One of the largest sports-training facilities in the country is going through a self-induced transformation. It hopes its new leader can deliver quick results.
Business. IMG Academies, Bradenton
Key. The business, under new executive leadership for the first time in at least a decade, is undergoing a strategy transformation.
Top executives at New York-based IMG, a global sports and entertainment conglomerate, decided they had to shake up the management team at the Bradenton sports-training complex in late 2008.
So by January 2009, four top executives at the IMG Academies, near State College of Florida, were gone. Three of the disposed leaders were with IMG for at least 20 years. One executive, former CEO Greg Breunich, is married to the daughter of Nick Bollettieri, the founder of the tennis school at the Academies and an iconic figure locally and in the sport.
Officials with IMG and its parent company, New York private equity firm Forstmann Little & Co., have since said little about the cause of the dismissals. The executive who replaced Breunich, Sam Zussman, says company leadership “agreed that IMG should go in a different direction.”
And IMG and Forstmann executives are now confident they have the right man in Zussman to lead that change in direction, which includes a restructuring effort for the Academies.
Zussman, an Israeli native, spent four years in the Israel Defense Forces when he was a teenager in the late 1980s. He went on to earn a law degree and then an MBA from Stanford, before he worked in New York for McKinsey & Co., a prominent London-based global management consulting firm.
“It was clear that [the campus] was financially struggling,” says Zussman. “But it was also clear that it had tremendous potential.”
The financial problems, says Zussman, stemmed from “cost structure challenges and from real estate-related projects that went south with the Florida market.”
Zussman had been with IMG in New York since 2006. He previously worked in business operations directly under IMG President George Pyne, a former NASCAR executive who is regularly named to national lists of the most influential people in sports. “IMG was the first and only headhunter call I've ever taken,” says Zussman.
The transfer to Bradenton, where the 40-year-old Zussman was put in charge of a dozen divisions and 385 fulltime employees spread over 400 acres, could be the biggest business challenge of his career. The campus trains 12,000 athletes a year, from young children to college and professionals, who come from more than 80 countries.
“The dedication and complexity of this operation is daunting,” says Zussman, who has 18 people at IMG reporting directly to him. “The only thing I can compare it to is running an airline.”
Now, a year and a half after the leadership shuffle, Zussman is in the middle of the first phase of his plan to rebrand, retool and reshape the Academies. Says Zussman: “We are going back to our roots.”
Those roots are wrapped around a $197 million, 15-year facility master plan designed by Zussman and other local IMG executives. It includes a 50,000-square-foot student dorm to be built in 2012, in addition to $25 million in other capital investments for the next five years, says Chip McCarthy, IMG Academies' director of finance, planning and development.
Zussman says one of his main priorities to get across to the staff is that the look and feel of the complex has to be top-notch in order to recruit and retain the best athletes and coaches. “While the facilities are impressive,” Zussman says, “it is not as fantastic as it could be.”
Some projects have already been completed, including an expansion of the soccer fields and indoor batting cages. The tennis courts and the weight room have been renovated, too.
The Zussman-led overhaul also includes the addition of new sports to IMG, which made its name training tennis players the last 30 years. The new entries, including football and lacrosse programs introduced earlier this year, are designed to recruit athletes from sports that IMG hasn't put much focus on in the past, spokeswoman Kim Berard says. A softball program is due to be launched later this year.
The year-round sports programs, where students attend an IMG-owned high school on campus, are one of the biggest sources of revenue for the company. Room and board costs at least $50,000 a year for most programs. There are currently 800 full-time students and athletes on campus.
Officials with IMG declined to release specific annual revenue figures, citing its status as a division of a private firm. Zussman calls the business “low-margin,” but he adds the current summer has been the best ever in terms of total students enrolled in camps and other short-term programs.
A portion of the new campers are there for football, which is a big part of Zussman's strategy to revamp the program offerings at IMG and recruit new athletes. He recruited former NFL coach and well-known TV broadcaster John Madden to design the practices and structure of the sessions. Madden becomes the third legendary sports figure to have his name on an IMG school, joining Bollettieri and golf instructor David Leadbetter.
The football sessions are run on a daily basis by former Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke. Other IMG Madden Football Academy coaches include retired NFL wide receiver Ricky Proehl, who won two Super Bowls, and longtime NFL assistant coach George Sefcik.
Football is also a key sport for another initiative recently unveiled by IMG: national championships for high school sports.
