Sports

Teenage hoop stars can get paid earlier than ever. What does it mean for the NCAA?


A few years ago, Mahlon Williams realized his preteen son, Mikey, was famous, and he couldn’t understand how it had happened.

“I’m not really into Instagram,” Mahlon says. “I wasn’t aware when he touched a million. I wasn’t aware when he touched two million. Then he got to almost three million, and I was like, wow.”

Mikey Williams is now 17, and he has been ranked among the best basketball players in his age group since he was in seventh grade. His Instagram is filled with basketball highlights and soulful shots of him in fashionable clothes and sneakers and sitting in muscle cars.

He and his father have spoken about the tough times their family had as well as Mikey’s desire to do for his family what LeBron James did for his. They have been on the national AAU circuit for years, and last year, when it looked like all California winter sports might be canceled, Mikey transferred from his San Diego high school to North Carolina. His father and younger brother went with him. His sister, a softball player, stayed in California with their mother.

With two years of high school left, Mikey has 3.1 million Instagram followers and options previous generations never had. He could accept one of numerous college scholarship offers — his father says he is leaning toward a historically Black school — or he could start earning money as a professional, right now.

In the Overtime Elite League (OTE), scheduled to begin play this fall, Mikey Williams could be paid as a high school player. If he finishes high school, he has the chance to get paid in the Professional Collegiate League, which offers college-age players $50,000 to $150,000, or the NBA’s G League, which started a team for prospects last year. He could go overseas to be a professional. If the NBA drops its one-and-done rule, as it is expected to in its next collective bargaining agreement, he might have the option of going straight to the league. And if he does choose college, he will soon be able to cash in on his name, image and likeness and, as of last week’s Supreme Court decision, compensation related to his education.

“It’s definitely different,” Mahlon Williams says.

There has been a seismic shift in basketball over the past year, although the alternative paths to the pros are still a long way from dismantling the NCAA. Between OTE, the PCL and the G League’s Ignite, the three leagues will roster about 140 players, as compared to the 5,549 who played in Division I men’s basketball in 2019-20. Consider, though, that there are only 60 players chosen in the first two rounds of the NBA draft every year; leagues that pay six-figure salaries could significantly cut into the number of elite players who choose the college route.

The catalyst is social media, which has turned highlights into a commodity and given young players a power that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. Mikey Williams has value to leagues like OTE and PCL in large part because of those 3.1 million followers. That leaves the basketball world with two questions: Can players draw an audience when they aren’t wearing college jerseys? And will fans still watch college jerseys without some of the best players in them?

For colleges to thrive, North Carolina A&T men’s basketball coach Will Jones says, they need to recognize that they’re now just one of many suitors for the player.

“Now, it’s not that the kid needs a college,” he says. “It’s really a partnership, and that partnership needs to be balanced a little bit more than it is now.”

Well before the Supreme Court turned the NCAA’s idea of amateurism on its ear, entrepreneurs were realizing there was growing public support for paying players; and in the past couple years, they began betting that there was a market for alternatives.

The Professional Collegiate League, announced in April 2020 but delayed by the pandemic, says it will educate and pay college-age players from $50,000 to $150,000. The league will play in one city this fall, with plans to establish eight teams around the country next year, eventually growing to 24. It recently announced a rights deal with Next Level — a cable and digital sports network — to broadcast games.

“The idea that amateurism was something inherently worth preserving never really made sense,” says Andy Schwarz, PCL’s co-founder and chief innovation officer. “Amateurism is a myth that never existed.” The perfect example, he says, is the Olympics. Proponents of amateurism predicted that fans wouldn’t watch Olympic sports if athletes were paid, but the continued growth of the Games “disproved that lie.”

When Overtime Elite’s launch was announced in March, the news generated mostly positive press and a general attitude of, “Well, sure.”

“If someone had talked about the idea even as recently as five, 10 years ago, it would have been met with resistance and basically that, ‘This is not the way things are done,'” says Zack Weiner, co-founder of Overtime, the social media company that created the new league.

A key element of the plan is the promise to build a school and set aside $100,000 in college tuition for each player, in addition to his salary, in the event he doesn’t fulfill his NBA dreams. The league will have up to 30 young men over the age of 16, all seen as likely to become NBA players.

Last month, OTE announced it will base the league and its school in Atlanta, and it recently began construction on a 100,000-square-foot facility in the city’s Atlantic Station neighborhood. League officials say they are going to pay players at least $100,000 a season; provide a high school education as well as classes to prepare them for life as a professional; and let them profit off their name, image and likeness. If it works, the company says it will do the same with young women.

Games and highlights will be broadcast on Overtime’s many platforms. The company has 5.1 million Instagram followers, 2.2 million YouTube subscribers and 850,000 Twitter followers, and it says it has 50 million followers across all platforms, 90% of whom are under 35 years old. Revenue will come from advertising, sponsorship deals and merchandising, all driven by online content.

Overtime announced in April it had raised $80 million in its latest round of fundraising from investors, including Jeff Bezos, Drake and 25 current and former NBA players. NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave his endorsement, saying, “It’s generally good for the community to have optionality.”

Avery Johnson, the former NBA and college player and coach who is now a paid advisor to OTE, says the league is not in direct competition with the NCAA but rather designed for players who “probably weren’t going to enter college for whatever reason.”

A perfect candidate will be someone like Jonathan Kuminga, a five-star recruit who signed with the G League’s Ignite last July. Kuminga, a 6-foot-7 small forward who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he was 14, went to three U.S. high schools, each in a different state. His older brother played basketball at UNLV and Texas Tech, but Kuminga says he had no interest in the college game.

