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Behind the walls of IMG

MANATEE - Inside a massive indoor tennis court complex, a line of pre-schoolers do their best to hit tennis balls lobbed at them by a coach.

Two teachers sit intently in chairs behind the line of youngsters and watch, smiling approvingly and making the occasional comment to each other.

It could be a scene from a fancy private school, but it’s not.

Instead, it’s a morning lesson at IMG Academies.

The parents of these children have paid as much as $60,000 to have them train for a year with arguably some of the world’s best coaches at the massive campus off 34th Street West.

One day, their parents believe, they could be the next Maria Sharapova or Pete Sampras.

Driving by IMG’s understated walls near the campuses of Manatee Technical Institute and Manatee Community College, one gets little sense of what exists within. But there is a hive of activity, with students of various ages migrating to and from classes and to various sports training and mental conditioning exercises.

“It’s kind of like a small, college environment,” says Christopher King, business coordinator at IMG. “We’re 24/365. We don’t shut down.”

With the campus, a golf course, 58 tennis courts and the El Conquistador country club, IMG’s footprint is just more than 500 acres.

Inside a 10,000-square-foot weight room, Tamba Hali, a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs, performs a conditioning exercise involving balancing on one foot atop a large rubber ball. Wide receiver Matt Jones of the Jacksonville Jaguars and linebacker Ryan Fowler of the Tennessee Titans are also on campus this day getting training, King says.

Although the game of IMG’s founder, Nick Bollettieri, was tennis, there are far more sports represented here.

Soccer, golf, basketball and baseball also have found a home on the property that Bollettieri started as a tennis boarding school in 1978, and which was purchased by IMG in 1987.

Bollettieri, now in his late 70s, still coaches tennis at the academy, typically charging $800 an hour or more to help fine tune up-and-coming champions, King says.

Tuition for one year at IMG ranges from $40,000 to $60,000, depending on the level of supervision and type of housing required for the student, King says.

IMG has its own on-site K-12 school, The Pendleton School, and also has its own University of Miami satellite campus. The academy also partners with St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton to provide education for its athletes in training.

For an additional $20,000 a year, student athletes can stay in the Academy Park Villas at the rear of the IMG campus.

These posh condos come furnished and contain all the amenities, including large flat-screen TVs in every room, swanky fixtures and balconies.

King says NFL players often use the Academy Park Villas as a home base for offseason training at IMG.

“In the offseason, if they’re coming down to train, a lot of times they’ll bring their families,” King says. “The whole season they’re away from their families, but during the offseason, when it’s still vital to train, they have a place to bring their families and the son or daughter can do a sport, and the wife can do adult tennis or adult golf.”

Accommodations like these set IMG apart from other training facilities, King says.

“Anyone can run a strength-training facility, but what we have is a one-stop shop,” King says. “You can live here, eat here, train here. You don’t have to go off property.”

“The Silent Monster”

Kelly Higgins, an intern from Florida Southern College working at IMG Academies, has spent much of the past week sending letters to every player in the National Football League, in hopes of attracting them to the academy for things like physical and mental conditioning.

“It comes down to things like that to get everybody to come,” Higgins says.

Employees in an on-site marketing center do the same thing, except over the phone, contacting various sports teams and colleges to inform them about what IMG has to offer.

Higgins has heard IMG called “The Silent Monster.” The reason, she says, is that while IMG’s name isn’t as immediately recognizable to the general public as sporting brands like Nike, its reach is arguably just as far.

Watch the Olympics, she says, and you’ll see banners and ads for IMG.

The pictures that hang in various conference rooms and classrooms of sports greats like Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi and Kobe Bryant represent individuals who either graduated from IMG or have had some type of affiliation with the training complex during their careers.

And although the IMG brand is most readily identified with sports, its universe is much larger than that.

Last year, the IMG Entertainment Division signed a deal to represent singer Justin Timberlake. IMG also has its hands in modeling, talent and sports media. The company has more than 60 offices in 30 countries.

No recession in sports

IMG’s local economic impact is considerable.

Its real estate in Manatee County is assessed at more than $20 million for tax purposes. IMG pays more than $400,000 per year in property taxes, placing it on par with Bealls Department Stores in the top 40 of county taxpayers, according to an official with the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office.

Trevor Moawad, director of performance at the IMG Academies Performance Institute, acknowledges the ongoing recession, but says it has hardly put a dent in business for the training facility.

Even in down times, people watch sports — perhaps even more so, he reasons.

“Because we’re the sports industry, it’s a little bit different than other industries,” Moawad said. “It’s a great relief. It’s a real positive distraction.”

He also believes that the families who have chosen to send their children to IMG have decided to make an investment in their future.

“So it’s not one of those things where you say, ‘I might not go to Tahiti this year, because I need to save a couple of grand,’ ” Moawad says. “I mean, the commitment to your son or daughter is significant. Why do families invest? Because they see the investment in the academy as having a significant yield toward their son or daughter’s future.”

There are more than 400 employees who work at the academy, and the majority of them live in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, Moawad says.

“I think that obviously speaks volumes as to the impact IMG Academies has,” Moawad says. “I think we play a major role in the community, and I think our staff is very involved in the community.”

While other industries locally and throughout the nation have downsized their operations during the ongoing recession, Moawad says IMG Academies has plans to expand and add more staff.

Aside from the popularity of the sports industry, Moawad says IMG also benefits from a global marketplace.

“You’ve got to remember, our market isn’t just America,” Moawad says. “It’s China, it’s Europe. We have a global market that we’re dealing with, and our appeal is global. We’ve got a tremendous amount of our golf students now, coming from Korea and coming from China.

“We’re adding staff, we’re adding facilities. We’re getting better. We’re getting stronger, and that’s the advantage, I think, of being one of the best in the world.”