MANATEE -- IMG Academy and Manatee County are vying to be an official preseason hub of multiple Major League Soccer clubs if the league can reach a deal with local leaders.
County tourism officials and IMG Academy have worked jointly to become the premier spot for preseason MLS's 10 Eastern Conference clubs, documents obtained by the Bradenton Herald through a public information request show.
That deal is evolving in a way in which IMG could become part of a league-wide plan to establish spring training hubs, said Nelson Rodriguez, executive vice president of competition, technical and game operations for MLS.
"We continue to have what we believe to be very productive and very fruitful discussions with IMG Academy, Manatee County and the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau," Rodriguez told the Herald in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "I don't believe we'll be able to mandate clubs' attendance in 2014, but are hopeful of driving them to attend IMG and surrounding areas for the bulk of preseason."
Never miss a local story.
IMG Academy, 5500 34th St. W., could become an annual home to MLS clubs. The deal opens the opportunity for a mid-season friendly and other fan events, including a combine for incoming players and the MLS SuperDraft, Rodriguez said. The league already has what it considers a Western hub in Tucson, Ariz., he said, and the league hopes to have two or three reliable spring training hubs for its clubs.
"What we're trying to do is see if we can settle on two or three preseason hubs that we know we could go back to on a regular basis, and try to form a long-term relationship that fans can mark on their calendars on a yearly basis," Rodriguez said. "And perhaps locals can adopt some of our clubs as their own ... and it could become a win-win for everybody."
Noting that talks are ongoing, IMG officials are cautiously optimistic.
"We are excited to see what this opportunity may hold for IMG Academy as well as surrounding areas," said Chris Ciaccio, vice president of marketing and outreach for IMG Performance, a division of IMG Worldwide.
"We have something special here with a friendly and engaging community, and local government that truly believes in partnerships," Ciaccio said. "It's our goal to showcase that to the MLS to make it clear that IMG Academy and Bradenton is the obvious choice."
IMG Academy continues to pump out soccer stars for both 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. He became the first openly gay player in MLS and in professional male major league team sports in the United States.
The new initiative comes just as MLS looks to expand its league, dovetailing perfectly with IMG's massive ongoing expansion in Bradenton.
So far, Orlando and Miami are front-runners for team expansion, the Miami Herald has reported. Realignment would likely be necessary to move more western teams like the Houston Dynamo and Sporting Kansas City to the Western Conference if two eastern cities are awarded clubs.
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 this week.
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.
MLS is attracted to IMG's professional quality facilities, top-notch tennis and golf, tourism opportunities in Sarasota and Tampa, opportunity for community partners in Manatee County and of course, the perfect weather in February, Rodriguez said.
"We are not interested in securing a great deal," Rodriguez said. "We are interested in finding partners in which we can mutually grow and put down roots and put down a place we can call our home during our off-season and preseason."
Teams from the Eastern Conference include D.C. United and Columbus Crew, which both have trained at IMG Academy. While the initial proposal asked for Eastern Conference clubs, the partnership will not prevent Western Conference teams opting to practice in Bradenton, Rodriguez said. The Seattle Sounders FC have trained in Bradenton as well. In East Manatee, Lakewood Ranch's Premier Sports Campus has also hosted MLS teams, including the D.C. United this year.
The Manatee/IMG proposal package includes a fan fest at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto along with other marketing and branding, including national broadcasts, according to documents obtained by the Herald. Much of that is still in the negotiation phases.
Carol Whitmore, chairwoman of the Tourist Development Council, is enthused about the potential for Bradenton to become a premier MLS preseason city, adding another sport in the mix toward the county's goal of becoming a sports tourism and performance destination.
"We have the Pirates, IMG, and the soccer fields in Lakewood Ranch, and now we could get IMG doing the MLS preseason, and the rowing," Whitmore said. "It's really falling into place."
MLS spring training typically takes place during late January into the first week of March. If the city is able to bring all 10 teams, each club typically plays 10 matches, bringing a total of 100 possible friendlies in Bradenton, in addition to spring training. Each club has 30 players on its roster plus any try-outs, meaning that more than 300 soccer players could be staying at Manatee area hotels during the already busy tourism season.
"This is going to offer an opportunity for our citizens to have jobs from the service industry and potentially working in these facilities," Whitmore said.
Beyond a more global audience for this region, the deal could bring intangible economic benefits, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.
"When you have events like this, it might be the first time people have been to the Bradenton area," Hillstrom said. "They will fall in love with the area, buy a house and maybe move their business here."
The Tourist Development Council, which is not scheduled to meet again until October, is expected to call an emergency meeting to request marketing money for the initiative if a deal is reached, according to Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"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 last week. "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 proposal package submitted to MLS includes a letter of support dated Aug. 6 and signed by Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, who praises the city's amenities in his letter. He also thanked MLS for its interest in Bradenton and encourages "your consideration of a location that is growing, dynamic and receiving recognition and accolades from across the globe."
Bradenton is competing with three or four other current MLS markets, Rodriguez said.
"On a monthly basis, some other market pokes its head out and asks to entertain them as a possibility," he said.
If the agreement is reached, MLS could provide a key boost before the peak of the tourism season, and provide Anna Maria Island beaches a relief from heavy tourism, Whitmore said.
"It's another way to get visitors to visit Manatee County, and still go to the beach, but get to do other sites around Manatee County," she said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.