IMG Academy parent company for sale

Equity firm looks to unload sports giant this summer

cschelle@bradenton.comJune 15, 2013 

MANATEE -- IMG Academy's parent company IMG Worldwide is up for sale, and how that will impact the Bradenton-based sports academy remains to be seen.

What is certain is that IMG Academy will change hands in some fashion because its parent company is expected to sell the entire IMG Worldwine operation.

Sam Zussman, senior vice president of IMG Worldwide and managing director of IMG Performance, said he held a meeting recently with IMG Academy staff to discuss the sale. He told his staff that it's business as usual in Bradenton.

"Nobody knows who the buyer may be," Zussman told the Herald Friday. "What we do is focus on running the company and the business on a day-to-day basis."

Zussman would neither confirm nor deny media reports on the progress of IMG's sale.

IMG Sports President George Pyne, a former NASCAR chief operating officer, told an audience in early April at the IMG World Congress of Sports in Naples that IMG Worldwide is on the block. Pyne said the sports, media, fashion and entertainment conglomerate could be sold as soon as this summer, but certainly within the next two years, according to reports in the Sports Business Daily Journal.

The timeline for the sale is likely to be sooner than later, as Bloomberg reported recently that the investment

firm that owns IMG Worldwide, Forstmann Little & Co., selected Morgan Stanley and Evercore Partners Inc. to handle the sale of IMG. Several reports indicated that a deal could be imminent.

IMG was always meant to be sold off, according to the company's owner. Teddy Forstmann told media multiple times through the years that he intended to sell the company for more than the $750 million he paid in 2004. Forstmann died in 2011, and IMG has since been managed by his estate through Forstmann Little & Co.

In 2007, Forstmann told the New York Times he wanted $3 billion for the company, which has its Worldwide headquarters in New York, after a former Yahoo chief executive officer offered half as much; media reports have placed the current price at around $2 billion.

Multiple reports have linked India's largest company, Reliance Industries Limited, as a potential buyer for the company. It's the one company that several athletes and coaches at IMG have said they heard will buy the conglomerate.

"Our job is to keep our eye on the ball and not to allow any process or potential process to distract us," Zussman said. "As community leaders and influencers, our responsibility is not only not to speculate, but also to provide comfort that is true and factual -- that the academy is a strong business with significant value."

That value is both in terms of the $517 million annual economic impact, and delivering top student athletes, Zussman said.

Speculation about the sale comes as IMG Academy is in the midst of a $36 million, 100-plus-acre expansion, including a 5,000-seat multisport stadium, a new residence hall for students, new track and field area and a 40,000-square-foot field house to open in two phases this year.

The project received $2.3 million in for the state this year to help attract more events.

A potential buyer

Reliance makes its money in the textiles and materials business, with more than $66 billion in annual revenue, according to its website. The company is owned by Dhirubhai Ambani, who created a partnership in 2010 with IMG called IMG Reliance. The partnership essentially created an IMG operation in India, made up of a sports agency, event marketing and production and sports academies.

When the two forged a relationship, IMG Academy was at the center of the pact, according to IMG's announcement in 2010. The agreement stated that IMG Academy would provide management and coaching services to IMG Reliance Academies in India, and a scholarship program was developed through the Reliance Foundation to provide sports and academic opportunities to India's elite athletes who want to attend IMG Academy in Bradenton.

The partnership focuses on developing athletes in an array of sports, including basketball and tennis, Zussman said.

"We do a great job with them. Everyone's happy with the program," he said

The partnership was to build a fully-funded program to develop Indian coaches for the academy in India, according to IMG. That academy has yet to be built.

IMG Academy does not have coaches in India helping with the program now, Zussman said, but he declined to address the speculation in the published reports connecting Reliance to a deal.

Bradenton's IMG growing

Working at IMG beneath an equity firm ownership hasn't hindered the academy's efforts, which has added 300 employees over the years, acquired 110 acres for expansion and invested $50 million in existing facilities, Zussman said.

IMG Academy's west campus expansion is gearing toward more of IMG's other operations, including sports events for the public and event management. A sale could even provide a broader mix of available sports events or talent that could use IMG Academy.

The academy's multi-sport stadium set to open in August includes 5,000 seats and is expandable up to 10,000 seats. The venue can host worldwide broadcasts thanks to its TV-ready lights and a broadcast-style press box. IMG Worldwide's list of clients in the entertainment industry could bring concerts to the stadium if the firm decides to go in that direction.

The second phase of expansion is set to open in December. It will feature a 40,000-square-foot fieldhouse with locker rooms, meeting spaces and offices. The third phase in 2014 will include an expanded research and development lab for sports performance companies such as Gatorade, Under Armor, Airweave, Prince tennis and motion-capture software company Motus Global, providing a powerful sports technology hub for the new owner.

Trying to unravel all of IMG's business dealings can be dizzying. In Bradenton alone, the academy has interests in private education, the business of sports camps, research and development with sports companies, event management and real estate. Beyond the academy, the New York-based firm deals with media rights for colleges, represents super models and other high-end international entertainment talent and provides consulting for companies looking to sponsor sports events.

Each potential buyer will have their own vision for how these units fit together, but the Academy has strategic plans to ensure stability, Zussman said, both in three-year plans and longer-term visioning.

"We have every intention of continuing on a strong path of growth excellent delivery, and action speaks louder than words," Zussman said.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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