Sports agency IMG diving headfirst into high school football, recruiting
The Madden Football Academy is part of IMG's all-athlete Florida boarding school
IMG will host its first seven-on-seven this June, field its own football team in 2012
Company known for employing agents has built safeguards to comply with NCAA
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The brochure calls it "Sports Utopia," and the reality doesn't stray far from the artist's rendering. The grounds of the IMG Academies sprawl across 400 acres. Tennis courts and a basketball gym in the front give way to baseball, soccer and lacrosse fields in the back. An 18-hole golf course wraps around one side. If the all-athlete boarding school needs more space, IMG, the sports agency-turned-all-encompassing-globe-dominating-conglomerate, will buy more of the surrounding tomato fields and turn them into sports fields.
Near the back of the complex is what we in Florida would refer to as a manufactured building. Most probably would call it a double-wide without wheels. Inside this temporary home lives a relatively new IMG venture that has the potential to influence its sport as much as the Bollettieri Tennis Academy from which the rest of the complex sprang. The Madden Football Academy opened more than a year ago, but IMG will dive headfirst into the football recruiting industrial complex later this month when it hosts its first seven-on-seven tournament. Then, in August 2012, IMG will field its own football team, possibly with some of the players who first saw the place when they came for the tournament.
The seven-on-seven tournament on June 25 and 26 -- its official name is the IMG Madden 7-on-7 Championships Presented by Under Armour -- marks a turning point in the evolution of elite travel football. A week earlier, Keyshawn Johnson's BMOC organization will host a large tournament in Carson, Calif. That tournament, which combines Johnson's clout with some big sponsors, represents a step in a more corporate direction for seven-on-seven. IMG's tournament will go a step further. The company will march in lockstep with Under Armour (also one of Johnson's sponsors) to stage an event for traveling all-star teams that will seem a world away from the grassroots circuit that started four years ago.
In seven-on-seven, the biggest fish have just jumped into the tank. The only question now is how long they will take to swallow everyone else.
Former Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke can't wait for the tournament. The 2000 Heisman Trophy winner has run the Madden Academy since it opened last year, hosting camps and training quarterbacks from every level. Before the NFL draft, Weinke worked with Cam Newton. Last week, Weinke worked with Minnesota Vikings quarterbacks Christian Ponder, Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar. Wednesday, Weinke went from an interview to an appointment to work out a high schooler.
Weinke, 38, always knew he wanted to coach. He took the job at IMG because it gave him a chance to build something from the ground up. The reason for the tournament is two-pronged: IMG wants a piece of the seven-on-seven pie. The tournaments run by New Level Athletics founders Baron Flenory and Kashann Simmons have drawn most of the nation's best skill position recruits the past two years. IMG wants those players paying for IMG's instructional camps. Also, Weinke is building his own football program at IMG. He hopes the tournament will help advertise the academy to players from around the country.
"The seven-on-seven is the big thing right now," Weinke said. "We wanted to be able to put on a first-class event that obviously would showcase our facilities. But even more importantly, we want to make sure that the first time we do it, we do it the right way. Because of our expertise in terms of event management, we feel like we're probably in a better position than most people to put on an event like this."
You're probably asking the obvious questions. Seven-on-seven is the newest recruiting and NCAA compliance battleground. The SEC just banned non-scholastic seven-on-seven events from its campuses last week. Tryouts, practices and events teem with street agents. Now a company best known for employing actual agents is starting its own tournament and its own full-contact team?
Yes and yes.
Those at the IMG Academies expect that question. During a tour of campus, public relations director Kim Berard mentioned that post-grad basketball player DeAndre Daniels had just committed to play for Connecticut. "No, IMG doesn't represent [UConn coach] Jim Calhoun," Berard said, anticipating the next question. Of course, IMG College, the company's college sports marketing and media arm, does count UConn as a client along with more than 70 other schools including Florida, Michigan, Ohio State, Oregon and Texas.
Another of IMG Worldwide's properties is the Collegiate Licensing Company, which handles branding and trademark issues for more than 100 schools, nine conferences and the NCAA itself. Last Thursday, Washington-based attorney Steven Bradbury sent cease-and-desist letters to 27 schools claiming their agreements with CLC violate antitrust law.
The massive company has had to build invisible walls to stay on the right side of the NCAA (also an IMG College client). Ensuring athletes are eligible to play in college is good for business at the Academies. According to Mark Blaweiss, the Academies' director of college placement, planning and NCAA compliance education, 90 percent of graduates go on to college, and 50 percent of those end up playing a sport on the Division I level. That's why parents from around the globe -- the Academies' student body is about 60 percent international -- pay $60,000-$100,000 a year for their children to attend the Academies and take their classes at the connected Pendleton School.
Blaweiss, once the faculty athletic representative at Drexel, said the NCAA need not worry about IMG agents having access to IMG Academies' athletes. "That would be cutting off our nose to spite our face," Blaweiss said. "If we have a problem with one agent, then the academy is closed."
Blaweiss admits the school hasn't had to deal with many NCAA issues because most of its 750 athletes play sports that don't generate revenue at the collegiate level. Basketball, a revenue sport, takes up about half the time Blaweiss spends on compliance issues, and he expects football -- the biggest revenue generator at the college level -- will add to the workload.
But Weinke warns that IMG Academies will not field a team stocked with blue-chippers right away, and it probably never will. This will not be the Findlay Prep of football. (Even though IMG has played Findlay Prep in basketball.) "We'll start out on the lower levels playing independents and small private schools. What I don't want is this misperception out there that we have all elite athletes, because we don't," Weinke said. "We take kids from all different ages and all different skill levels, and it's our job to help them develop. By no means are we going to have 35 all-stars on our team. That's not going to be the situation. The perception outside may be that, but that's not the case. I'm realistic. We will probably struggle mightily early on."
IMG probably could field an elite team, but it can't give athletic scholarships and expect to play in the Florida High School Athletic Association (also an IMG client). Most aid is need-based, Blaweiss said, and merit scholarships typically are given only for academics. So Weinke will have to attract many players whose parents are willing to foot the hefty bill. According to the Madden Football Academy's rate card, the basic cost for a football player using a payment plan would be $71,860 a year. If that player wanted a top-of-the-line residence and upgraded meal plan, a year at the school could cost as much as $96,560.
Still, Weinke believes he can build an elite program given enough time. "The ultimate goal is to be able to compete at the highest level of the state of Florida at some point," he said. That would require plenty of talent, because the Sunshine State produces more BCS-level signees than any other state in the country.
That type of top-level talent will visit the Academies' campus later this month for the seven-on-seven tournament. (So will NCAA officials, who were invited by IMG management.) Maybe some players will see the grounds, the Heisman Trophy-winning coach and the weight room that rivals most colleges and ask for a brochure.
If their parents can get past the sticker shock or gather enough financial aid to pay, they may become pioneers in the schoolboy football's new world.
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