MANATEE -- Major League Soccer is offering Manatee County an opportunity to latch onto a new wave of spring training business, and community leaders are urging Bradenton to seize the moment.
Maybe a speech worthy of Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale in "Hoosiers," with a mix of Kurt Russell as USA Hockey's coach Herb Brooks in "Miracle" will help inspire fans to come out and MLS to commit.
But IMG Academy, host to the MLS expanded preseason this year, is not playing the underdog. They are taking the attitude of the winningest coaches in history.
"Everybody, in my opinion, is working overtime and bending over backwards to promote MLS and for people to see the games and promoting the teams," said Gary Pluchino, vice president of business development for IMG Performance, headquartered at IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W.
It's all part of a two-week audition to show the league that the Friendly City and IMG should be the Eastern Conference Hub for a multi-year agreement.
Six MLS clubs -- Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, F.C. Dallas, New England Revolution and Toronto FC -- will hit the pitch this week for an expanded slate of games and training at IMG Academy. MLS teams will be accompanied by international teams plus United Soccer Leagues Pro's Orlando FC, which will join the league in 2015. Orlando is also the minor league affiliate of MLS club Sporting Kansas City.
If these games are a success and MLS is sold on having Bradenton host Eastern Conference teams for years to come, the doors will be open to having more fan events. Those could include a rookie combine, MLS SuperDraft, fan fest or a mid-season friendly, Nelson Rodriguez, MLS's executive vice president of competition, told the Herald.
Major League Soccer has been at IMG before, but this is the first time teams will experience the new stadium, newer and updated facilities and a larger league presence at the academy. IMG offers a 12-field professional soccer complex, a 5,000-seat stadium equipped to broadcast games internationally plus dozens of other amenities professional athletes seek out for training on the 450-acre campus.
The growing league is figuring out what to do about spring training. It has set up an eastern hub in Bradenton after having a West Coast hub in Tucson, Ariz., where clubs have participated in a pre-season tournament, the Desert Diamond Cup, for the past three years. Tucson's spring training, which signed its own multi-year agreement, has also expanded in games and teams for both the training camp friendlies and tournament segments. The Kino Sports Complex also has a 2,300-seat shaded soccer stadium to showcase the sport.
The preseason games last year brought in more than $75,000 to the publicly financed complex there, which includes an 11,000-seat baseball stadium and auxiliary fields.
The Arizona event drew more than 30,000 fans in 2012, but it didn't hurt that David Beckham was among the players on site. In Bradenton, the hot names this year will be on Toronto FC -- English striker Jermain Defoe and one of the top American players in the world, midfielder Michael Bradley.
This is a helpful selling point to youth players who can see pro players in their backyard, said Sean Walter, director of the Bradenton Area Sports Commission.
"Now you have an experience to see a professional player and take it to the next level," he said.
Selling IMG to MLS
IMG has advantages that other facilities will find hard to replicate. IMG Performance partners Gatorade and Motus Global have labs on campus, providing research and products to athletes that they might not get elsewhere.
"Gatorade is providing all of the hydration needs for the athletes here," Pluchino said. Motus Global has software "that does motion capture and human movement and biomechanics, which help athletes perform better and helps athletes with either injury prevention or injury recovery."
And if anyone is injured, the new Hospital for Special Surgery physical rehab center will be open to meet a team's medical staff needs.
Pluchino stopped short of calling the all-inclusive sports campus a resort for athletes.
"We're not a resort, but that type of idea, making things logistically and operationally easy for them and help reduce their costs," he said.
For a team like the New England Revolution, Bradenton represents a chance to be closer to their fans. The last time the Revolution trained on the East Coast was 2011 at University of Central Florida in Orlando and in Atlanta the same year.
"Things that are important to our team and our coaching staff include good fields -- ones that are well-cared -- and top training facilities, including locker room, athletic training facility, workout facilities and meeting spaces," Revolution spokeswoman Lizz Summers said. "Everything being close together on one property, like they are at IMG, are an added bonus, because it allows the training staff the flexibility to adjust the team's schedule as needed."
Jason Gove, soccer operations coordinator for the Revolution, is in charge of figuring out team travel, housing and meals. The Revolution will have it made, staying on IMG's campus, having meals planned there, access to training and weight rooms, and professional-grade fields.
And Gove is eager to check out the sports performance labs with the players.
"We have never been a part of it before, and it's a new process, and it's especially great to know how our players' bodies and performance levels react," Gove said.
In the MLS pre-season, the first two-week segment is more critical for team meetings and orientation and less of a focus on games, putting a premium on meeting space, which makes a place like IMG ideal, Gove said.
"Usually for the first preseason trip, it focuses on strength and conditioning, training and getting familiar with team culture, getting players familiar with coaches," Gove said. "The first trip is more about team bonding and not too much about where we are at -- it's more about the facilities."
Pro teams usually find times to do off-site team bonding excursions, like fishing charters or a golf outing, which helps tourism officials show off the region. But it's up to each team if they will find time, Gove said. The Revolution is still finalizing its schedule, and the charters are something that Walter wants to help set up for teams in future years.
