IMG, Manatee seek to attract Major League Soccer friendlies

Professional soccer games would be limited to preseason

cschelle@bradenton.comAugust 13, 2013 

MANATEE -- Officials from IMG Academy and Manatee County are working to bring more Major League Soccer preseason exhibition games -- friendlies -- to Bradenton.

The move comes just as MLS looks to expand its league, and as IMG is undergoing a massive expansion in Bradenton.

IMG and Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau officials sent a packet to MLS last week for consideration for an undisclosed number of preseason games, confirmed Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area CVB.

Sensitivity surrounding negotiations prevented officials from elaborating on the details. The matches, if awarded, would be played at IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W.

"For the past few weeks, the Bradenton Area CVB and IMG have been in dialog with Major League Soccer on a unique initiative for our community," Falcione said in a statement. "Today, we are still in the proposal development phase, and we plan to showcase this initiative via press release if our proposal transitions into agreement form."

The county's Tourist Development Council will consider a recommendation Monday for marketing money for the MLS preseason initiative; if approved, county commissioners will have to OK the expense.

The Tourist Development Council will hear a presentation from Gary Pluchino, vice president of business development for IMG Performance; Scott Dean, director of IMG Academy's boys soccer program; and Chris Ciacco, vice president of marketing and community outreach at IMG Performance.

MLS is no stranger to Manatee County. IMG Academy hosted the Columbus Crew and Seattle Sounders FC in 2012 for spring training and preseason games, and Lakewood Ranch's Premier Sports Campus, 5895 Post Blvd., hosted spring training for D.C. United this year. Preseason MLS usually occurs during late February into the first week of March.

The negotiation comes days after MLS announced plans to expand with two possible teams in Florida. Orlando recently struck a deal for a new soccer stadium while Miami could be the second team. Falcione said an MLS franchise is not being pursued for Bradenton.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced July 31 the league would add four expansion teams by 2020.

"The strength, passion and vision of the MLS ownership group is the foundation behind the success of our league," Garber said. "We look forward to adding new partners with the same commitment to the sport and love of the game. As MLS enters a period of accelerated growth, the addition of new teams will allow us to expand our geographic coverage, grow our fan base and help us achieve our vision of being among the best leagues in the world by 2022."

MLS listed in a press release six key areas it considers for an expansion team:

• Committed and engaged ownership;

• Comprehensive stadium plan;

• Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market;

• Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents;

• Geographic location; and

• Strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club.

While a packed stadium for MLS preseason games could make a statement about fan support, Bradenton lacks the 20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium MLS officials desire for franchise cities.

The Miami Herald reported Sunday that David Beckham, who is represented by IMG, has eyes on a soccer franchise in Florida, and could be involved for a bid for a franchise in Miami with Bolivian-American billionaire Marcelo Claure, owner of Brightstar Communications in Miami. Orlando's group, headed by ownership of minor league Orlando City SC, reached an agreement with Orlando's city government to build an $85 million soccer stadium for an expansion team, the Orlando Sentinel reported last week.

The Miami Herald also reported Atlanta, Orlando and Miami are the top choices for new teams.

Miami was home to the Fusion from 1998 to 2002, and Tampa Bay had the Mutiny from 1996 to 2001, playing at Tampa Stadium and Raymond James Stadium. Today, St. Petersburg is home to the North American Soccer League's Rowdies at Al Lang Stadium.

A continuation of MLS friendlies at IMG would make sense.

IMG Academy continues to pump out soccer stars for the league and international play. IMG Academy has produced numerous professional soccer stars, notably Robbie Rogers, who returned from playing in Europe to join the Los Angeles Galaxy this year becoming the first openly gay player in MLS and actively participating in professional major league team sports in the United States.

The IMG campus is undergoing a massive expansion in part to allow more visitors and residents to visit IMG and watch sports and events in a professional, modern venue.

Greg Phillips, IMG vice president and athletic director, recognized the importance of bringing more pro-sports events to IMG Academy through its west campus expansion along 53rd Avenue West and Bollettieri Boulevard.

"We don't want this to be a six-day-a-year facility; we want this to be a 365-day-a-year facility," Phillips said in April. "That may mean other sporting events. It may mean bringing pro leagues in whether that be MLS, or whatever pro league, to town to play. We think the community would love that from a spectator standpoint."

IMG's 100-acre expansion so far does not call for a soccer stadium. The multi-sport stadium, which includes a track, will have 5,000 seats and can be expanded to 10,000 seats. It will be used for soccer, lacrosse and football. The first phase of the stadium is expected to open the week of Aug. 20.

The stadium will feature TV-ready lights and a broadcast-style press box designed to draw major sports networks to IMG to beam events around the globe, as well as provide local television stations access to more events.

The second phase will open in December, featuring 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.

If developers Carlos Beruff and Larry Lieberman go through with their plan for a five-star hotel at Long Bar Pointe, it could provide luxurious accommodations needed by professional sports franchises to house their players and visiting fans just a few streets down from IMG.

The developers are awaiting state review and adoption of a request to change 463 acres to mixed-use for them to submit a site plan to build a hotel. The project received a letter of support from Chip McCarthy, director of planning and development and chief financial officer for IMG Performance, a division of IMG Worldwide that manages more than 100 events worldwide .

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

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