Bradenton's IMG Academy to become pre-season eastern hub for Major League Soccer

cschelle@bradenton.comOctober 22, 2013 

BRADENTON -- IMG Academy will become the first eastern hub for Major League Soccer and will bring international teams for preseason games in 2014.

"Major League Soccer, which is the fifth-largest professional sports franchise in the country, is going to be in Bradenton for a significant period of time, and truly puts us on the global stage of soccer," said Chris Ciaccio, vice president of marketing for IMG Performance, a division of IMG Worldwide.

The one-year agreement creates an East Coast MLS spring training hub for MLS teams Chicago Fire, Columbus (Ohio) Crew, D.C. United, New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls for spring training as well as international teams, including Malmo FF from Sweden, Ciaccio said.

Spring training already has eight friendlies scheduled.

The teams will train at IMG from Jan. 26 to Feb. 14, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Individual clubs have trained at IMG in the past, but this is a significant step toward making a partnership with Major League Soccer itself, Ciaccio said.

"I think any time you enter into a relationship with an industry leader, it is critically important," Ciaccio said. "Part of the initiatives that we have -- if you look at everything we've done with Gatorade, Under Armour -- we want to be with the best organizations in each industry, and MLS is without question in that class."

IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W., is still working to bring two more MLS teams and other international clubs, Ciaccio said.

IMG could attract top teams from Iceland, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and is working with IMG Worldwide to bring Asian clubs. It is also talking with a representative for Russian clubs, said Scott Dean, director of soccer at IMG Academy.

Bradenton is competing against training locations in Spain and Turkey to attract these clubs for an overseas flight here, Dean added.

"The just reward is the facilities, the area and more importantly, the level of competition we're bringing with MLS and then with the USL, which is another pro organization in the United States that partners with the MLS," Dean said.

Spring training would take place mainly in the new IMG stadium off the academy's entrance on Bolletieri Boulevard and 53rd Avenue West.

As part of the partnership, IMG will not charge MLS teams to use its facilities, Ciaccio said, and 25 percent of net proceeds from the games will be donated to the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. Ticket prices for the games have not been announced.

The Manatee County Tourist Development Council also unanimously approved a $125,000 budget item Monday pegged for sports public relations promotions for the IMG-MLS partnership.

Each game will be live-streamed, and MLS and IMG are working on a couple of television broadcasts, said Gary Pluchino, vice president of business development for IMG Performance, but no broadcast agreements have been reached.

IMG has worked on the partnership for 18 months and it's undergone many changes. One proposal suggested all 10 Eastern Conference teams come to Bradenton as part of a multi-year deal that could open up IMG to midseason friendlies plus the MLS SuperDraft. Those extras will not be included in the 2014 deal, but could be added to future spring-training deals, Pluchino said. The deal opens other economic development opportunities with the league throughout the year, Pluchino said.

"The league office has numerous meetings during the year. It could be their broadcaster meetings, could be their sponsor symposium, sponsor workshop meetings. It could be a number of things during the year, so it wouldn't have to simply be spring training for the benefit Bradenton would see," Pluchino said.

The league already has a western hub in Tucson, Ariz., and MLS hopes to have two or three reliable spring-training hubs for its clubs, said Nelson Rodriguez, executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations for MLS, when the partnership was first reported in August.

Derek Gamble, director of digital sales at Major League Soccer, told the Tourist Development Council the Major League Baseball model is something the soccer league wants to gear toward.

"As we continue to grow as a league, as teams continue to grow, it's just a tremendous opportunity really, for all parties, and for us to do just that -- to grow," he said.

That MLB model helps cultivate fan bases, according to Ciaccio.

"They want to create a destination where year after year fans can come and cheer on their teams, get to know their new acquisitions and get reacquainted with former players," Ciaccio said.

The partnership includes in-season digital marketing on the MLS website and at home games of MLS clubs training at IMG, Falcione said. Media events at IMG and at Eastern Conference cities could be part of the package, he added.

IMG Academy is an international soccer factory, pumping out some of the top stars in soccer, including Landon Donovan, Kevin Alston and Robbie Rogers. This is a great opportunity for student-athletes at IMG Academy to interact with IMG alumni to further understand what it means to be a pro.

"IMG Academy is first and foremost an international boarding preparatory school, but the uniqueness of IMG Academy is the fact that we have a community of high-performing individuals, and that high-performing individual goes up to the professional ranks," Ciaccio said. "Having a number of MLS teams and players on campus, it adds fuel to the motivation and the inspiration that our kids get to experience firsthand every single day."

Opportunities also exist for the league to do community outreach to grow youth soccer, Dean said.

IMG is focusing on a one-year contract for now to showcase its training facilities, which officials tout as larger than the Disney Wide World of Sports complex, as the ideal place for spring training, Ciaccio said.

The academy is in perfect position to host expanded MLS spring training thanks to its new 5,000-seat multi-sport stadium that can be expanded to 10,000 seats, and has amenities for international TV broadcasts. The stadium can be used for soccer, lacrosse and football.

More IMG facilities will open in March, including 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 Armour, Airweave, Prince tennis and motion-capture software company Motus Global.

MLS is expected to have a larger presence in Central Florida as Orlando is on the cusp of being awarded a franchise. MLS President Mark Abbott said the league would move "very quickly" to award Orlando a team if the Orange County Commission votes Tuesday to approve $20 million in tourist taxes toward an $84 million soccer-specific stadium, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The league announced this summer it wants to add four teams by 2020.

What the preseason will look like beyond 2014 is tricky as MLS could consider a schedule change, according to a New York Daily News report, citing recent fan survey results. MLS could decide to start its seasons in late July and have a winter break for European and world tournaments and end the season in May or June with a championship.

Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications, tweeted the 2014 schedule will be similar to the current season, but left it open as to whether a restructured schedule is in the offing.

At IMG, Ciaccio said he's confident "it will all work itself out."

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

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