Original story by Steve Tappa for the Quad Cities Regional Business Journal

A chance meeting on the set of a hit Adam Sandler movie has the Quad Cities prepared for a home run of its own beginning next month.

While the grand opening date awaits completion of renovation work now underway, Major League Baseball’s youth baseball and softball training partner EL1 Sports is poised to open its 15th facility nationally at the TBK Bank Sports Complex in Bettendorf.

Called EL1 Quad Cities, the project will expand and enhance the baseball and softball training opportunities available since the local complex opened in 2018.

Davenport Assumption High School grad and former minor league baseball player Cory Harris, of the Quad Cities-based Legends Baseball Academy, remains the lead instructor.

However, now Mr. Harris will have more amenities to meet a growing community demand for professional sports instruction and workout space — especially indoors during the winter and wet weather.

EL1 currently offers two Dodgers Training Academy facilities in Southern California for youngsters to improve their games with the help of, among other things, baseball cages stocked with high-tech equipment. This offers a glimpse at the baseball amenities coming to Bettendorf’s TBK Bank Sports Complex with EL1, an official youth training partner of Major League Baseball.

TBK Bank Sports Complex opened up ample space for the EL1 addition by moving youth gymnastics to the YMCA of the Iowa Mississippi Valley in Bettendorf. The Y acquired additional space by purchasing the Life Fitness Center from the City of Bettendorf in advance of the city’s construction of a new community center this year.

  • 11 dedicated batting tunnels/cages, outfitted with the latest high-tech equipment – such as HitTrax, Rapsodo and Diamond Kinetics — to enhance learning as well as add next-generation connection by “gamifying” the experience.
  • Teams looking to scrimmage or work inside also will enjoy the addition of a 90 foot-by-60-foot indoor turf diamond.
  • Four additional retractable batting tunnels can be used in that space, too.
  • Plans also are to have up to seven portable pitching mounds for use as needed.

EL1 Sports CEO Griff Long declined to discuss financial specifics, but TBK Bank Sports Complex founder and owner Doug Kratz said the investment is a “real game-changer for our area.”

“We want to be a regional complex for young people to go and chase their dreams,” Mr. Kratz told the QCBJ. “And this is another positive step in that direction.”

Besides renting teams workout space, EL1 facilities host everything from camps and clinics to private lessons and group instruction. Such as a softball camp at one of EL1’s Mariners Training Centers in Seattle, Washington. Bettendorf’s TBK Bank Sports Complex is expanding baseball and softball training options by renovating existing space in the local complex to become the 15th host nationally of EL1, the official youth training partner of Major League Baseball.

How did it happen?

Before becoming an outside consultant for the Quad Cities sports complex a little over a year ago, former pro and college basketball coach Bobby Verdun served as a consultant on his famous friend Mr. Sandler’s 2022 Netflix-released basketball dramedy “Hustle”.

Active Entities president Bobby Verdun on set of Hustle with basketball players
Active Entities President Bobby Verdun on the set of “Hustle” (Bobby is the one on the far right)

The movie began production in Philadelphia in October 2020 after Mr. Verdun found a basketball gym to rehearse and shoot some scenes. That’s how he met and became friends with Frank Decembrino, the owner of a Philadelphia-based multi-sport facility used by the film.

Fast forward to 2022: Soon after Mr. Verdun joined TBK Sports Complex, Mr. Kratz expressed a desire to grow the baseball/softball training space. So, Mr. Verdun thought of his friend Mr. Decembrino’s new role with EL1 Sports as the growing company’s senior director of business development.

The training and development firm of EL1 earned the stamp last March 31 as the youth baseball and softball training partner of Major League Baseball after more than a decade in the training game.

After the two friends discussed the possibility, Mr. Decembrino soon spent a weekend in the Quad Cities and later discovered EL1 co-founder Aaron Trolia was a minor league teammate of Mr. Harris.

“It just seemed meant to be,” Mr. Decembrino recalled. “I was just floored seeing TBK for the first time. I’ve been there five times now (including in February), and I’m still blown away. It’s one of the best facilities in the nation.

“Cory’s program also is great. We also met some folks from the Barnstormers youth program, and the people there are so passionate about baseball and softball. The first time I called back to my team at EL1, I remember saying, ‘This is baseball heaven.’

“So I went to MLB and said we have an opportunity to grow in the Quad Cities and State of Iowa and they checked all the boxes for us. So, we invested in Cory and decided to set up camp at TBK.”

Finally, during last July’s MLB All-Star Game in Los Angeles, Mr. Kratz met with company officials and toured an EL1 facility — one of two Dodgers Training Academies in Southern California – before finalizing plans.

