The surprising truth about IMG Academies is that the vast majority of students, while athletic and motivated, lack the extraordinary natural ability that stamps them as potential pros. When you get down to it, the primary requirement for admission is financial ability, not athletic ability, and most Academies kids are fighting to get into elite Division I programs.
There are some brilliant exceptions, youngsters who are already on track for professional careers: In tennis, Sharapova and 14-year-old Tatiana Golovin are two of the three youngest girls in the international juniors top 15 rankings; in golf 16-year-old twins Aree and Naree Wongluekiet, in the footsteps of recent IMG Academies graduate and current PGA Tour pro Ty Tryon, have already played in LPGA events. (What's more, the national under-17 soccer team is based at IMG Academies, with its 30 players living and training on campus.) The publicity surrounding these prodigies is a siren song for many parents. "I get plenty of grownups in my office who are trying to enroll the next Tiger or Andre," says admissions director Carolina Murphy.
The kids themselves seem to have a better grip on who has star potential and who doesn't. "If your first-year roommate is out jogging when you're hitting the snooze button, it's a good indication you might not have what it takes," says Katherine Santosa, a straight-A Pendleton senior and tennis player who transferred to IMG Academies from New York's prestigious Bronx High School of Science. "I realized my first week at IMG that I wasn't going to make it to the pros. So I concentrated on improving my game to boost my chances of getting into an Ivy League school."
For the middling athlete, this kind of reality check can be worth more than the athletic instruction, says Dan Doyle, who researched several full-time sports schools for his forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting. "Maybe the biggest positive takeaway from the academy experience is that you find out how good you really are," says Doyle. "It teaches kids how to deal with disappointment." But is a reality check worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars that parents are paying to keep these Academies in business? "Parental delusions about their child's excellence can be very strong, but my suspicion is that you won't see a tremendous growth of these places, as you did with personal training, which is cheaper and works," says Doyle.
Says Caroline Silby, sports psychologist to several elite figure skaters and gymnasts, "No one sends his kid to these Academies to be average. With [admissions and athletics at] top colleges becoming so competitive, I'm seeing an increasing number of parents who are willing to spend a lot of money to help their kids' chances in any way they can."
There are skeptics who criticize the Bradenton program as a dream factory, and others who complain that it is a vehicle by which IMG recruits potential clients even before they turn professional. There is, indeed, the occasional boarder such as Sharapova, who trains in Bradenton for free as part of the management contract she signed with IMG at nine. To counter the critics Bob Kain, who oversees the Academies from Cleveland, says that while a Sharapova or Tryon emerges every so often, the Academies are first and foremost character-building, college scholarship-promoting institutions. According to Laura Borso, the Academies' communications manager, 80% of its college-bound graduates from the Class of 2002 received full or partial scholarships. "I know that sports agents aren't seen as charitable creatures, but we feel we're doing something kind of nice down there," says Kain, who points out that the Academies account for less than 1% of IMG's annual profit. Nevertheless, as Kain added, "it's a fact of life that sports management is having an increasingly young focus, and that a positive academy experience can put IMG in a favorable light."
Paula Creamer, who won five national junior golf titles in the past year and hopes to qualify for next summer's U.S. Women's Open, is one who will likely have to choose an agent soon. The Creamers say that they will probably hire IMG to represent Paula when she turns pro. "I can't see any reason why we wouldn't," says Paul, her dad. "They've been everything to us over the past couple years."
Danny Morrissey's father, Jim, feels he, too, has already gotten his money's worth. "I see a world of difference in Danny's physique and confidence—it just goes to show that you can't beat personalized training," says Jim, who added that Danny attracted the interest of some college scouts during a three-day summer tournament in Las Vegas. It was one of three AAU events in which Danny excelled between June and August, but the highlight of the 16-year-old's summer "vacation" was a mid-July return to the IMG domed court, where Tyronn Lue, Jamaal Tinsley and other NBA players were training before the preseason. "My main goal is to get a Division I scholarship," says Danny, "but if I have a chance to play professionally, it would be a dream come true."
And if that doesn't happen? "Well," he said, "I guess I wouldn't mind getting a job with IMG."
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