Windsor Star

Startup circuit plans to compete with NCAA hoops

Deals to televise, stream games in place, with plans for 8 teams to tip off this year


A startup men's basketball league, with plans to pay college students and compete with the NCAA, has inked a media rights deal, setting the stage for its debut later this year.

The Profession­al Collegiate League reached a pact with Next Level, a network owned by a former Obama administra­tion official, that will air its games both on linear TV and streaming platforms.

Ricky Volante, a Cleveland-based attorney and the CEO of the startup league, said he has already had conversati­ons with between 100150 top high school recruits and college players about joining what will be an eight-team league. With a media deal in place, Volante said he expects to begin announcing rosters and coaches, paving the way for the PCL'S first season to begin in August or September.

“In the conversati­ons we've had, players and coaches wanted to know how they will be seen, how the games will be distribute­d, so now we can move on to the next stage of this, announcing the teams,” he said.

The PCL, whose leadership includes former NBA star David West, hopes to threaten the primacy of the NCAA by paying its players between US$50,000 and $150,000 each year, in addition to offering them stipends to cover college tuition. This season, all of the games will take place in suburban Washington, D.C., but by next year Volante hopes to have teams playing in eight cities, several of them in the Mid-atlantic region.

The PCL'S deal with Next Level doesn't pay the league any rights fees. The network and the league will split ad and subscripti­on revenues.

Andre Gudger, a tech entreprene­ur who worked in the Obama administra­tion as the director of office of small business programs and as deputy assistant secretary of defence, bought the network, previously known as Eleven Sports, last year. It has the rights to Russian league hockey and European basketball and has carriage deals with cable operators like Verizon Fios and some streaming services. It's available in around 40 million homes in the United States.

Gudger believes he's the only minority owner of a sports network in the United States and is in talks with several college conference­s and the NBA'S minor league, the G League, about acquiring more sports rights.

“We want to reach urban and underserve­d communitie­s and highlight their stories,” Gudger said. “I believe in the mission of this league even more than the business model. And I believe in the business model.”

The PCL is not the only entity offering an alternativ­e to the NCAA, which has strict amateur rules that prohibit payments to players. The G League launched a team that's not affiliated with any NBA franchise to recruit top high school graduates and pays them salaries as high as a reported $500,000 to help launch their NBA careers. The media company Overtime recently announced plans to pay a few of the top 16- to 18-year-olds as much as $100,000 a year to play for a handful of teams.

The G League has had games televised on ESPN'S streaming service, while Overtime plans to broadcast games through its own platforms initially. Neither, though, provide the same educationa­l component as the PCL, nor have they announced plans, as of yet, to create a full league of teams, instead focusing on a smaller number of elite stars.

The PCL, in addition to paying players a salary, requires them to be enrolled in college. This year, Volante expected many players to attend school virtually. But the plan is for players to be enrolled at local colleges — a player on the Richmond team at the University of Richmond or Virginia Commonweal­th, a player on the D.C. team at American University or Howard, and so on. The other cities expected to have teams are Philadelph­ia, Baltimore, Norfolk. Va., Atlanta, Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C.

Most new sports leagues struggle to gain traction, and there is plenty of risk for those who decide to sign up with the PCL this summer. Any player who signs paperwork with the PCL could be barred from returning to college sports if they're deemed to have turned profession­al. The league will need to recruit 96 players to fill 12-man rosters for its eight teams. To pay those players a minimum of $50,000 plus $50,000 for a year's tuition, the league would need to raise nearly US$10 million.

Volante said the league has raised a substantia­l amount of money from wealthy individual investors, but not enough to fund the entire league as of today. (Overtime has raised more than US$80 million, with music superstar Drake and Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos investing.)

“We're hoping to have a snowball effect with this announceme­nt,” Volante said, adding that there is flexibilit­y in the rights contract for when the season will start.

Amateurism has been challenged in U.S. courts with several high-profile lawsuits, and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month about the NCAA'S long-standing rules. State legislatur­es in recent years have also introduced bills aimed at allowing college athletes to profit off their names and images in advertisem­ents, and the NCAA is considerin­g loosening some of its restrictio­ns. The potential threat from the PCL and other competitor­s could put more pressure on the NCAA to evolve.

But Volante said that, no matter what the NCAA allows, the PCL will be far more permissive, from endorsemen­t deals to NFTS to group licensing. He's had conversati­ons with video game operators about a potential PCL game down the road.

“Even if those bills go into effect, those athletes won't be able to come close to what our athletes would be able to do,” he said.

We want to reach urban and underserve­d communitie­s and highlight their stories. I believe in the mission of this league even more than the business model.

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