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How this startup is redesigning pro basketball for the creator economy

Part hoops factory, part TV production house, the Overtime Elite League is like nothing sports has ever seen.

How this startup is redesigning pro basketball for the creator economy
[Photo: Chris Moore, Quinten de Graaf, Oleksii S, Annie Spratt/Unsplash; AlLes/Pixabay]
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In American basketball, the path to becoming a professional has primarily been a singular one: Play high school hoops, then NCAA college for at least one year. Until a player signs that first pro contract, he or she is largely prohibited from earning any money from the sport, at the risk of NCAA ineligibility. Over the years, universities have made billions of dollars from TV broadcast rights, advertising and apparel deals, video game licensing, and more. In March, the Supreme Court heard arguments from athletes in a case against the NCAA, saying that the NCAA’s restrictions on education-related benefits—things such as computers, science equipment, and musical instruments—violate federal antitrust law.

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This inequity has only become more acute with the emergence and growth of social media platforms, which have enabled young athletes to attract and build an audience and personal brand and skyrocket their potential value, in marketing themselves to fans and brands.

This debate comes at a fortuitous time for the sports media company Overtime, which specializes in social and amateur sports highlights and content. Last month, it announced that it was launching the Overtime Elite League (OTE) in September, to give elite high-school basketball players another option outside the NCAA. OTE will have 24 to 30 players, ages 16 to 18, who will be paid at least $100,000 and share in the revenue from name, image, and likeness rights, including the sales of custom jerseys, trading cards, and non-fungible tokens (NFT). The new league will operate out of one (yet-to-be-named) city, and its players will play not only against each other in league play, but also against competition from U.S. prep schools and international teams. Players will have full disability insurance and healthcare benefits, and OTE will provide up to $100,000 for players to use toward college tuition if one doesn’t go on to play in the NBA or other professional leagues. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has voiced support for the new venture.

Founded in 2016 by Dan Porter and Zack Weiner, both former execs at the talent agency William Morris Endeavor, Overtime quickly made a name for itself with original sports content across social platforms, in particular with its focus on high school and amateur sports. As a startup, Overtime couldn’t afford any pro sports media rights, but that design constraint quickly became its biggest strength, as its focus on younger talent helped it gain more than 40 million followers as well as fans in young NBA stars such as Zion Williamson. The company says its content is streamed 1.7 billion times per month, and it also earns branded apparel revenue. Overtime investors include the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and NBA stars Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

Porter, who is Overtime’s CEO, says that as the content company’s massive audience began to popularize young players, they gained their own followers, with some high school basketball players attracting bigger social followings than some NBA ones. Yet unlike their peers who are making money as Instagram influencers or YouTube creators, athletes are held back. “If they made a single dollar off their social media, the NCAA won’t let them play in college,” says Porter. “This generation is much more business savvy. They know about brands and building an audience. Yet they can’t do it because it takes away their eligibility. So we started thinking, we could give these players a totally different option to make money, train in a different way, and get an education that is customized for them.”

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The NBA introduced its Ignite program to its development G League in 2018, aimed at top prospects of high school and college age, but here OTE is skewing a bit younger and viewing the program as content production. An elite basketball program, combined with Amazon All or Nothing-type content access.

So how do you start thinking about how to design a brand-new basketball league and system from scratch? According to Porter and OTE president and commissioner Aaron Ryan, three pillars are the foundation for OTE: basketball development, academic acceleration and customization, and economic empowerment. Underlying all of that, of course, is the steady stream of sports entertainment content for Overtime.

The goal isn’t to replace college basketball, which the $1 billion in TV advertising and up to 20 million people who watched March Madness this year will tell you isn’t going away anytime soon, but simply to offer an alternative—with the cameras rolling.

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Prepping for the Pros

Ryan says the blueprint is essentially USA Basketball, the national program that trains and organizes the country’s best players at multiple age levels for international competition.

Another inspiration is international soccer academies, in which young players are housed and trained within pro-level facilities and support staff. “Some dimensions of the international soccer academy will be there, in terms of the cohesion, structure, itinerary—the campus will resemble that,” says Ryan. “But there will be dynamic rosters, which give you the ability to split the cohort in varying ways. We’re talking about rising juniors and seniors, so it’s a two-class campus. The ability to optimize rosters and create a competition schedule that’s not only dynamic in inter-league play but allows us to create different structured rosters to play domestic and international competition outside the program.”

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The idea is to build a schedule and training regimen to make sure athletes are given the best opportunities to develop, and to simulate what will be their pro experience. “That’s why international experience is important, for those who go on to play for their country, but also for European clubs,” says Ryan.

The company announced this week it has hired NBA veteran and former University of Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, who won a national title with UConn in 2014.

Professional preparation isn’t just about physically playing basketball. It’s also about educating players around load management, rest, sleep, and nutrition. “We’re optimizing for peak performance,” says Ryan, “while also creating the habits in these young men that will be required for longevity in the NBA or any other pro league they end up playing in.”

An Overall Education

Off the court, OTE is calling its approach to education an “academic accelerator,” with nationally accredited courses and a four-to-one student-teacher ratio. Ryan says there are certain subjects that are uniquely relevant to up-and-coming athletes that the program will cover.

“That means financial literacy, public speaking, social media etiquette, helping a young athlete build their voice in community activism, teaching them about the business of basketball. How does it work? How does it make money?” says Ryan. “It’s great to be a participant in that system, but it’s better to be knowledgable in all the things surrounding your life.”

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In 1986, the NBA established its NBA Rookie Transition Program, which is a four-day seminar that talks to league rookies about similar subjects. Ryan, though, says it’s never too early for young people to learn these skills, which will be valuable whether they become NBA players or not.

One Big Reality Show

Historically, unless it was your hometown or alma mater, interest in high school basketball has stemmed from college recruitment. Who will commit where? If you’re a Duke fan, you want to know who the country’s prospects are and the odds they’ll commit to the Blue Devils. You also want to know if they’re leaning toward becoming a North Carolina Tar Heel.

However, with more and more young athletes building an audience of their own, the interest in the drama and entertainment of elite high school hoops is at an all-time high. LeBron James’s SpringHill Company produced a new docuseries, Top Class, documenting the journey of the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers, a team of high schoolers including James’s son Bronny, as well as Dwyane Wade’s son, Zaire Wade.

Porter sees the same potential for OTE, as both a sports and entertainment product, that has the advantage of not starting from ground zero. “I don’t think any company has ever tried to spin off something new where they started out with 50 million fans of the product already,” says Porter. “That’s where Overtime is coming from. We hope some of the players we cover now will choose to join our league, so we’re already telling stories. We already have a fanbase and distribution.”

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Despite the goal of launching OTE in less than six months, Porter isn’t yet definitive on what fans can expect. “Are we going to stop for commercial breaks? Can we allow our viewers to have some level of input?” says Porter. “It’s not final what the sports media product will look like, but I will say that it will be a combination of basketball and entertainment. We’re going to have a ton of opportunity to be innovative.”

The basketball world will be watching, one swipe at a time.

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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