With an eye toward playing soccer at the college level, Elk Grove High School junior Megan Wilson got a chance last summer to improve her game in a way she never thought possible.
Wilson trained with elite players from around the world at a soccer academy in Madrid, one of eight international venues operated by EduKick Inc., a company founded 11 years ago by Joey Bilotta, 47, a former soccer standout at Sacramento's Kennedy High School who also played for professional teams in the capital and elsewhere.
"I got so many more skills that I wouldn't have learned just staying in Elk Grove," said Wilson, 15, who aims to play at Cal Poly. "It's more than I've ever trained before. I learned a lot from being on the field with so many high-level players."
Wilson's soccer skills weren't the only thing that improved. Her three-week EduKick program also featured Spanish immersion courses.
Think of your typical exchange program that offers travel and study abroad the type parents and high school students have been taking part in for decades. Now add intense soccer training in the world's strongest futbol nations such as England, Spain, Brazil and Italy and you have an idea of what EduKick is selling.
"I found a niche in the multibillion-dollar industry that is football," said Bilotta, 47, a 1982 Kennedy graduate who now lives in Toronto with his Canadian wife and two children. "And the niche is combining the world's most popular sport with education."
His privately held company brought in roughly $1.8 million in revenue last year. About 100 children and adults participate in its courses annually. EduKick recruits clients mainly through its website.
Sacramento State men's soccer head coach Michael Linenberger said he's seen the interest in such high-level soccer academies grow dramatically in the past 20 years.
"Twenty years ago the opportunity just wasn't there," Linenberger said. "I do see a lot more players doing this."
Bilotta said his company "invented the concept of yearlong academic soccer schools" in foreign locales. Some competitors now offer similar programs.
"There are people copying us now. To me, that's an honor," Bilotta said.
Another player in the market is Pleasant Hill-based International Futbol X-change, founded by Michael Carlson, a former player, in 2003. Carlson said he didn't model his company after EduKick. IFX, which has recruited players from Sacramento, places students individually with host families and on various youth clubs rather than together at academies.
Still, IFX is riding the same trend.
"We're going for the same kids who want to play high-level soccer internationally," Carlson said, adding that his firm serves hundreds each year.
Bilotta had finished his pro career and was coaching soccer and counseling at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara when he launched EduKick in 2001. The firm originally offered three-week soccer camps with language-immersion courses, and still does. Now, however, its main focus is on sending kids and adults ages 10 to 24 to yearlong academic soccer boarding schools and language-immersion programs in places like Madrid and Manchester, England.
Participants pay EduKick between $35,000 and $45,000 a year, a fee that includes room, board, food, transportation, insurance and supervision. The academic programs are accompanied by serious soccer training and competitive weekend matches.
EduKick has expanded to eight countries United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, France, Italy, Spain and England. In 2011, the company, headquartered in Toronto with an office in Chicago, had 27 yearlong academy players from 22 countries at its England facilities alone.
In England, EduKick has partnered with Manchester City, champion of the English Premier League. Players use the training grounds of the Manchester City youth academy.
Bilotta, in a recent interview at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento, where he stays when he comes to town each June to play in the Gold Cup with old friends and players, sees high schoolers like Elk Grove's Wilson as perfect clients for his business. The program, he said, "resonates extremely well with parents whose kids are about education first, kick the ball second."
Wilson got her opportunity to travel to Madrid through Sacramento-based Sport Camp Foundation, a nonprofit run by Roberto Plasencia that helps underprivileged youths take part in athletic camps in the United States and abroad. Wilson said she became much better at conversational Spanish, a subject she's taken for two years in high school.
Her mother noticed a change, too. "She seems more grown up from the experience. She grew through the whole language immersion and sight-seeing and cultural trips."
For Bilotta, EduKick is an outgrowth of his own experience. He began playing soccer in Tahoe Park at age 6 and was a four-year starter for Kennedy. He played one year for Cosumnes River College and helped the team go to the state finals in 1983 as a striker before going to Saint Mary's College on a scholarship.
After college, Bilotta headed to Spain for professional tryouts with Jerez de la Frontera, a team in the Spanish league's second division. He returned home a year later and played six years in the American Professional Soccer League, the predecessor to the MLS.