golf cart is a popular mode of transportation) cross-bred with a bustling college campus (youngsters scurry from dorm to class to court with book bags and tennis rackets).
The result: an athletic training utopia.
"This place is all about building athletes," said Breunich, the director of IMG Academies. "The kids get comfortable in a competitive environment."
Training athletes and developing skills is the mantra.
"We want to deliver a high-quality athlete," said Tom Durkin, a former Tampa Bay Mutiny assistant and the director of the soccer academy. "It's a culture. It's like going to college and majoring in your sport. Every aspect has been thought out.
"The only thing the athlete has to control is the attitude, concentration and effort. If they take pride in those things, the sky's the limit."
When students arrive on campus -- usually between the ages of 12 and 16; 10 is the minimum unless the family lives on site -- they are analyzed by the International Performance Institute. Their training regimen will take into account body structure and composition. It is tailored to the specific skills they are trying to enhance. Their diet is adjusted to maximize nutrition.
The Mental Conditioning Academy works on the psychological component. Full-time students have once-a-week hourly sessions, which can involve watching video of themselves and analyzing their rituals and routines. Confidence, motivation, discipline and self-awareness are focal points.
"It's about 75 percent performance enhancement, and the other 25 percent is general overall development," said Chad Bohling, the director of sport psychology.
Such a specialized program comes with a steep price tag. In addition to the elite college-level tuition, fees can climb dramatically in some sports because of travel expenses, private school costs, etc.
"Is the No. 1 obstacle cost? Absolutely," said Chip McCarthy, director of the hockey academy.
Some of the top athletes are on scholarship, but most are not. About half the students are American, and most students, contrary to public perception, are not prodigies.
"That's a common misconception, that we take only elite athletes," baseball academy director Ken Bolek said. "Almost all of them do not fall in that category."
The goal for most is to earn a college scholarship. According to IMG's statistics, 95 percent of the most recent graduates are headed to college, and 80 percent of those received at least a partial scholarship.
The statistics conceivably could be more impressive, but some graduates bypass college to play professionally or decline scholarships to pay their way to a different school.
In the past, academy students would attend school at nearby Bradenton Academy or St. Stephen's Episcopal. Now, most don't leave campus. Two years ago, the Pendleton School, stocked with tutors, was established on site. More than 300 students attend Pendleton, and another school is in the works to handle the continued growth.
"It's a very customized program (at Pendleton)," Breunich said. "It's not just there to deliver diplomas. It's on site to be an example of education. It is very much the high-achieving, high-performance type of student that comes here. Many have come from top prep schools and been pleasantly surprised."
Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal and Business Week are among the many national news sources to document IMG Academies' unprecedented development.
They also have questioned the potential ethical conflict: Is IMG, which specializes in athlete representation, using its sports academies to create future moneymaking machines that they lock under contract at a young age?
"No question, the athletes that have come out of here have had representation with IMG," Breunich said.
The vast majority, however, never earn a penny as professional athletes. The more direct way IMG Academies benefits the mother company is through its short-term, intensive training sessions.
The campus has become a popular destination for football and basketball players before the NFL and NBA drafts. Among those who have visited in recent years are Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke, Jared Jeffries, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thomas Jones, Kenyatta Walker and Chad Pennington.
"(It allowed) me to concentrate totally on football. Nobody knows who you are," Pennington, a first-round pick in 2000 by the New York Jets, told NFL Insider. "For example, Doc Gooden (was) training right next to me, and we're focused on our training."
Another knock is that the academies, with their regimentation, have siphoned the fun out of the game at an age when youngsters should be enjoying sports. Bolek, the baseball academy director since its inception in 1995, thinks the opposite is true.
"If it wasn't enjoyable it wouldn't survive, because it's too rigorous," said Bolek, who coached professionally for 13 seasons with the Astros, Indians and Cubs. "They know every minute they are putting in is benefiting themselves. Athletes appreciate vigorous instruction as long as they know they're getting good advice and not wasting time."
Though the tennis academy has contracted slightly, the other academies are growing by leaps and bounds. Baseball recently added two sparkling fields, and soccer is completing four new practice fields.
Despite the branching out, Bollettieri still is the campus' central figure and guru/celebrity-in-residence. His tennis academy remains an industry force, supplying new stars such as Tommy Haas and Daniela Hantuchova.
At 71, Bollettieri is as vibrant, feisty and hands-on as ever. He proudly recounts scholarships his academy recently awarded to inner-city youngsters. And he's not surprised that his model for tennis has carried over successfully to other sports.
"If you develop a system first, if you develop a machine ... Mercedes takes their machine and develops other models from that machine," Bollettieri said. "Once you develop the system, facilities, supervision, coaching, education, the needs of children, activities, dormitories, and then being able to fluctuate -- as the world changes, you have to change -- that system is ready to apply to other aspects."
Tennis is the foundation, but it no longer is No. 1 in enrollment. There will be more golfers (170) than tennis players (150) this fall, and soccer (more than 100) is booming.
"The infrastructure makes this possible," Durkin said. "It'd be next to impossible to have a soccer academy like this without all of the ancillary services already in place.
"We have more here than the Mutiny had: the training facilities, sports psychology, housing, strength, speed and conditioning. All we need is a lit stadium. Will it happen? I've seen $18-million in construction and $10-million in renovation since I've been here (less than four years), so I believe this company can do anything."
In 20 years, what began modestly as 10 tennis courts has evolved into an internationally renowned tennis mecca and now is a multisport training empire, the prototype for the 21st century.
"Our idea, our goal, our vision, was to have an Olympic village," Jaramillo said. "It's been a lot of fun to watch it grow. It's beautiful."