A year ago, college basketball programs experienced for the first time what it was like to not just be in competition with each other for recruits but also a well-funded effort by the NBA’s G League to pursue the nation’s best players without being constrained by NCAA rules.
But now, college basketball isn’t facing just one legitimate threat to siphon off its talent pool, but two other startup leagues that plan on offering six-figure salaries to players in addition to full marketing rights for their name, image and likeness.
The attitude of the college basketball establishment for a long time has been to ignore potential competitors, most of which never materialized beyond the idea stage, ran out of money or failed to catch on as a compelling product. Why would college basketball care anyway? It has the television exposure, the established brands and, of course, the NCAA tournament.
But with Overtime Elite and the Professional Collegiate League, both of which plan on fielding teams and playing games this fall, there’s finally real disruptor potential in the talent pipeline that has directed the vast majority of top players from high school to college to the pros. Both leagues have the funding to make competitive offers, media deals to distribute the games and legitimacy of well-respected basketball names who have gotten involved.
What these leagues don’t have yet are players and proof of concept. That'll soon change.
“Some people seem to understand this is a very real threat for the top talent in the game and it’s going to be significant competition,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who has argued for years that college athletes should be paid. "There are others that are looking at it like, 'Oh we didn’t have Kobe or LeBron and did just fine,’ which I don’t think is the smartest way to go about it. I think even with these competitors for talent, college football and college basketball are going to be just fine, but I don’t think that's the goal is ‘just fine.’ You want it to be healthy and as good as it can be.”
When freshman Jalen Suggs hit one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters in NCAA tournament history to beat UCLA send Gonzaga into this year’s championship game, nobody lamented that four of his fellow top recruits opted to play last season in the G League’s new program where players can make up to $500,000 while training with NBA-level coaches and playing against hardened vets.
At the same time, the NCAA’s inflexibility on pay-for-play and its sluggishness to allow players to cash in on outside endorsement opportunities has opened the door for other opportunities to be created. And with players such as LaMelo Ball going high in the draft and playing well immediately in the NBA despite bypassing college, the expectation is that more prospects will be intrigued by an alternate route to the league.
“The NCAA has the benefit of tradition, history and a track record,” said Ricky Volante, the PCL’s chief executive and co-founder. “That said, it’s not 100% squeaky clean and there’s a lot of misalignment between the athletes’ expectations and goals and the institution’s expectations and goals.
“Optionality for athletes is an important thing. For too long, we’ve only had the collegiate option or go overseas.”
'An NBA-type operation'
Though only a handful of players are getting big-money offers from the G League, it has already had an effect on recruiting. A year ago, Jalen Green went deep into the process with Auburn and Memphis before choosing the G League's Ignite while Daishon Nix had already signed with UCLA before changing his mind.
This spring, top-35 recruit Fanbo Zeng backed out of a commitment to Gonzaga to take a G League offer, while Jaden Hardy and Michael Foster — both five-star recruits — have also decided to forego college for the Ignite.
It would only make sense that more paid playing opportunities will result in more players weighing different options.
The PCL will launch with a small group of teams in the Washington, D.C. area this fall but plans on having teams in eight cities in the Eastern time zone by next year, which would mean an ambitious recruitment effort of at least 80 to 90 players being offered a minimum of $50,000 with some salaries as high as $150,000 along with education expenses.
Meanwhile, Overtime Elite is targeting up to 30 high school juniors and seniors for its program with a “minimum six-figure salary,” head of basketball operations Brandon Williams said, as well as performance incentives and equity stakes in the company.
“We’ve had our scouts engaged with families and coaches and word is spreading through the athletes,” Williams said. “The feedback is positive. The first comment (we hear) is, 'We don’t want to wait.’ ” Our program brings what’s being offered above the table that they have the opportunity to be compensated for their talent, their upside and there are some very simple things that help players grow as individuals as well as basketball players.”
Part of that includes something as simple as getting three meals a day and having individualized coaching, things that are beyond the grasp of many players whose families are struggling financially.
