IMG gives Bradenton world-class status

Tennis great Andre Agassi has called it home. So has Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova. Paula Creamer and Landon Donovan went to school there. Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter have been in for tune-ups. Future NFL and NBA hopefuls flock there for training sessions designed to help them move up the draft boards. Olympic teams, like U.S. Soccer, use it as a base for pretournament training.

In some ways it's easier to list the world-class athletes who don't have ties to IMG Academies, one of the world's largest and most successful multi-sport, training and education camps. The 190-acre facility borders 34th Street, near Bayshore High School and Manatee Community College. What began as an idea by tennis guru Nick Bollettieri and a few courts has grown into a facility that encompasses the Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, the Baseball, Basketball, Soccer, Softball and Swimming Academies, the International Performance Institute, The Pendleton School, the Wellness Spa and the IMG Academies Golf and Country Club. There are also dormitories, meeting rooms, fitness centers, playing fields (including four soccer fields, two baseball fields and 72 tennis courts), pools and a complex of residential units, or villas, where some families live while their kids pursue their athletic dreams. As much as IMG Academies caters to the athletic elite, it also helps create the next generation of them: There are more than 800 full-time students and 11,000 junior, collegiate, adult and professional athletes in attendance each year at a site which has been described as "jock paradise." It may be the most famous place in Bradenton, but the walled complex is not so much a part of the city as an island within it, a place where Monica Seles or Serena Williams can train in relative peace and quiet alongside kids who hope to follow in their footsteps. Bollettieri has joked that when he started his tennis school "there was nothing out here but orange groves." But when he launched his boarding school in the late 1970s, success soon followed, thanks to the coach's work with stars such as Agassi and fellow tennis stars Jim Courier and Boris Becker. International Management Group, the world's largest sports marketing agency with more than $1 billion in revenue, became part of the venture in 1987. IMG is known as an agency that represents everyone from Tiger Woods to fashion icon Heidi Klum. It owns events from the World Match Play Championship to New York Fashion Week (familiar to anyone who has watched Bravo's "Project Runway.") It employs about 2,300 people in 60 offices in 30 countries, has a media division responsible for more than 10,000 hours of live sports programming a year, the world's largest independent licensing firm with more than $5.6 billion in sales, and a consulting branch responsible for marketing of 45 major brands, including General Electric, Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson. The Academies complex is a small piece of the IMG puzzle, but a prominent one not only for the company, but also for Bradenton. Business Week, Sports Illustrated and GQ are just a few national magazines that have written articles on the facility. Bollettieri is a familiar face on national TV during Grand Slam tennis events, and more national exposure comes from the famous athletes who still claim this as home Creamer and Sharapova among them. Not all of IMG Academies clients are rich, famous or even all that athletic. Corporations hold retreats at the facility, giving their people not only a place to meet but also to take a few cuts in a batting cage, shoot some baskets, kick around a soccer ball or swim some laps, all while being instructed. The 30,000-square-foot International Performance Institute offers comprehensive fitness evaluations. For the younger, more athletically gifted, a year at IMG, which includes daily instruction, mental conditioning, room, board, tournament entry fees and spending money, runs around $31,000 a year, while extras such as enrollment at IMG's private school, the Pendleton School, can push the bill up to almost six figures. A percentage of IMG's clientele is under scholarship. While most of us will never know that total-immersion experience, it is possible to catch a glimpse of IMG Academies from time to time, including U.S. Soccer friendlies and the annual Eddie Herr Junior Tennis Championships, which usually attracts more than 1,000 top junior players from as many as 70 countries. They all come to Bradenton for one reason to be part of the club.

>> Dominic Servi, of the U-23 National soccer team, drills with the team at IMG. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/ttompkins@bradenton.com

>> Gastao Elias competes during the final round of the Eddie Herr tennis tournament at IMG Academies in Bradenton. Ð BRIAN BLANCO/bblanco@bradenton.com

It may be the most famous place in Bradenton, but the walled complex is not so much a part of the city as an island within it, a place where Monica Seles or Serena Williams can train in relative peace and quiet alongside kids who hope to follow in their footsteps.

Who says Florida doesn't have seasons? We can tell the seasons here in Bradenton without looking at a calendar. We just check out what events are going on around the community. When the DeSoto Heritage Festival gets rolling, we know it's spring. With the annual Crosthwait Memorial Fishing Tournament in late May, we know summer's around the corner. And we know fall is near when those Friday night lights go on at Manatee High's Joe Kinnan Field at Hawkins Stadium and Southeast's Kiker Memorial Stadium, two storied sports facilities that have hosted state championship teams. If there's one thing that defines Bradenton, it is a town where high school football is still a big deal Friday night. Of course, it isn't the only thing. Take the annual Martin Luther King Day Awards banquet at the Palmetto Youth Center in January. It's a celebratory gathering of who's who around town. Ditto for the annual Manatee County Fair at the fairgrounds. It gives folks a chance to proudly show off their rural roots, ride amusement rides we'd never dream of riding and fill up on corn dogs, elephant ears and sweet kettle corn. And, although a relatively new event, the Manatee Community Foundation "Spirit of Manatee" Awards Luncheon salutes local folks whose generosity, leadership and vision form the underpinnings of our town. Then there's Get Down Downtown, the monthly meet and greet to music on Old Main Street. February's annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival shows off the seafaring side of our community that has withstood all kinds of obstacles for more than 120 years. It's more good eating and music, too. For the more genteel folk, there's the Service Club of Manatee's annual Antique & Collectible Show. Men Who Cook, benefiting the United Community Centers, is a growing affair, as is the UCC's Gulf Coast Rhythm & Rib Fest in April. If it's March, that means the Pirates and spring training at McKechnie Field. It also means the American Cancer Society's Cattle Baron's Ball. And the GeckoFest, where 6-foot-long, handpainted, fiberglass geckos are auctioned off to benefit the Village of the Arts, the South Florida Museum, ArtCenter Manatee and for public art education and display. Then the DeSoto Heritage Festival gets April going in earnest, what with the Children's Parade, Seafood Fest, the Easter Egg Hunt, Sunrise Services, the Bottle Boat Regatta, the DeSoto Ball and the DeSoto Heritage Festival Grand Parade that closes the monthlong event with a bang. Besides the Crosthwait, May ushers in events like the annual Manatee Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Awards Luncheon. Plus, "Where The Boys Are" at the South Florida Museum. It also has several annual benefit golf tournaments Southeast High, Palmetto High, Boys & Girls Club, Phil Galvano/Outback Classic for duffers and donations. June has the American Red Cross Boot Camp Ball. Not to mention another show by those Sweet Adelines at MCC's Neel Auditorium, a regular event. July, of course, brings Independence Day, and we celebrate it here with more community gusto than some cities up north. Don't forget the DeSoto Fishing Tournament, either. And Caribbean Night at Bradenton Auditorium in late July. That usually means summer is waning and August's annual Children's Summit at the Manatee Convention Center means school is about back in session.