As Danny Morrissey and his parents pulled off a strip-mall-lined
highway and drove through the curved stucco entrance of IMG
Academies, the 16-year-old from Pepper Pike, Ohio, felt as if he
had stumbled upon a movie set. In every direction he could see
stately palm trees, manicured grass and packs of tanned, toned
and smiling teens toting golf clubs, tennis rackets and hockey
skates. "It was as if everyone had somewhere to be," Danny
recalls of his first visit to the Bradenton, Fla., campus, in
April 2001. "These were not your normal high school kids." Later
that morning Danny interviewed to become one of them--in his case,
a boarding student majoring in basketball.
It is a subject he has attacked at an accelerated pace. In the
year since he enrolled at IMG as a sophomore, the 6'3" shooting
guard has been transformed, as The Basketball Academy director
Joe Abunassar tells it, from "a skinny shooter to an explosive
all-around player who can make an impact at a Division I school."
On a recent afternoon Danny, who describes his persona growing up
in the Cleveland suburb as "timid," glanced at his watch like a
busy executive as he strode across campus to the basketball court
where he trains twice day. "As my basketball improved, I gained a
lot of confidence in general," says Danny, who also has added 15
pounds of muscle (he now weighs 175) and almost two inches to his
vertical leap. "It's not hard to get motivated here. You become
very accustomed to life behind these walls."
At present 523 boys and girls ages nine through 18, including 443
of high school age, are chasing their dreams on the country's
most comprehensive playground for athletes in training. While the
kids at neighboring high schools are squeezing sports practice in
between eighth period and sundown, Danny and his IMG compatriots
are devoting up to six hours a day to a sport of their choice:
baseball, basketball, golf, ice hockey, soccer or tennis. They
are schooled by world-class coaches and eat in a dining room that
dispenses fresh-squeezed juices (soda is frowned upon) and
protein-packed meals (approved by the staff of the on-site
fitness complex, the International Performance Institute). In the
4,500-square-foot weight room or in one of two outdoor swimming
pools, students might rub elbows with pro athletes--such as
Serena Williams, San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees and
Detroit Pistons guard Chauncey Billups--who occasionally train at
the Academies. And now, with construction completed on the
Pendleton School, which has grades kindergarten through 12 and is
located in the heart of this athletic kingdom, academy kids are
able to fulfill their scholastic requirements on a schedule that
is custom-fit to each individual's athletic pursuit.
With varying degrees of talent, and often with parents and
siblings in tow, aspiring champions come to Bradenton from 52
countries. Thirty-six percent are foreign-born, while the
majority come from the U.S., with nearly every state represented.
Some, like 15-year-old tennis prodigy Maria Sharapova of Russia,
whose family has made IMG Academies its home base since 1993,
play pro tour events. Most, like Danny, are just trying to
improve their skills in an effort to make themselves more
attractive to Division I college coaches.
A private, for-profit updated version of the government-sponsored
kindergyms of Eastern Europe and Asia, IMG Academies and similar
institutions cater to America's growing demand for sports-centric
child rearing, offering the intensity of a summer sports camp for
36 weeks of the year. Some institutions, including the
International Junior Golf Academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C.,
and Saddlebrook near Tampa, provide an on-site prep school.
Others are affiliated with off-campus private schools.
When it comes to size, scope and star power, IMG Academies--owned
and operated by parent company IMG, the world's largest athlete
management and sports marketing agency--has no peer. Since IMG
started its academy division by buying Nick Bollettieri's tennis
school in its mid-1980s heyday (Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and
Monica Seles were students then), the Bradenton campus has been
periodically expanding. The next acquisition, in '93, was the
youth division of David Leadbetter's renowned golf school. Then
IMG started Academies for soccer and baseball in '94, followed by
hockey and basketball in 2000 and '01, respectively. What was an
overgrown tomato patch when Bollettieri broke ground 24 years ago
has expanded to 190 IMG-owned acres.
With a growing number of team-sport athletes making the
pilgrimage to Bradenton, more of that land is being developed. In
adding to the 30,000-square-foot, climate-controlled training
dome (now housing a basketball court), 72 Har-Tru and clay tennis
courts, four bermuda grass soccer fields, two baseball diamonds,
and putt, chip and driving areas, site plans have just been
completed for a 48,000-square-foot field house that could contain
at least two basketball courts and an ice rink. (The Hockey
Academy currently uses a rink that is 30 minutes from campus.)
"We don't think small," says Ted Meekma, a senior vice president
at IMG and co-director of IMG Academies. "We build players, and
word is getting around."
Raised not far from IMG's Cleveland headquarters, Danny Morrissey
heard about the Academies from a classmate whose father, Bob
Kain, is senior executive vice president of IMG. As a freshman at
Cleveland's University School, Danny started on the varsity
basketball team, but he struggled against bigger, faster
opponents and suffered a knee injury. Plus, he found it hard to
keep up with his studies during the season. "The homework load
just killed me," he says. After his family checked into IMG
Academies, he "liked the idea of concentrating on classes and
On a typical day Danny wakes at sunrise for a quick breakfast
followed by three hours of weight training and basketball drills.
After a shower and lunch he hurries across campus to the
Pendleton School, where he takes three straight 1 1/2-hour
academic classes. Danny then heads to the gym for another 1
1/2-hour basketball workout. Then, if his weekly appointment
falls on that day, he'll visit the mental conditioning program to
discuss, say, psychological blocks he's been experiencing at the
foul line. After dinner--and, if a basketball game has caused him
to miss any class time, an evening tutoring session with a member
of the Pendleton teaching staff--Danny returns to the dorm suite
he shares with a Brazilian basketball player and four golfers
(from Tampa, Canada, Great Britain and Korea). Lights must be out
by 10:30 on Sunday through Thursday nights, a little later on
Friday and Saturday.
When pressed to describe life outside the daily rigors of
training and classwork, students cite optional field trips to the
nearby DeSoto Square Mall or Gulf Coast beaches. There is the
occasional mixer by one of the two campus swimming pools, and
each May, a senior prom. "You don't have much of a social life,"
says Danny. "It's the one negative about the place."
Paula Creamer, a 16-year-old golfer from Pleasanton, Calif., who
has been enrolled at the Academies since the fall of 2000, calls
the all-business approach "the sacrifice you make to meet your
goal." Which is? "To be the best," says the sophomore
That quest doesn't come cheap. For room, board and sports
training, which includes twice-daily workouts and weekly mental
conditioning sessions, athletes specializing in baseball,
basketball, ice hockey or soccer pay a basic rate of $25,000.
Tennis players pay a minimum of $30,100 and golfers $33,800.
Add-ons, including enrollment at Pendleton School ($11,250) and
extra sessions with coaches, trainers and even massage
therapists, can push a boarder's tuition near the $70,000 mark
(box, right). The parents of one tennis student recently
purchased a $100,000 school-year package that included hiring an
Academies staffer to be the student's personal coach.
Some 30% of full-time students have at least one parent who has
relocated to the 74 condominiums that IMG built on campus. These
"villas," which sold for between $220,000 and $500,000, are all
occupied, with some parents leasing units from private owners (60
additional condos are planned). "We weren't going to allow Paula
to come here unless we could maintain the family unit," says Paul
Creamer, whose flexible schedule as an American Airlines pilot
allowed him and his wife, Karen, to follow their only child
across the country.
While IMG kids have the option to attend two Bradenton-area
private schools, most--including Danny and Paula--take advantage
of the proximity of Pendleton, which is a short lob from the
tennis courts. The Pendleton student body has ballooned from 105
when it opened in 2000 to 300 this fall, including the elementary
wing for the siblings of athletes whose families have relocated
From its flexible scheduling to the geometry teacher's use of
short irons to explain angles, Pendleton caters to young
athletes. Headmaster Rich Odell, who ran an arts-oriented private
school in Michigan before accepting IMG's offer to create
Pendleton, says that customized schooling, long available to
budding artists, is a niche market ready to explode. "There are
parallels between a kid who excels in the arts and a kid who
excels in sports: They tend to be very good learners and have
plates so full that they have little time to fool around," says
Odell. To address those needs, Pendleton is structured like a
college, in which kids take no more than three courses a day in a
time block--morning, afternoon or evening--that fits into their
sport's daily regimen.
"It's cool to go to school with people who understand you," says
Paula, whose California classmates "just didn't get it" when she
wasn't around for sleepovers. The drawback, says her dad, is "the
lack of school spirit. My kid doesn't experience pep rallies and
all of that traditional high school stuff."
That is slowly beginning to change. Last year Pendleton fielded
its first interscholastic team, in boys' basketball, and will
begin regulation play in baseball next spring. The school
competes as an independent member of the Florida High School
Activities Association (FHSAA). The Academies' 120 soccer players
fill eight travel teams (five boys' squads and three girls') that
compete in either the Super Y or USA leagues, and IMG's two
hockey teams play an independent schedule against Midgett
division clubs around the country and Bantam teams in Florida.
Although baseball and basketball players fare well against public
and private schools in and around Bradenton, Pendleton has told
the FHSAA that its teams will not participate in postseason play.
"We could be seen as having an unfair advantage because our kids
practice so much," says Odell. "Besides, the main concern of our
athletes is individual development, not wins and losses."
Coach Elliot Washington, whose Southeast High of Bradenton
basketball team lost to Pendleton last year, thinks that the IMG
team (17--7 in 2001--02) will improve this winter with recent
additions such as 6'11" senior center Jermaine Bell (who two
years ago made an oral commitment to St. John's) and junior point
guard Taurean Green (son of former NBA player Sidney Green).
"High-profile kids like these will probably draw others," says
Washington. "Last year the team was solid but not
overwhelming--you could tell there were a couple of kids from
nice families who could pay the tuition."
Danny Morrissey calls the absence of the sense of team unity
"kind of a bummer," but he reasons that if state championships
were his goal, he would still be in Ohio. "My University School
team would probably have beaten Pendleton last year," he says.
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 straightA 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
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
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."
Here's the price range for one school year at IMG Academies,
using as an example a high school--age tennis player who wants to
shoot for the stars
Daily sports instruction, once-a-week group
mental conditioning,room, board $30,100
Tournament account (minimum): Entry and travel
fees to competitions $500
Spending money (minimum) $800
A LA CARTE
Daily sports instruction, once-a-week group
mental conditioning, room, board $30,100
Pendleton School tuition $11,250
Tournament account (maximum) $7,000
Spending money (maximum) $5,000
Private tennis lessons with Academy instructor
(45 hours per school year) $2,600
Fifteen private lessons with Nick Bollettieri
(15 hours per school year) $7,500
Private mental conditioning sessions
(45 hours per school year) $3,900
Private performance training
(45 hours per school year) $2,025
general," says Morrissey. "It's not hard to get motivated here."