“When I was brought aboard here, I knew right away we needed to make TBK a regional and national presence — not just a local presence,” said Mr. Verdun, the founder and president of a Massachusetts-based fitness industry advising firm, Active Entities Consulting.

“And relationships like we have with EL1 are going to help us do that. What’s really unique is EL1 being the grassroots programming for Major League Baseball, with the ultimate goal to put these developmental programs in every Major League city.

“TBK is really a different model because it serves several teams – and having regional training centers like this could be a real boon for them as well as us.”

Who is EL1 Sports?

Founded in 2010, the company began in the Pacific Northwest with five owned and operated facilities in the Seattle area, which through a newly launched partnership with the Seattle Mariners, are now Mariners Training Centers.

By 2018, Elysian Park Ventures – the private investment firm created by the ownership group of the Los Angeles Dodgers — purchased and rebranded the company to EL1 Sports, and expanded to Southern California with two Dodgers Training Academies.

The official youth sports and training operations programs of the LA Dodgers also operate a facility in Hawaii that was rebranded and reopened last April.

Since the MLB announcement last March, EL1 has grown to include five facilities in the Philadelphia/Mid-Atlantic area – four in Pennsylvania, one in Southern New Jersey – as well as another in the Detroit area (Clinton Township, Michigan).

“We’re thrilled to be adding the Quad Cities, and we’re hoping we can get to other parts of the state (of Iowa),” Mr. Decembrino said.

The likeliest additions immediately after the QC, though, include two more possibilities each in Philadelphia and Detroit, as well as another California site, he added.

Expansion potential to Idaho, Oregon and other parts of Washington state also have grown, Mr. Decembrino said, with the Mariners partnership finalized last month for sites in the Pacific Northwest.

EL1 is in conversation with multiple MLB teams for other partnerships, he added — including the Detroit Tigers for the Detroit-area training facilities, and with the Philadelphia Phillies for the Philadelphia/Mid-Atlantic sites. “The plan is to tie each facility to a team under the MLB banner,” Mr. Decembrino said.

The Quad Cities market is complicated, though, with nearly as many fan bases as communities making up the area – most prominently the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and White Sox, as well as to a lesser extent the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins.

“Where we have multiple major league teams like this, the idea is to basically make it an MLB facility,” Mr. Decembrino said. “We’re working on that idea now with the MLB. We’ll have their markings and support.”

Through the MLB partnership, EL1’s current mission nationally includes “expanding access to high-quality instruction for players of all skill levels and socioeconomic backgrounds,” last year’s announcement noted, via private lessons, camps, clinics and other programs.

Besides rentable workout space to organizations, EL1 also offers “a full suite of administrative solutions,” Mr. Decembrino said, with the tasks ranging from roster management to accounting and marketing.

The company also supports former athletes with post-playing careers in instruction, facility management and business development by helping alleviate “some of the administrative and financial challenges by providing access to state-of-the-art technology and business management assistance,” Mr. Decembrino said.

TBK ‘industry leader right now’

Why the Quad Cities? Mr. Verdun flips the script and instead asks, “Why not?”

“The misnomer is people who think, ‘Quad Cities? What could be going on out there?’” Mr. Verdun said. “I actually think TBK is an industry leader right now. They’ve really positioned themselves with the model that they’ve created. It’s only a matter of time before it’s duplicated and replicated across the country.”

Mr. Decembrino said he felt a certain energy upon visiting for the first time last year.

“There seems to be a lot of momentum – and a lot of shared, common vision and philosophy,” Mr. Decembrino said. “It truly feels all about families and kids, and they work really hard to get the best opportunities for them — so it matches quality, economically and opportunity-wise.

“Personally, it just felt like the right place for us to stick a flag and grow and try to help that community grow even more. I’ve also never met anybody like Doug (Kratz). He’s so committed to that community. He’s great. He was really motivated to get this done.”

Now, Mr. Decembrino said, when construction is completed, the mission is to “empower Cory (Harris) to continue to build his brand.”

“As we grow, we hope to have events outside on the fields and pretty much just bring everything we can to the area to help activate as many baseball/softball players as possible and give them access,” he added.

Before opening, Mr. Decembrino said EL1 Quad Cities must first meet MLB approval.

“So we have high standards – and so does Doug,” he said, noting manufacturing and installing indoor turf is the biggest challenge right now.

“You see how beautiful TBK Bank Sports Complex is — they’re probably in the 1% of facilities I have ever seen in my life, and I’ve been in this business for 20 years. So, we need to make sure everything is done right.”