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BRADENTON - In the beginning there was tennis. And it was good.
 
Then tennis begat golf. Golf begat soccer. Soccer begat baseball and baseball begat basketball.
 
On and on it went until there was an empire, one that included schools, a conference center, resort villas and lodges, physical and mental training centers.
 
And swimming pools.
 
It started with an idea. One of those, "Why don't you come here and let's do this," kind of things.
 
The seed was planted by Mike DePalmer Sr., a man with a couple of talented tennis-playing children and a working relationship with a former paratrooper who had a vision of bringing together the best players in the game.
 
Nick Bollettieri was the lightning rod that put everything into motion.
 
DePalmer lured Bollettieri to the area at a time Bollettieri needed a job. Bollettieri ran with the opportunity.
 
Not long after Bollettieri arrived, he and DePalmer were bringing in promising junior tennis players from around the state. Soon the pool of players expanded to prodigies from around the country. Eventually, they took on the world.
 
Anne White was the first to make the move. Jimmy Arias and Kathleen Horvath followed.
 
It wasn't long before Bollettieri's little group grew so large that there wasn't enough room at The Colony for both the kids and the tourists. Bollettieri and DePalmer eventually purchased a tennis club in Bradenton on 75th Street and a motel on Manatee Avenue.
 
As the players began to show results, word quickly spread. And more players came knocking.
 
Then the television show "60 Minutes" did a piece on the academy. "Holy crap. The whole thing exploded," Bollettieri recalled.
 
By the time the tennis academy moved to its current site on 34th Street West, it was the place to be, and be seen. Suddenly there was a group that included Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles. Then another wave that included Tommy Haas, Xavier Malisse and Anna Kournikova.
 
Even if players didn't grow up at the academy, they came to be a part of it. Bollettieri, for a time, coached Boris Becker. The Williams sisters trained at the academy. Martina Hingis was there briefly. The list goes on and on.
 
So did the growth, particularly after IMG purchased the facility in 1987.
 
Today tennis is just one of the sports at a site that has grown to almost 200 acres. The list of sports academies now includes tennis, golf, baseball, basketball and soccer, all patterned after the success of the tennis model.
 
There are also a myriad of auxiliary businesses and programs that enhance every sports experience. There is the International Performance Center, a 10,000-square foot weight room. There is a sports therapy center. There is a mental conditioning center and a communications skills development program.
 
There is The IMG Academy School, where full-time academy students can take care of academics with a schedule that doesn't interfere with their sports. There is a program to take college courses through the University of Miami.
 
There are places to rent and places to buy. There are dorms and villas and condominiums. And there is more on the way.
 
The facility is nine times larger than when IMG acquired the property in 1987 and there are future expansion plans that could dwarf the current site. The recent sale of IMG to Forstmann Little & Co., a New York buyout specialist, for more than $700 million is expected to provide a cash flow to enhance future growth for the IMG company.
 
The trickle-down effect should benefit IMG Academy, which is no longer a wholly owned division of the parent company.
 
More than a year ago, a Sarasota group stepped up and bought a significant minority share of the academy. Those investors are intimately familiar with the future goals of the academy.
 
"We have been working on plans for 10 years. Now we are executing them and it is starting to hit stride," said Greg Breunich. Breunich has been with Bollettieri from the start and is now an IMG senior vice president and co-director of IMG Academy.
 
"The sports are kicking in. The real estate is expanding. The whole business model is growing," he said.
 
Where once the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy lived and died with the growth or stagnation of tennis, now the facility is insulated from those swings by the expansion into other sports and the forming of an entire community that revolves around real estate ventures.
 
Recently 20 condominium units were completed and sold in a community called Academy Park. Twenty more units are currently under construction and an additional 20 units are to be built and are expected to be offered as fractional sales units.
 
There are also plans for long- term growth. The academy has been in negotiations to purchase the El Conquistador Country Club, an 18-hole championship golf layout on 117 acres to the south of the IMG facility. There is also plenty of land to the west of the facility that might be attractive.
 
"We have the potential of a good 20 to 30 years of growth," Breunich said. "When we are done we should be between 200 and 300 acres, maybe a lot more."
 
Where they have gone in the last 20 years has been remarkable. What was once rows of tennis courts has been expanded to include a 30-acre, double- ended golf driving range with target greens, sand bunkers, chipping and pitching greens.
 
