The future of one of Manatee County's largest and most prominent private employers — IMG Academy — coming off its blockbuster $1.25 billion sale is one part digital, one part physical.
That's a big takeaway from a rare glimpse into leadership's thinking at the sports academy and school with a global roster of superstars in multiple sports who have trained there. (That expansive list includes Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Serena and Venus Williams in tennis; Freddy Adu and DaMarcus Beasley in soccer; and Josh Hamilton and Ryan Zimmerman for baseball.)
IMG Academy President Brent Richard spoke about the April 25 acquisition and the future of IMG at an Association for Corporate Growth event Oct. 5. The ACG Tampa Bay chapter hosted the event, attended by some 20 people, at the Legacy Hotel on IMG's west Bradenton campus.
Richard first addressed two big questions: Why sell now? And how did it find the buyer, BPEA EQT, a Hong Kong-based private equity company, that purchased the academy?
The publicly traded parent company of IMG, Beverly Hills-based sports and entertainment giant Endeavor Group Holdings, wasn’t necessarily looking to sell, says Richard — until it was approached by Nord Anglia Education, a BPEA EQT portfolio company.
“The right thing to do as a board at a public company was to at least evaluate that,” Richard says. Endeavor, he says, soon decided “the right answer is to sell the asset.”
Richard also points out that selling an asset like IMG, with its rich history and even richer current holdings, was not a simple proposition. “There’s only a handful of companies out there that really understand what we do,” he says.
There's also only a handful of companies with the capital to do a deal like that. BPEA EQT, according to its website, has deployed $25 billion in investments since it was founded in 1997, combining private equity teams from Baring Private Equity Asia (BPEA) and EQT Asia. It was previously an affiliate of British merchant bank Barings Bank.
In addition to the $1.25 billion deal for IMG, which generated national business headlines, affiliates of the private equity firm also closed on eight land sales June 29 of IMG property. Those land deals totaled $321.59 million. (The entities involved in those transactions didn't comment on whether the land deals were part of the overall IMG purchase or seperate.)
IMG, meanwhile, has hosted multiple pro sports teams for practice sessions and placed more than 30,000 students into college sports rosters in 2022 alone. In 2022, it supported 1,350 students on its campus. This year, that number increased to 1,500.
When asked about future growth plans and adding students, Richard says, “We’re actively doing it.” The academy has 100 acres that will be developed under the new ownership that will allow room for more sports to be added. There are no plans to acquire additional land, he adds.
IMG was founded in 1978 as the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. IMG acquired the academy in 1987 and subsequently added golf as its second sport followed by programs for soccer and baseball and ultimately basketball, football, lacrosse, track & field and volleyball. Currently, the main campus sits on 400 acres with a golf course on an additional 200 acres.
The planned growth under the new ownership isn’t limited to the campus in Bradenton. Richard says plans of going more digital have been in the works for a while.
“How do we free IMG Academy from physical constraints?" he posed at the ACG event. There’s tactics like appealing to a diverse audience, improving the campus experience and developing land, but unless you move to Florida and “have a lot of money,” not everyone has access to the resources IMG offers. That can change with digital offerings.
“We know how to educate families and kids,” he says, adding that the academy’s online products — online college recruiting, mental performance support and nutritional education — bring in the most revenue.
“A big part of what we’ve been doing is thinking about IMG Academy as a brand as opposed to IMG Academy as a place,” he says. “The boarding school will always be the brand, but the brand is a lot bigger than the boarding school.”
Three years ago, Richard says, the academy was reaching 1,000 customers. Now the base, which is mostly families and young athletes, is up to 150,000. The goal is to get that into the millions.
“There’s only so many kids you can put in the physical facilities,” says Richard, named president of IMG Academy in August, according to his LinkedIn profile. Prior to that he was an associate at Goldman Sachs for three years, and held executive posts at Endeavor for seven years, among other roles in sports and entertainment. “But when you have online coaching products, you can provide access and products that are affordable for families all around the world.”
Expanding its reach seems to be the theme of IMG Academy’s future.
It's currently looking at how to infuse the academy into other schools, specifically Windermere Prep in Orlando and North Broward Prep outside of Miami. Both schools operate under the academy’s partner and new owner, Nord Anglia Education.
“We have the opportunity to bring that into schools if we can figure out an effective model,” Richard says. “I think if we can figure it out in three or four schools, I think we’ve got a model that can work in any school.”
Richard spoke to the impact IMG Academy has on some students — not just the stars. One in particular came to the academy as an eighth grader having played golf only twice. She stayed at IMG for five years, became the salutatorian of the class and went on to play golf at Princeton.
“That is actually the story of IMG Academy,” he says, “in a lot of ways.”