State Politics

IMG Academy in Bradenton rewarded for its lobbying savvy

With big friends in Legislature, private sports training institute gets extra funding

TALLAHASSEE -- To get $9.3 million of state taxpayer money in three years, a private sports academy in Bradenton and its sister company have shown they are no rookies when it comes to working the state Legislature.

Through 2012, IMG Academy -- a sports training ground for professional athletes and a private boarding school -- had never received any state money for its activities. Over the past three years, the for-profit company has been in every state budget collecting money to expand its campus, which is famous for training athletes such as Cam Newton, Maria Sharapova and Josh Hamilton.

What's changed?

Since 2012, IMG Academy and IMG College, owned by parent company WME-IMG, have built a 10-member lobbying army in Tallahassee that includes two former speakers of the Florida House and the brother of the House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran.

It has helped IMG win big friends in the Florida Legislature, including House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who lauded the IMG Academy for its economic development impact and its private school, which is attracting students from around the globe.

"The appeal to me is the opportunity for more choice in education," Crisafulli said Thursday.

IMG Academy has almost 1,000 students, campus spokesman Ryan Tronovitch said. While the facility is known for its athletics, Tronovitch said the educational program is sending more than 98 percent of their students to college.

Big jump in public funding

IMG Academy was set to only get $50,000 this year. In a late-night maneuver just before midnight Monday, before the budget was printed, the academy's funding jumped to $2.05 million with no explanation. That goes with $7.3 million the state budgeted for the company in 2013-14.

IMG Academy supporters are also crafting a pitch to protect their project from Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen. IMG Academy officials said they are luring Gatorade's research and development headquarters from Illinois. And IMG is in discussions with tennis equipment manufacturer Prince, based in Atlanta, to relocate its headquarters to Bradenton. It all fits in nicely with one of Scott's most touted achievements: persuading companies to move to Florida.

While IMG companies have hired well-connected lobbyists, Crisafulli insisted who is on the lobbying roster had nothing to do with his support to boost the funding.

IMG Academy's lead lobbyist is Jeff Johnston, who is on a team that includes Michael Corcoran, brother of Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. IMG College, which did not directly lobby on the academy's project, has former House Speakers Dean Cannon and Larry Cretul on its team.

The academy is a 584-acre sports training venue created in 1978 in Bradenton. The college is a North Carolina-based division of WME-IMG that has exclusive marketing rights for nearly 90 universities and college sports conferences.

"We were actually seeking a lot more money than we got," Johnston said of IMG Academy originally asking for $7.5 million this year. "We feel the state has been very generous and that Gov. Scott has been a very good steward in making sure there's a rate of return."

Referring to the $5 million IMG Academy got last year, academy officials say they've generated $5.7 million in sales taxes thanks to the ongoing campus expansion the state helped fund.

"We fill up the restaurants. We fill up the hotel rooms," Johnston said. "I'm proud of IMG. I know it's a private institution. It's a lot more than you would think than kids moving to that school."

Richard Corcoran assured his brother had no influence over him on the project. He said if he had his way, it wouldn't be in the budget at all. "I don't believe government should be supporting private-sector ventures," he said.

The appropriations chairman said his brother also represents hospitals and gaming industry interests, issues he has battled against for years, but it does not influence him.

"I'll always do what I think is right, no matter who is pushing it, whether it's my brother or even if it's my mother," he added.