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A New League’s Shot at the N.C.A.A.: $100,000 Salaries for High School Players

The Overtime Elite league proposes that providing a salary and a focus toward a pro career might be more appealing than college basketball’s biggest programs.

A new basketball league backed by a sports media company is entering the intensifying debate over whether student athletes should be paid, by starting a new venture offering high school basketball players $100,000 salaries to skip college.

The league, Overtime Elite, formed under the auspices of the sports media company Overtime, would compete directly with the N.C.A.A. for the nation’s top high school boys by employing about 30 of them, who would circumvent the behemoth of college sports.

Overtime will offer each athlete, some as young as 16, a minimum of $100,000 annually, as well as a signing bonus and a small number of shares in Overtime’s larger business. The company will also provide health and disability insurance, and set aside $100,000 in college scholarship money for each player — in case any decide not to pursue basketball professionally.

The trade-off is major: The players who accept the deal will forfeit their ability to play high school or college basketball.

“People have been saying things need to change, and we are the ones changing it,” said Dan Porter, the chief executive of Overtime.

Overtime is diving into an argument that has roiled American sports for generations — whether it’s appropriate for pro sports leagues to lure young athletes out of high school and college with big checks, or for colleges to exploit the talents of athletes for big money without compensating them beyond attendance costs.

Since the 2006 draft, players have not been able to go directly to the N.B.A. after high school — they do not become eligible to be drafted until the year they turn 19 or at least one N.B.A. season after their high school graduation year.

For decades, the N.C.A.A.’s rules on amateurism, now under challenge in courts and in state legislatures, have held back a swell of money from flooding toward young elite athletes. The system has always had fissures, and they have grown in recent years as federal and state lawmakers and the N.C.A.A. have considered some changes to let athletes earn some more money.

You may not have ever heard of Overtime — especially if you are, say, over 30 — but if you are a sports fan you have almost certainly seen its videos.

If a crazy highlight or moment from a high school game floated across one of your social media feeds, it was probably filmed by Overtime. If you saw any dunks from Zion Williamson before he played for Duke, they were probably filmed by Overtime. The company says its videos are viewed almost two billion times each month.

Overtime, which was founded in 2016 and got an early investment from David Stern, the former N.B.A. commissioner, has made connections with young prospects by building its presence in high school gyms across the country, where filming rights are essentially free and the competition not nearly the same as the ever-shifting battle among media behemoths to televise college and professional sports.

Overtime’s videographers are recognized by the players. Laurence Marsach, more commonly known as Overtime Larry and the host of many Overtime videos, is highly popular among fans of youth basketball. The Overtime “O” logo is a stamp of approval online, with teens and tweens even throwing it up in the background of their videos.

The new league, Overtime Elite, most resembles soccer academies in Europe and elsewhere. The players, and possibly their families, will move to one city — Overtime says it is selecting between two choices — to live and train together. Overtime will hire education staffers to teach the athletes and help them get high school diplomas. A basketball operations division will include coaches and trainers and will be led by Brandon Williams, the former N.B.A. player who was also previously a front office executive for the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings. The commissioner is Aaron Ryan, a former longtime N.B.A. league office executive.

No players have been signed yet — so as not to ruin their eligibility during the current high school basketball season. But Porter and Zack Weiner, Overtime’s president, are confident that many of the top players ages 16-18 will join.

“We think our system will be amazing for their basketball development,” Weiner said. “Will every single player make the N.B.A.? Maybe not every single one of them, but the large majority will become professionals.”

But there are almost as many risks as there are benefits for the young athletes. Most start-up professional sports leagues, no matter how innovative, fail. Overtime Elite will require tens of millions of dollars to operate on the scale its founders envision, but if it does not succeed, its athletes could be left with nowhere to play.

“We are genuine in really investing in hiring really serious and legitimate people to run every aspect of the company,” Porter said. “I don’t want to mess around with kids’ lives. I don’t want people to mess around with my kids’ lives. There is a moral obligation that goes with that.”

Weiner said the company is “extremely well capitalized” to launch the league. Overtime, Porter added, raised a “meaningful” amount of cash in a previously undisclosed funding round last fall, and planned to use it to pay players, hire employees and lease housing, office, gym and education spaces.

Some details on what the league will actually look like or how fans can watch are still unsettled. There will be no permanent teams, but instead dynamic rosters within the league, and Porter and Weiner envision some sort of barnstorming tour of Europe. Games will no doubt be viewable online, but Overtime promises the games themselves and content around them won’t look too similar to typical basketball telecasts.

Overtime Elite isn’t the only basketball league that spies opportunity in the shifting rules around amateurism and a desire by players to get paid immediately. David West, a former N.B.A. player, has started the Professional Collegiate League, and the N.B.A.’s development league has recently begun courting top 18-year-olds who want to skip college altogether on their way to the N.B.A.

But Overtime Elite is the first serious league aimed at paying high school players, LaVar Ball’s failed Junior Basketball Association notwithstanding.

Porter and Weiner talk down the idea that they are challenging high school state athletic associations, the N.C.A.A., high school coaches and the many other entities invested in the current system.

“We are not against the N.C.A.A.” Carmelo Anthony, an Overtime investor and member of its board of directors, said in an interview. “We are not against the N.B.A. We are not trying to hurt those guys or come at them. We want the support of the N.B.A. and N.C.A.A. Eventually we are going to need those guys anyway.”

Carmelo Anthony during his championship run at Syracuse.
Kevin Rivoli/Associated Press

Anthony has an interesting perspective on Overtime Elite in part because, for all of the trade-offs of college sports, he is one its most visible success stories. He played college basketball for one season with Syracuse, won the N.C.A.A. tournament for the university’s first championship, improved his draft stock and got a huge boost in name recognition.

“Going to college and playing college basketball is what it is,” he said. “It never will change. The concept of Overtime Elite is not to disrupt that, but to give these kids opportunities because they are taking control of their own brands and what they do, and social media becoming so powerful. Why not embrace that?”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Overtime, besides convincing enough elite players to join its league and enough consumers to watch high school basketball, is the floodgates opening to alternative ways for players to make money while also playing for high school and college teams.

Under rising pressure from Washington and the nation’s statehouses, some of which have already approved legislation to require defiance of existing N.C.A.A. rules, the association spent months crafting new policies only to postpone votes that were planned for January.

The turmoil within the N.C.A.A. is unfolding as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments this month about whether the association may limit education-related benefits for top football and basketball players. And on Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been circulating a range of proposals that could set a national standard for name, image and likeness rules, including some particularly aggressive ideas to give athletes a bigger slice of the industry’s profits (Congress is not expected to act imminently and no proposal has advanced beyond a committee).

Thee political forces were already complicating the long-term strategy of the N.C.A.A., which makes most of its money from its signature men’s basketball tournament. Overtime Elite, if it can succeed, would make the N.C.A.A.’s chase for players even more difficult.

Alan Blinder contributed reporting.

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