TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers said they simply ran out of money to give Gov. Rick Scott all the tax cuts or education funding he sought. And they fell well short on spending for environmental preservation projects taxpayers demanded.
But when a private, for-profit sports academy known for training international sports stars — and charging as much as $80,000 a year to attend their boarding school — asked for money, state legislators this week quietly pledged more than $2 million to the project. That's on top of more than $7 million they've sent its way the last two years.
Money materialized for the IMG Academy in Bradenton, even as other funding projects for stadiums and sports venues were staunchly opposed by budget hawks. IMG became the exception, lawmakers said, because it has become an international sports juggernaut that is attracting 12,000 athletes a year to train in the region. And that in turn is pulling in tourist and growing Florida's fledgling sports tourism industry.
"This is bringing in more than a half a billion dollars in economic benefit to the region," state Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said. "Sure it's a big corporation, but it creates value for our community."
What started as a small tennis academy, founded by famed coach Nick Bollettieri nestled in a quiet corner of Manatee County in 1978, has blossomed into a 584-acre international training site that touts among its alumni tennis greats Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams and NFL stars Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. And with more national broadcasts of their events such as soccer matches and high school football, the facility is bringing more attention to southwest Florida growing reputation as a sports training center, the company says.
Just in the last year, Sarasota and Manatee counties have been named the host for the 2017 World Rowing Championships and the 2016 World Cup for Modern Pentathlon. More recently, Sarasota was named the host city for the U.S. Olympic qualifying for rowing. It all blends into an identity the region is trying to create as a sports training and tourism center, Boyd said.
"This investment will assist in further solidifying this community as a world-class training and sports performance destination," IMG senior vice president Chip McCarthy said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
More specifically, the money contributed by the state is going toward a $197 million campus expansion that IMG officials said supports 2,600 jobs and will ultimately spur more than $320 million of economic output. It includes a multi-sports complex that provides athletes with a "state-of-the-art environment to train and perform at their highest level," IMG officials stated in documents to the Florida Legislature.
The complex includes a weight room, a 40,000 square-foot athletic center with locker rooms that rival any NFL team, practice fields, a stadium that seats 5,000, modernized classrooms and dorms. It has been a drawing card that has led to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers and Canadian Football League teams to train, according to IMG Academy's website.
Besides training college and professional athletes, IMG Academy runs a boarding school for 1,000 students who can pay as much as $80,000 a year to attend, depending on the sport. IMG also hosts youth summer sports camps.
And IMG officials are talking in a language that Scott and the Legislature are demanding of most projects: jobs and a big return on investment.
IMG officials said they are luring Gatorade's research and development headquarters from Illinois to their growing campus. And IMG is in discussions with tennis equipment manufacturer Prince, based in Atlanta, to relocate its headquarters to Bradenton as well.
"Global companies are relocating to, or expanding in, Florida because they see the high value of IMG Academy," IMG officials stated in their budget request that the Legislature released to the public Tuesday.
Already, IMG officials say they have generated an excess of nearly $5.8 million in extra sales taxes since the state started giving them support.
But how the private company got insinuated into the budget isn't sitting well with everyone, including advocates of other sports venues competing for some of the same dollars.
"It's a travesty," state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, said of the IMG project getting $2 million when the Nathan Benderson Rowing Park, which is hosting the world rowing championships, got nothing.
Former state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said late additions to the budget are not new in Tallahassee. Still, he said he's surprised this time because IMG is a private company and the park is public. The Benderson Rowing Park needed $11 million to be ready for the 2017 international competition.
IMG Academy is owned by WME IMG, a California-based sports, entertainment and media company formed in 2013.
Forbes reported that in 2013 IMG Worldwide was sold for $2.3 billion to entertainment talent agency William Morris Endeavor and private equity firm Silver Lake Partners.
Tea party-affiliated groups don't like the state spending on IMG, seeing it as similar to other tax breaks given out to build professional sports stadiums or to attract the film industry. Americans for Prosperity Florida chapter spokesman Andres Malave said lawmakers should spend funds on projects that can benefit a majority of Floridians, and not a narrow interest like IMG.
How the group got into the budget is equally vexing for some.
While most state budget requests have to be presented in local hearings in the originating county and are scrutinized in the early stages of the budget process, IMG went through none of that. Instead, while House and Senate leaders were negotiating other budget issues, lawmakers quietly slipped $50,000 in the budget for IMG.
Adding to the intrigue, the two lawmakers whose districts include the sports complex denied any information about the institution's funding. State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, insisted he played no role in seeking the money, partly because it could be perceived as a conflict of interest. IMG Academy is a client for Galvano's private law firm in Manatee County.
Boyd also denied helping the project, though he vouched for its economic benefits.
Then on Monday night, just before midnight, another $2 million was sent to the project just as legislators sent the budget to the printers. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said Tuesday that he is the one who put the extra funding in because it's "a great economic development project."