This new school pays teen basketball players $100K to skip the NCAA and train for the NBA

·12 min read

ATLANTA – It's 9:05 a.m. at America's most unusual new high school, and the principal is asking lanky students in workout clothes to interpret a quote by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

The teens are sleepy and quiet at first, normal for juniors and seniors. But these are not normal students. They are an inaugural class of exceptionally gifted basketball players earning at least $100,000 to live, study, train and compete at a new school designed to disrupt — and monetize — the path to a professional contract.

Overtime Elite, a private school, basketball league and media conglomerate, opened this fall in a glitzy new arena in Atlanta. The complex houses a main court where players compete against each other and other prep-school teams, practice courts, a weight room, physical therapy center, made-to-order kitchen, lounge and locker rooms. A corporate suite filled with social media producers and editors stand ready to turn everything the players are doing into entertainment content for Overtime, the sports media startup whose founders dreamed up this idea.

Deeper within the arena is academic space, where teachers and administrators are trying to redesign players' final years of high school and first years of post-secondary life to be more personalized, rigorous and relevant. And in a condensed time frame. Most days, school only lasts a few hours.

On this Thursday in late January, the day starts with Marcus Harden, Overtime Elite's senior administrator, introducing the Rustin quote: "We are all one, and if we don't know it, we will learn it the hard way."

"What does that quote mean to you?" Harden presses.

"That we are all ... equal?" one player offers.

Harden brightens. Rustin was an unsung hero of the civil rights movement, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., he adds. He leads this regular morning huddle to signal that while huge amounts of the players' days are spent training their bodies, their minds are just as important. When you're on the cusp of a rich and dazzling but precarious career, he tells them, academic knowledge and world-savvy is the true key to success.

"Head to first period, gentlemen," Harden says. "Let's go be great."

How a sports media startup shifted to education

Overtime is a 6-year-old digital sports network producing viral videos and sports content for millennial and Gen Z fans. It boasts more than 55 million monthly views across seven social platforms, but how it came to launch a school and basketball league is one of the more intriguing education stories of the moment.

The company is the brainchild of two men with academic bona fides, but nontraditional career paths. CEO Dan Porter started as a high school teacher and then led Teach For America, the national nonprofit that places high-performing college grads in urban school teaching gigs. He later shifted to technology and sold two companies before moving to digital talent.

President Zack Weiner is a national chess star with degrees in math and economics from the University of Pennsylvania. He founded and sold a sports media company while he was a student.

Porter, 55, and Weiner, 29, met as coworkers at talent agency WME and co-founded Overtime in 2016.

At the Overtime Elite complex in Atlanta, a hallway displays backlit photos of the inaugural class of players.
At the Overtime Elite complex in Atlanta, a hallway displays backlit photos of the inaugural class of players.

Headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, Overtime and its videos of amateur athletes target younger fans on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok. As the fan base quickly swelled, advertising and marketing revenue surged.

Investors followed. In spring 2021, Overtime raised $80 million from funders including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Canadian rapper Drake, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and more than two dozen NBA players.

Much of that new money is funding Overtime Elite, or OTE, and its preparation of young players for pro basketball careers in the U.S. or abroad. Investors predict Overtime's ability to recruit and train its own pipeline of athletes – which the company can extensively video, hype and market – will yield even bigger dividends through brand partnerships, merchandise sales and sponsorships.

The OTE complex already oozes branding and sponsorship deals. Coolers between the practice courts and weight room are filled with Gatorade drinks. State Farm signs line the arena. A new deal inked with Meta Quest, part of Facebook's virtual reality division, will soon broadcast the athletes in VR.

OTE leaders have also promised rigorous academics, which in some cases is harder to accomplish than a world-class physical training regime. Even for serial innovators with generous resources and few students, starting a school that engages and propels each learner is hard.

Overtime Elite partners with Xceed Prep, an accredited online school, which grants the players their high school diplomas. Teachers first thought they'd guide players through Xceed's online classes. But many needed more assistance. Just like in a regular school, some arrived as 4.0 students, while others had gaps in their knowledge or needed specific additional help. Players recruited from other countries often need English language supports.

Classes today are a mix of small-group and one-on-one instruction, in addition to supervised time where players work independently in the academic suite. With a total enrollment of 27 players, there's about four students to each teacher and ample time to develop personal relationships.

"We talk about having more to 'you' than just basketball," said Harden, a former counselor and teacher with a passion for developing young men emotionally and academically. Before coming to OTE, he helped launch a charter school for boys of color and adopted six of his students.

Harden plumbs each athlete's outside interests. He knows who's into poetry and who likes to fish and who wants to be a teacher.

Radically small class sizes also mean players can't hide from their schoolwork.

De'Vontes Cobbs, a 6'4" shooting guard from Milwaukee, bounced to several high schools around the country because of family moves. He signed on to finish his senior year with OTE and now takes U.S. government, sports nutrition, English and geometry.

"I’m actually getting the knowledge of what I need to do," Cobbs said. "When you're in a regular class of 21 or 22 kids, the teacher can't get to everybody. I can go to any teacher here and get help, even if they're not teaching that course."

$100,000+ a year – and preparation for millions more

OTE aims to disrupt the path to pro ball that's been long dominated by the NCAA. Until recently, college sports allowed myriad entities to make money off athletes, ranging from universities to brands to broadcast networks. But athletes couldn't make money off themselves. That all changed last year, when Supreme Court justices signaled they interpreted the practice as a blatant violation of antitrust law. Shortly afterward, the NCAA started allowing college athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.

