The search for elite players is so competitive that IMG has resorted to cultivating preteens to find the next prodigy, giving them access to representatives from the pro tours and Nike. With eight-figure fortunes potentially at stake, agents and scouts are evaluating and cultivating players even younger than ten who are just getting started in serious competition. One strategy is to hold an exclusive and predictive tournament called Future Stars. The event, for boys and girls aged 12 and under, is both a tournament and a weeklong education in the life that might await elite tennis players, complete with seminars led by executives at Nike and the men’s and women’s pro tours.
According to Max Eisenbud, who leads IMG’s tennis division, “Nobody wants to have a tournament for 11- and 12-year-olds… I’d rather wait, but the competition forced us into this situation”. Even if the tournament is as premature as its participants are precocious, it has become a necessity. It used to be that tennis’s next stars were discovered in two main ways. First, they would compete for a scholarship at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Second, they played at Les Petit As, a 14-and-under tournament in France. But in recent years, IMG’s representatives found that by the time these young players arrived to Les Petit As, most of the talented youngsters had already signed with agencies and new academies across Europe that have been aiming to knock IMG off its pedestal. No one at IMG is pretending that this approach does not come with its risks. Prospecting preteen talent can be nearly impossible and highly fraught. It risks increasing the pressure on children who already put plenty on themselves and, in some cases, carry the financial responsibilities for their struggling families. That said, it also offers many opportunities. With its history of teen phenoms, tennis has always been a cutthroat sport. Unfortunately, it seems those throats are getting even younger.
The NFL Draft is an annual event with too many traditions to count. One of the funniest, sweetest, and perhaps most irreverent, is the title of “Mr Irrelevant”. The title always goes to the 262nd and final person selected in the draft. Although some might think the title would be offensive, Mr Irrelevants are usually very thankful. Like everyone selected that late in the draft, they are simply thankful that they are drafted at all. By ending up number 263, their road to the NFL gets a lot longer and far more treacherous. NFL veteran Paul Salata started the tradition of not only naming Mr Irrelevant, but celebrating them as if they were one of the top picks in the entire draft. For the last 45 years, Salata and his famous NFL friends would put their wing to celebrate each year’s Mr Irrelevant with a banquet, parade, and assorted activities like surfing lessons and visits to Disneyland. Salata’s award added a rare dose of humour to the draft, where players nervously await their fates and fans pin their hopes on next season’s rookies. And it allowed Salata to celebrate payers who overcame the odds to get drafted by an NFL team.
This year, for the first time since he created Mr Irrelevant, Salata was not around to witness his creation. He died last October at 94, but his legacy lives on. This year, Salata’s daughter was there to award Brock Purdy with the title when he was selected by the San Francisco 49ers.