Overtime, a media company which announced $80 million in its most recent round of venture funding including from NBA stars Devin Booker, Klay Thompson and Trae Young, announced Wednesday that it is building a 103,000-square foot facility in Midtown Atlanta to host its training and operations center for the league including a staff of player development experts, video coordinators, an analytics department, sports performance, athletic training and life skills.
It will somewhat mirror a European soccer academy model, where young players live and train in a development-centric sports environment while playing under contract and finishing their high school education.
“We’re talking about an NBA-type operation for the high school athlete,” Williams said.
And unlike some previous attempts building a league around high school players — LaVar Ball’s Junior Basketball Association lasted just one season and was generally a disaster — both Overtime and the PCL appear to be well-organized and have gotten well-respected basketball people involved.
Overtime has hired former UConn coach Kevin Ollie to be the head of player development, while 15-year NBA veteran and two-time champion David West was tabbed by the PCL as chief operating officer in charge of building the basketball infrastructure.
“They have professional, knowledgable people,” said Sonny Vaccaro, a former marketing executive at Nike, Adidas and Reebok who revolutionized basketball decades ago by introducing shoe and apparel deals at the college and youth travel levels. “It’s a well-formed, well-organized, well-funded endeavor. They’re qualified. The names give you credibility. They’re prepared to do this. They have the dollars in the bank and they won’t fail because of ineptness.”
Evolution of fandom
But will it fail because startup basketball leagues just aren’t a good business? That’s a legitimate question.
The PCL signed a broadcast deal last month with Next Level Sports, which has distribution on several cable systems, DirecTV and Roku as well its digital affiliate For The Fans. Overtime’s primary business is as a distributor of basketball content on its website, YouTube and social media channels that appeals largely to a younger audience.
It seems unlikely that either league will gain a huge audience of people sitting down to watch a two-hour basketball game between teams that have no traditional fan attachment. But these days, it’s not unusual for high school basketball stars to have hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers on Instagram, often buoyed by highlights that are promoted and distributed on — you guessed it — Overtime’s various channels.
In other words, Overtime is already making social media stars out of high school basketball players. If they sign those players, there’s even more value to that content because rather than going to get it in some random gym, they’ll own it exclusively and can build all kinds of features around it.
The idea isn't necessarily to get people to watch a basketball game but to use it as a vehicle for content that will be widely viewed, merchandized, turned into NFTs that all feed into the business model.
“We’ve watched over the last 10 years a real evolution of what fandom looks like for the next generation,” said Aaron Ryan, Overtime Elite’s commissioner and president. “The marketplace has been screaming for innovation, and the way in which young people interact with Overtime isn’t the way you and I grew up consuming basketball.
In a sense, the biggest question is whether these startup leagues actually missed their best window to gain a foothold. With the NCAA moving ever closer to allowing players to cash in on their likeness and other marketing opportunities, the bet in college sports is that star players will find it more enticing and less risky to build their brand off the back of a Duke, Kentucky or Gonzaga before going to the NBA.
“I think their mind is in the right place, but it may be a day too late,” Vaccaro said. “Do you know what that shot was worth to (Suggs)? He made some money that night. A lot of people didn’t know about Jalen Suggs. The NBA knew about him, he was already going in the top 10, but that shot will live forever. That’s what happens. Zion (Williamson) breaking his shoe that day made him $100 million. The college thing gives you that platform.”
Still, Bilas warns that college programs shouldn’t take for granted that they’ll continue getting the best high school players or the potential impact of recruiting against leagues offering real money. Especially when non-traditional paths to the NBA have been proven viable.
“It used to be an empty threat and it’s not now,” Bilas said. “I think the college space has to get a lot more creative to attract talent rather than it’s always been sort of the first stop and it was sort of the logical next step for any player, but that’s not going to be the case for the top talent. Now you have an opportunity to think about what’s the best thing.
“People in the college space tend to look down on the one-and-done player. They don’t look down on the one-and-done student who leaves for good opportunities. Nobody was looking down on Jordan Spieth for going one-and-done at Texas, but for basketball players it’s a threat to higher education. That’s a backward way of looking at it when we’re in the entertainment industry in a big way.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball: Two new leagues coming for top high school players