'Queens' of endorsements: Twin college basketball stars poised to make $1 million

Signing a paid contract with Overtime Elite means players give up their NCAA basketball eligibility, though they can still attend college. If they don't secure a pro contract, OTE offers them an additional $100,000 to attend the university of their choice. They'll just never go to March Madness as players.

But at OTE, players can develop their physical skills, academic skills and a mindset for the business of basketball and self-promotion.

Overtime Elite recruits athletes to start in their junior or senior years, or immediately after high school. Because players must be one year out of high school and at least 19 to be eligible for the NBA draft, OTE enrolls both high school and "post-grad" players up to 20 years old. Post-grads are guided into part-time internships or college classes that work around their training schedule.

Win-win:Overtime Elite inks twin high school juniors from Florida

In charge:Former UConn men's basketball coach Kevin Ollie to coach Overtime Elite

All players must take twice-weekly life skills courses, which focus on everything from financial literacy to contract negotiations to personal brand management and media training. Players must understand how to monetize themselves, whether they make it pro or pivot to another career, leaders say. That means knowing how to manage money, build a team and make strategic decisions.

"Exploiting athletes at the high school and college level was not the narrative we chose," Porter, the CEO, said. "We didn’t want to be like another version of college, essentially giving players some education in exchange for making money off them. If they were a 16-year-old YouTuber or rapper or influencer, they’d be getting paid."

Overtime Elite also offers all salaried employees, including players, shares in the company.

Eventually, the payoff for OTE investors and shareholders could come in the form of a media rights deal — selling the league to a major network. Until then, Overtime makes money off of marketing, branding and merchandise related to its players.

Players make money off certain deals as well. OTE's deal with Topps trading cards, for example, offers a cut to both the company and the athletes, who earn a percentage of their card sales. The league does not get a cut of the athlete's potential pro contracts, a spokeswoman said.

Player Davion Mace signs 2,000 of his Topps basketball trading cards during downtime at the OTE complex in January. OTE players get a cut of the money generated from the sale of their own trading cards.
Player Davion Mace signs 2,000 of his Topps basketball trading cards during downtime at the OTE complex in January. OTE players get a cut of the money generated from the sale of their own trading cards.

Aaron Ryan, OTE commissioner and president, said rookies in the NBA usually get a few days of training on the complexities of their new salaries, or the specifics of marketing deals. At OTE, players can get up to a year or more of that kind of guidance.

Cobbs, the player from Milwaukee, said he's learned how quickly you can gain and lose money.

"I've learned how money can divide family and friendships," he added. "I’ve learned a lot of new words, like what an investment and an investor is."

Dominick Barlow, a 6'9" power forward from Dumont, New Jersey, who signed as a post-grad at OTE, said he's learned the importance of different kinds of investments.

"I'm learning there's more than just stocks," he said. "There's cryptocurrency and Bitcoin."

School in two hours a day?

OTE's academic space includes several rooms of high and low tables, whiteboards, projector screens, moveable furniture and a small computer lab. In between are office spaces for small-group sessions, plus several narrow booths for soundproof studying (or for blasting music while studying solo).

Teachers, called "learning facilitators," specialize in core subjects like math, science, language arts and history.

Maisha Riddlesprigger, head of academics, said they encourage students to advocate for their learning. They urge them to verbalize what they already know and ask specifically for additional help.

Riddlesprigger, a longtime sports fan, left her role as an elementary administrator at the District of Columbia Public Schools for the chance to redefine education at OTE. She hopes to glean lessons that could apply to regular schools as well.

"We would be lying if we say traditional, mainstream education is meeting the needs of all students, particularly students of color," she said.

Nick Mazur, who teaches social studies, recently led three players through a lesson on civic engagement. But he had to pivot from the basics of citizenship when he pulled up the requirements to vote in Georgia and the students realized they needed drivers' licenses or state IDs to register online. None of them had one. Also, none knew their Social Security numbers, an option for registering via paper.

How could they vote without a license? Or, how could they go about getting a license?

One player asked how he could get a new Social Security card if he lost the one he carried.

"First of all, don't ever carry your Social Security card with you," Mazur said.

Game day: $7 tickets to see NBA prospects

After a couple hours of class that day, the players split into their three assigned teams. One team started its normal workout routine. The other two teams scheduled to play each other that night practiced lightly before heading back home for a four-hour rest.

The athletes live half a mile from the arena, in four-bedroom luxury apartments paid for by OTE. A bus shuttles them back and forth.

By evening, the arena, complete with NBA-regulation floor markings, swelled with extra security and sound checks. OTE's social media producers and videographers trailed the players with cameras and phones and microphones.

A little after 7 p.m., the players ran one-by-one into the arena amid booming music and fog and light machines. Academic staff stayed into the evening to cheer on their students. YouTube influencers called the game and young social media personalities tossed T-shirts, handed out Chick-fil-A box dinners or ran silly stunts with fans on center court.

Because the players live and practice together but often face off in games, OTE incentivizes competitiveness with performance bonuses. The team with the highest standings at the end of the season wins an additional $10,000 – for each player.

That keeps the play level high for a $7 game ticket. But the young players still occasionally lost themselves amid testosterone, adrenaline or a lack of body awareness. Many are still teens, after all. They moved to Atlanta Sept. 13; their first game was Oct. 29.

On that night in January, eight NBA scouts watched from the stands.

OTE expects to expand the league, said Ryan, the commissioner. The growth of basketball in Europe, Asia and Africa offers rich opportunities for recruitment and fan-base expansion, he said.

The league could potentially accommodate up to 50 or more players, he said.

The first inkling of the school and league's success will come this summer, when six OTE players become eligible for the NBA draft.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect age for Overtime co-founder Zack Weiner. He is 29.

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Can NBA draft prospects at Overtime Elite disrupt college basketball?