BRADENTON -- When it comes to sports training, facilities, business, events and programs, few communities in the world can touch Manatee County.
So it's no surprise that former NFL player and St. Petersburg native Tony Bland is looking to expand his PROtential Sports Youth Program franchise to Bradenton.
The former wide receiver with the Minnesota Vikings, Bland played on the famous 16-win team in 1998, considered one of the best in NFL history. Nearly a decade ago, he started PROtential Sports Tampa, and has four franchises in the greater Tampa Bay area. His focus then and now has been to "teach life through sports." Bland, now 40, says he "found his professional calling after volunteering in a few NFL youth programs."
The Bradenton program would be his fifth franchise and Bland says he is receiving "overwhelming interest in his programs from Bradenton residents who want to bring the program to their hometown."
Bland said there is a growing demand for such services because "local municipalities are trimming budgets and eliminating after school and summer camp programs."
Bland sees both need and opportunity in Bradenton to establish his youth sports programs at prices parents can afford.
Such a program could help feed into local efforts to make Manatee County a sports tourism destination.
"Our region, has already established the unique reputation of being a Mecca for the sports performance industry," Jacki Dezelski, vice president, East County & Community Development for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. "The names and organizations attached to programs and businesses already here -- IMG, Bollettieri, Pittsburgh Pirates, U.S. Soccer, Olympic athletes and coaches along with current and former athletes who have played in almost every professional-level sports league."
The impact "lays not just in the investment new sports-related businesses will make in Manatee County," Dezelski said, "but also in the significant sports tourism revenue brought in by these programs and world-class venues like the Premier Sports Campus, IMG Academy, Fort Hamer Rowing Park, Benderson Park and others. It's revenue that benefits lo
cal businesses of all sizes and types."
For Bland, the programs are all about family.
In the wake of the great recession, many parents are working, often in more than one job and the goal is meet demand for sports programs that teach "important life lessons and foster strong character development," Bland said.
Bland's wife, Nyree Bland, a standout athlete herself as a former professional tennis player, is his partner and it's a hands-on, full-time business that has partnerships with the Orlando Magic and the NFL.
The couple, who founded the business in 2004 with $150,000 in cash and buckets of sweat equity, have already trained and mentored almost 2,000 southwest Florida children between the ages of 5 and 13 in after-school and summer camp programs at various community venues including country clubs, churches, schools and park district facilities.
It offers the opportunity to learn and participate in a variety of sports including soccer, basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse, golf, tennis and cheerleading. In addition to sports coaching and mentorship, the program offers transportation, snacks and homework help to all of its students.
The cost is about $125 a week for all-day camp and about $75 a week for the after-school program, Bland said.
One goal is to keep children off the streets, safe, healthy and motivated, said Bland, who integrates life lessons into the athletic curriculum.
"The coaching aims to cultivate character traits and instill values such as discipline, respect, honesty, integrity and teamwork in the children we work with each day," he said.
Every student is given individual mentorship to help them grow physically, mentally and emotionally, he added.
"When parents enroll their children in our programs, they know they've put them on the right track. They trust us to provide their children with the guidance they need to set and reach new goals," said Nyree Bland. "There isn't another program like ours that goes to the lengths we do to positively influence the lives of children."
The summer camps and after school programs hire between 15 and 25 staff members year round. Franchisees and their staff undergo "extensive background checks and training programs where they learn to interact with children in an effective manner, Bland said.
PROtential Sports will participate in Tampa Franchise & Business Opportunities Expo that will be held in the Tampa Convention Center April 6-7. The show will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday.
Stephen Frater, Herald senior business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095