Keith Strudler: Going Pro
I’ve long ago realized that I’m no longer the demographic that most sports media producers think about. I’m too old, I’m not on TikTok, and I increasingly say thing like, “I really miss the days when they played defense.” So I’m not going to pretend that any new sports venture is created with me in mind. That said, I did take notice when the emerging sports media company Overtime announced they would soon launch a new professional basketball league for players aged 16-18, marketed as a different pathway to the NBA for elite adolescent athletes who’d rather bypass the traditional route through high school and at least one year of college, or one-and-done's as we say.
Most notably with this new venture, called Overtime Elite, is that the 30 players in the league would all earn at least $100,000, which obviously means they would be officially professional by NCAA guidelines and could not decide after two years that they’d then like to go play for Kentucky. The League would provide tutors to help athletes complete their high school degrees, and they’ll also put money towards future college tuition, should a player decide to pursue a college degree instead of pro ball. But generally speaking, this is really for players who are all in for the NBA, even though statistically speaking, there’s no way all of them could make it.
Obviously, this business model is likely of concern to pretty much anyone who works in the business of big-time college basketball. And by big time, I mean the several dozen schools that generate a lot of money and publicity through the bonanza of NCAA’s March Madness and the televised games and tournaments that lead up to it. That’s the group that’s largely under fire for paying coaches millions of dollars to coach athletes who receive nothing more than a scholarship – and I know that’s a loaded sentence. This is part of the reason the NCAA is considering changes to their model, most notably allowing student athletes to earn money off their name and likeness, and perhaps looking more closely at real cost of attendance. But to be clear, there is no proposal on the table where college basketball players – or football players, for that matter – might get paid that kind of cash, although college presidents would likely cite the price tag of college tuition. Overtime is offering 16-year-old elite college basketball players something of binomial choice – take the money and chase the dream, or follow the traditional, tested and true, and some might say uncompensated path. To be clear, that’s quite a decision to put on someone who may not yet be old enough to drive.
There are two real questions here, neither of which have a clear answer. First, will kids do it – or in this case, the right kids, athletes who have transcendent talent who are destined for the pros. I don’t doubt that you can find 30 high school basketball players who want to play for 100 grand a year. But if some of them don’t end up scoring points for the Knicks one day, it’s not a great business model. I think the jury is still out on whether or how many young athletes might do it. As appealing as this sounds, there’s a whole lot of infrastructure and power built into the current situation, one some might call a cartel. And if anyone thinks those kinds of structures die easily, try talking to third party political candidate.
Second, beyond whether you can recruit talent, the question remains, will people watch. This thing only works if they draw eyeballs, and with that sponsors and corporate partners. That’s an even trickier question, even though a lot of smart people have bet on this venture. I’ve long argued that people watch college sports not because of the singular talent, but more because of the mythology created for and by the enterprise. Which means fans will show far greater interest in athletes playing in North Carolina jerseys under constructed storylines than the same athletes without it. I’ll believe this until I’m proven wrong, which, to be fair, hasn’t happened yet. But I suppose we’ll soon find out, a determination that could either forever alter or solidify the current trajectory of college sports.
Of course, take my thoughts with a full-on pound of salt. As I’ve long known when it comes to sports media, I’m not really the demo they’re looking for anyway.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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