“I just wanted to be a professional at a young age. And so when they would present me about the G-League Ignite, I was like, man, I’m only 17 and I’ll be the youngest player to be in the team Ignite,” he says. “I just forgot about college after that.”

For now, the vast majority of players still opt for college. Ignite pays as much as $500,000, but “you didn’t see top players opt for the Ignite program, even though it’s NBA-owned,” agent Todd Ramasar says.

“[No. 1 ESPN recruit] Chet Holmgren didn’t go to Ignite,” Ramasar says. “He’s going to Gonzaga. One of the top players decided to go to Spokane [Washington]. That’s amazing.”

In fact, only two of this year’s ESPN 100 top recruits chose Ignite. The remaining 98 have either committed or signed letters of intent with colleges.

OTE’s success in recruiting “is all going to be contingent on the success of its first year,” Ramasar says. “Then it becomes a herd mentality. If there’s success and it works, then obviously more players are going to make that choice. To attract fans, you always need authentic competition. If not, then all you have is a reality show, and not a very good one.”

So far, OTE has signed seven players, starting with two sets of five-star American twins, Matt and Ryan Bewley, and Amen and Ausar Thompson. The league also signed Dominican guard Jean Montero, who has been playing professionally in Spain, and Emmanuel Maldonado, a five-star recruit currently in high school in Florida. Asked what concerns the league has about signing enough players for the fall, a spokesman said, “None.”

Still, Lou Richie, the boys’ basketball coach at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California, says he expects many parents to be skeptical of OTE, as they would with any unknown venture.

“It’s a matter of taking that chance. Who wants to go to Duke after Coach K leaves? There’s going to be some conjecture, some doubt,” says Richie, who played at UCLA and Clemson. “And I hope that they do it right; I’m not saying they won’t. When you’re talking 15-, 16-year-olds, and you’re talking a lot of money, you always worry that there’s someone behind it trying to make out like a bandit. The not knowing has my fear and my antennae up about them.”

Mahlon Williams says his son currently plans to attend college but that they consider themselves to be in the “wait and see” camp about OTE.

“This time next year, we might be talking differently,” he says. “It might have the type of credibility and coaching and development where you have to think about it.”

The NCAA remains steadfastly opposed to paying college players a salary, as NCAA president Mark Emmert repeated in a Senate hearing this month, but the proliferation of alternative leagues will add to the pressure on the NCAA to compensate players, numerous coaches and administrators said. (The NCAA did not respond to several requests for comment.)

Jones, the North Carolina A&T coach, wants colleges to do more for athletes financially, short of paying a salary, and then emphasize the best thing college has to offer: an education. OTE and PCL might be good options, he says, but only if they emphasize education the way they have promised.

“This is coming from an African-American coach who coaches basketball: I don’t want our athletes to be confused and chase fast money. I want them to get money if they can get money, but some of these kids need to get that diploma,” Jones says. “The four years in college, many individuals say they were the best time I’ve ever had in my life. And a lot of kids giving up that just for basketball? We’ve got to make sure that we’re not making decisions based on one aspect of life that’s going to run out. And we know it’s going to run out.”

University of Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin says he’s all for options and that players should have the ability to make money off their NIL rights or choose an alternative league that pays them. But even if the top players opt for OTE and PCL or the NBA ends one-and-done, he doesn’t see the college game suddenly declining.

“College basketball is always going to be successful because it’s entertainment,” Martin says. “When the one-and-done goes and plays college basketball, the fans embrace them and cheer them on because they are part of their team. The fans become attached to that person, and when they leave after a year, it’s hard on them because they’re looking at that person leaving through the lens of someone whose team just lost a talented player. Whereas, if that one-and-done never steps foot on campus, the fans don’t have that same attachment because the one-and-done was never part of their program.”

College does still have an appeal that none of these leagues can replicate, says former U.S. congressman and NBA veteran Tom McMillen, who is now president and CEO of Lead1, an association of college athletic directors. “The ‘stickiness’ of college sports is so strong, and it’s built up of 50 and sometimes 100 years of alumni support that no new league, no G League, no one can replicate that.”

McMillen sees a silver lining in the prospect of elite players opting out of college. Rather than watch the likes of Michael Porter Jr. and Zion Williamson spend one season in college, the NCAA might be able to get back to a more traditional vision, of players who go to school for the scholarship and stay for several years rather than use it as a springboard to the NBA. The new leagues can actually relieve the pressure on the NCAA to become more professionalized, McMillen says.

“We did a survey: 96% of our ADs want to decentralize college sports, to curtail salaries and expand, not cut sports,” he says. “They’re fine with kids having the ability to monetize their publicity rights and have some flexibility. But they don’t want to turn into a model of the NBA.

“What ADs want is ways to curtail the arms race.”

Ricky Volante, co-founder of the PCL, says he has heard the same sentiment: “A senior NCAA official said to me, ‘If you’re successful, it solves our problem.'”

LeVelle Moton, the men’s basketball coach at North Carolina Central University, says it’s possible the college game could become more stable but that just because a player chooses college over a pre-NBA professional route, it doesn’t mean he is going to stay at one school for his career. The only thing he’s sure of, he says, is that players recognize that they now have significant power within the system.

“All college basketball can say is well, damn, we had a good run,” Moton says. “All good things come to an end. … We’ve got to find another hustle.”



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