After time here, the Revolution will head to Tucson for the second leg of training camp. It's not certain whether a future long-term relationship will see teams stay here for the entirety of spring training, or if some will continue to go to Arizona.
In Tucson, the hotels are about 30 minutes from the stadium. In Bradenton, all of the fields are adjacent to one another, giving clubs a different experience as they train next to each other, Gove said.
In some ways, Bradenton pre-season is competing against offerings in Tucson, where teams Chicago Fire and New England Revolution will also train after their stop in Bradenton. Instead of pristine beaches and nearby theme parks, Tucson is marketing hotel packages for fans at the Desert Diamond casino and free shuttles to the sports complex, airport, meal credits, a nightclub and table games.
Walter doesn't see it that way.
"We're looking to enhance the family experience where you can bring the family to the beach, bring them to the Riverwalk and see Snooty," Walter said. "Tucson might be for an individual traveler or where friends meet up or college buddies."
It helps, too, that Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport offers direct and non-stop flights from MLS markets in Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago and Toronto, making it easy for both fans and teams to fly in. The key is to make folks from those cities realize they can see their hometown team train in Bradenton.
"If we bring in a Canadian team and it's time for Canadians' vacation, we love to create the awareness that there is a sport here they love and they can attend it," Walter said. And the region can pitch itself as a place for sports fanatics to come back for baseball, then rowing.
To get to Bradenton, the Revolution flies commercial to SRQ, along with most clubs. International teams can fly a charter plane and be processed through the customs facility, said Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, president and CEO of SRQ.
Piccolo is hoping to convince the teams to use the local airport.
"It's a start," he said. "Anything we can do to expose them to the area, people say we love the area, let's come back."
Gove isn't sure about plans for future training camps -- whether the league would prefer to come to Bradenton during the entirety of the camp -- but it does offer advantages for fans.
"As far as the fan base goes, it's easier for them to make it down to Bradenton than Tucson," Gove said. "Flights are a little cheaper and hotels are a little bit better."
Ideally, Pluchino wants a 5,000-person sellout at each game, but knows that might not happen. Even spring training baseball games might not fill an 8,000-seat stadium depending on the success of the team.
"That's where we're putting a lot of marketing and most effort: to drive people to come and to buy tickets," Pluchino said. "That's one of the ways to show MLS and show teams that this community is embracing us and wrapping their arms around us and want us to come back."
IMG Academy has unveiled a Major League Soccer website that allows fans to buy tickets and packages at IMGAcademy.com/MLS. The family four-pack features four general admission tickets, four soda vouchers and four pizza vouchers for $55, a four-game pass for $32 general admission and $50 for club seats, or a pre-season pass for $99 for club seats and $71 for general admission. Twenty-five percent of the ticket revenue goes to the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.
IMG is also using the opportunity to sell MLS Experience Camps for kids ages 12 to 19 where youth soccer athletes will train, scrimmage and receive a strategy analysis of MLS practices and scrimmages. They will also have guest players and coaches from MLS. Prices range from $749 for a weekend camp to $2,399 for an all-inclusive training for a nine-day camp plus boarding at IMG, to attract families.
Economic development officials in Tucson estimate its spring training hub produces a $4 million annual economic impact. Pima County, Ariz., spent $280,000 to attract an expanded spring training team to its publicly funded facility, whereas the Bradenton spring training was a private initiative by IMG Academy. But the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau kicked in $125,000 from taxes generated by hotel stays for a digital public relations blitz to promote the region with MLS, exposing Bradenton to markets it hasn't been in before.
While IMG focuses on getting fans in the seats, launching print and radio ad campaigns throughout Tampa Bay, a digital ad campaign in Major League Soccer markets and at a league level will market the Bradenton area. The games are also being streamed online in hopes that while the fans get their soccer fix, they'll be teased with palm trees and beaches in February and think about coming down.
The area is blanketed with posters in hotels and gyms, and banners are up on Old Main Street, Riverwalk and Lakewood Ranch welcoming people to MLS spring training to attract eyeballs.
"For all of you soccer fans, and anyone who is curious to learn more about the game, this is a unique opportunity to see many of the top soccer athletes in the world, an opportunity that no other destination can offer in Florida," Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton CVB, wrote in his column for the Herald. "We also need to rally as a community to show the major league teams top-notch hospitality so IMG Academy can remain the East Coast training hub for many years to come."
IMG is distributing tickets to charities and to high school and youth soccer teams for fundraisers to help promote the games. Some hotels received tickets as a bonus for guests, Walter said. And the CVB is looking to encourage hotels to package tickets with stays.
One final pitch
All of these selling points -- to athletes and fans -- will come together during a special meal and presentation sometime during spring training at the Powel Crosley Estate & Museum, 8374 N. Tamiami Trail.
IMG and tourism officials will aim to make the league feel welcome at the event, educate owners and executives on the area and what the community can offer.
"Show them the value of having pre-season training in Bradenton and held at IMG Academy for many years to come -- that's really objective No. 1," Pluchino said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck