One “arena” of the sports business world that is often overlooked is the athletic training facility for professional athletes, specifically for the sports of football and basketball. Many of the high profile collegiate or amateur athletes who declare themselves eligible for the NFL or NBA drafts chose to do their training at a world-class sports training facility. With the NFL draft less than 2 months past, and the NBA draft only 5 days away, this seems to be a highly relevant topic.
I think it might be important to understand the dynamics of this business before diving into the details of it. While these training facilities exist for athletes across all sports, the training facilities that focus on athletes preparing for the NFL and NBA drafts are easily the biggest. That is because those two drafts are the biggest in magnitude. The MLB draft has 40 rounds and thus loses its luster. Moreover, many of those prospects spend several seasons in the minors or play college ball before seeing a major league roster. Similarly, the NHL draft does not give fans the immediate satisfaction of seeing players that are “NHL ready.” It takes most top picks in the NHL draft 3-4 years before they are actually playing in an NHL game. Conversely, the NFL and NBA drafts generate lots of buzz, interest, and excitement from fans because nearly all first round picks are just about guaranteed to make their teams the following year giving fans a reason to watch the event on TV.
Many of the top agencies will sign athletes right when they declare themselves eligible for the NFL and NBA drafts. Both the NFL and NBA have formal pre-draft combines that are essentially showcases for NFL and NBA management to examine players. They both happen 1-2 months before the draft and allow NFL and NBA GM’s, coaches, and scouts to see all of the athletes’ performance measurements (bench press, vertical jump, etc). Because so much weight is put into these athletic measurements, agents will pay top-dollar for their signed athletes to do their pre-draft training at the very best facilities in the world. With GM’s making million dollar-drafting decisions sometimes based upon a tenth of a second in a wide receiver’s 40-yard sprint, the return on investment for agents on sending their clients to the very best facilities is ever important.
This opens up a market space for facilities that specialize in training professional athletes. To begin with, it’s a very saturated marketplace with hundreds and hundreds of trainers and facilities doing various versions of the same thing. One of the biggest training facilities is EXOS, formerly known as Athletes Performance. EXOS was founded in 1999 by Mark Verstegen and has exponentially grown to where now they have facilities in Tempe (AZ), Phoenix (AZ), Carson (CA), San Diego (CA), Gulf Breeze (FL), Raleigh (NC), and Frisco (TX). They boast 523 players drafted, seven #1 overall picks and 105 first-rounders. Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson and Blake Bortles all attended EXOS and obviously their hard work at these facilities paid off with big pay-days as the #1 overall pick in the NFL drafts.
Another top facility for NFL pre-draft combine training is IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. The Academy started as a tennis academy with the one of the best tennis coaches of all time, Nick Bollettieri, who was responsible for training about half of the draw in the 1986 US Open. From there, the deep pockets of IMG (International Management Group) were able to take it from purely a tennis academy to a world class training facility for many more sports, football and basketball being two of them. Within the last 10 years or so, IMG has landed 86 first round picks, five #1 overall picks, including names like Cam Newton, LaDainian Tomlinson, Luke Joeckel, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Tannehill as well as Super Bowl MVP’s like Drew Brees and Eli Manning.
On the basketball side, there are a few workout facilities that stand out: Impact Basketball (Las Vegas, NV), Project Basketball (Oakland, CA), and Evolution Athletics (Chicago, IL). Impact Basketball began in 1997 when former Division 1 coach, Joe Abunassar, applied his unique approach to basketball development to guide the careers of several of the best NBA players. Today, Impact Basketball has three locations as well as programs running in over a dozen countries … they have laid claim to over 100 NBA draft picks in the last 7 years. Joe’s early group of clients was Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Al Harrington, Tayshaun Prince and Dahntay Jones. From there, Joe was able to start the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He then added facilities in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that train over 200 professionals, men’s and women’s national teams, McDonalds and NCAA All-Americans, foreign professionals and young talented amateurs who train at his summer camps and his Impact Academy.
Jeff Pagliocca, with Evolution Athletics in Illinois, is a little newer to the game of combine training, although is quickly building an impressive list of alumni. Everyone from Luol Deng, to Will Bynum to most recently Frank Kaminsky as well as Aaron and Andrew Harrison have used Pagliocca and his staff to prepare for the NBA draft combine.
Virtually all of these training facilities feature cross-training components including mental conditioning, speed training, nutrition, and other components of how to be the consummate professional. In virtually all of these examples of world-class training facilities, the business model has started from a well-known coach or trainer being able to attract a few big name athletes. From there it becomes a snow-ball effect in large sense, where other young up-and-coming athletes want to train where the other best athletes are training. It is here where managing the relationships with the large agencies becomes crucial, as they are ultimately the ones spending the dollars. At this point it becomes a marketing exercise, where the coaches rely on a marketing and business development staff to generate the buzz of who is coming to train at their facility and to permeate that news to the youth athletes, the high school athletes, the college athletes and even the professional athletes.
The business is now off and running and new revenue streams open up for these facilities. With the ability to market these big names, the facilities generally then create youth summer camps, individualized private training sessions, team training, events, consulting and sometimes will even look to get into player representation and player endorsements. If executed properly, the pre-draft combine training niche marketplace can have a rippling effect over a potential very large business.
It is a very saturated market with lots of facilities trying to do similar things … and like anything else; the cream generally rises to the top.