There are two NBA regulation hardwood basketball courts and multiple training stations in an air-conditioned building for basketball players.
 
Baseball players have access to two professional caliber fields, three diamonds, eight batting cages and four mound bullpens.
 
The soccer academy includes four Bermuda grass playing fields and practice areas.
 
Tennis continues to grow. There are now 35 hard courts, 16 Har-Tru clay courts, a red clay court and four indoor courts.
 
These facilities are home to all sorts of athletes, boys and girls who are training in hopes of realizing a dream. They are also a place for adults to enhance their athletic skills. While a precious few of the full-time students may actually have an opportunity to become the next Andre Agassi, or Derek Jeter, or Chauncey Billups, the official academy line is that its goal is twofold.
 
To prepare its "full-time" students for college, and life itself, via an environment that enables them to receive top quality education and exceptional athletic training.
 
To provide the ideal technical, tactical, physical, mental and nutritional training environment for "short-time" clients to realize their athletic performance objectives.
 
"The main point of the academy is now scholarships," Bollettieri said. "Only a few can become professionals."
 
Those objectives, and scholarships, don't come cheap.
 
A full-time student's cost begins with tuition, which starts at $22,800 for soccer, basketball and baseball. It is $24,300 for tennis and $27,600 for golf.
 
Then there are travel fees and spending money minimums. And that does not include housing or school. There currently are approximately 700 full-time students, those attending longer than three months at a time.
 
While a few students attend public or private school in the area, more and more are enrolled at The IMG Academy School, which is connected to the academy. The price to attend IMG Academy is approximately $12,000.
 
Throw in all the bells and whistles, including housing and private coaching, and the cost to attend an academy can reach upwards of $100,000.
 
A number of students are on scholarships and the population at the academy fluctuates, but Breunich said revenue from full-time tuition is up between $4 million and $5 million from a year ago, reaching $14.4 million this past month.
 
There are also approximately 12,000 short-time students who take part in various programs throughout the year.
 
It has been estimated in various publications that the academy makes up about two percent of the nearly $1 billion in annual revenue that IMG generates. Whatever the percentage, the amount taken in by the academy in significant.
 
The economic impact the academy provides for the area is immeasurable, but certainly considerable. And the place brings name recognition to Bradenton around the world. That was particularly evident this past summer when Sharapova won Wimbledon.
 
If there has been one continuing criticism of the connection between IMG and the academies it is that it is used as a tool to recruit clients. The management company scouts and brings in young talent.
 
Clearly they then hold an advantage when it comes to signing successful athletes to management contracts.
 
"The percentage of students coming through here who go on to become pro athletes is not a huge number," points out Ted Meekma, who is a senior vice president and the other co- director of IMG Academy. "And they are under no obligation to sign with IMG."
 
Meekma admits that running the academy is an advantage, but also cites the company's mantra that there are many cheaper ways to recruit clients than build and run an academy.
 
"It certainly is not why we do this," Meekma said.
 
The conflict of interest charge is the same type of criticism Bollettieri used to hear when it was argued that he gave scholarships to some students so that they would attract other students. It is a criticism Bollettieri hardly denies.
 
"In the beginning, we almost purchased all the good players because they were on scholarship. That's why we had to sell the company to IMG," he says, only half kidding.
 
The fact is, many of the players who used the academy for free often left Bollettieri once they were in position to make money.
 
But many of those same players have returned to the academy at one time or another.
 
So have most of the people who have worked for Bollettieri over the years. The core of early Bollettieri employees are at the academy today.
 
Breunich, who is now Bolllettieri's son-in-law, and Meekma, Gabe Jaramillo and Carolina Murphy have been there from the start. Others, like Julio Moros and Chip Brooks, left for a while but have returned.
 
"All these people stayed here and we became famous," Bollettieri said. "I surrounded myself with good coaches and good people."
 
Now that most of the sports are covered in the academy's realm, there are strategies to branch out in several ways.
 
There is a plan to add an arts academy in the near future. As a complement to sports, the arts academy will feature visual arts, dance, theater and music.
 
It's a plan that began with an idea Bollettieri had as a paratrooper, an idea to bring elite players together and train like they were the best. It started with tennis.
 
"We've come a long way," he said.
 
Asked how long he can continue, the 73-year old Bollettieri said, "Actually, forever."
 
Forever is a long time, but his legacy looks secure.

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