The concept is to create tournaments modeled after the NCAA's March Madness for up to 20 high school sports. The National High School Coaches Association has partnered with IMG to launch the championship series later this year, for sports including 7-on-7 football, team tennis and team golf.
Finally, the strategy shift has also drawn the attention of Manatee County economic development officials, who already pegged sports performance has a targeted industry worthy of financial incentives. The county recently offered IMG $65,000 if it follows through on plans to hire 65 people over the next three years. The incentives only kick in if the employees earn annual salaries equal to or above $38,619, which is 115% of the average county wage.
Officials with IMG say the new employees will be used mostly for the new athletic programs.
Zussman says the fast pace of the restructuring effort has left him little time to focus on his core issue: to balance the training and education side of IMG with being a profitable business.
“The challenge is to do both without having one come at the expense of the other,” says Zussman. “We need to be profitable.”
One route to bigger profits could be IMG's sponsorship agreement with Under Armour, an $856 million publicly traded athletic apparel firm with an emphasis on young athletes. Officials with both IMG and Under Armour declined to discuss the finances of the arrangement, signed late last year.
But one side of the deal is to have IMG's athletes be outfitted in head-to-toe Under Armour, says IMG's Berard. Another element is Combine360, a body of tests run by employees of both companies. The tests measure specific data points on everything from athletic ability and mental attitude to communication skills and nutritional habits.
The companies plan to use Combine360 in Bradenton and at events in other cities and countries. “We've developed a complex-yet-standard test for broad athletic performance,” Zussman says. “It's the athletic equivalent of the SATs.”
Sponsorship deals and international combine events weren't likely part of Bollettieri's vision when he opened his self-named boarding school and tennis facility in Bradenton in 1978. The facility was so successful, however, that within a decade IMG called Bollettieri about a partnership.
A deal was worked out and in 1987 IMG and Bollettieri opened a multi-sports academy at its current location in Bradenton, on what was 300 acres of tomato fields. Sports such as soccer, golf and baseball were phased in over the next 10 years.
Then, in 2004, Forstmann Little bought IMG Worldwide. It paid $750 million for the conglomerate.
The new owners, the executives behind the shift in executive leadership in Bradenton, share at least one passion with Zussman: A get-it-done-now mentality.
Zussman picked up that philosophy while a teenager in Israel's army. He grew to appreciate the IDF's motto of “follow me,” where everyone in a unit takes ownership of problems and solutions.
“While [the army] was a challenge, it certainly was a character building experience,” Zussman says. “Sports are a challenge that are secondary only to the military.”
Sports Stars: Bradenton
On most days, the 400-acre campus that's home to IMG Academies in Bradenton is filled with hundreds of teenage athletes playing everything from tennis to lacrosse.
But at various times of the year the campus is star-struck, especially when professional football, basketball and baseball players come to town for training sessions. The list of pro athletes who have trained at the IMG Performance Institute includes star football quarterbacks Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Tony Romo; pro basketball star Kobe Bryant; teenage soccer prodigy Freddy Adu; baseball players Gary Sheffield and Nomar Garciaparra; tennis champion Maria Sharapova; and golfer Paula Creamer, a part-time Sarasota resident who recently won the U.S. Women's Open.
The individual sports programs at IMG have also been home to dozens of other now-famous sports stars. The Bollettieri Tennis Academy alumni list, for example, is a who's who of the sport's last two decades. It includes Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Boris Becker, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Venus and Serena Williams.
Meanwhile, some of the current coaches and program directors at the Academies bring their own star-struck backgrounds to IMG. That list includes:
• Andy Borman, Director of the Basketball Academy: Borman, who graduated from IMG's Bradenton Academy in 1999, played soccer and basketball at Duke University and won a national championship in basketball in 2001. Borman was hired at IMG earlier this year. He is the nephew of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and the grandson of NASA astronaut Frank Borman;
• Shell Dailey, Woman's Basketball Coordinator: Dailey, a star basketball player at the University of Texas, was hired at IMG in 2007. She was previously an assistant coach with the University of Florida and an assistant and interim head coach of the San Antonio Silver Stars in the WNBA;
• Chris Weinke, Football Academy Director: Weinke, hired to run the new football program at IMG, won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy while he played quarterback for Florida State from 1996 to 2000. Weinke, who enrolled at Florida State as a 25-year-old after he played minor league baseball for six years, later played seven years in the NFL.