The Teenagers Getting Six Figures to Leave Their High Schools for Basketball

Porter, 55, is a great-nephew of the economist Milton Friedman. A digital entrepreneur, he formerly ran the gaming studio that became Omgpop. Before that, he spent a decade in education, including a stint as president of Teach for America. Weiner, now 29, comes from a different generation. A three-time Ivy League chess champion at Penn, he was barely past graduation when he and Porter started Overtime. The idea of creating an alternate pathway to the N.B.A. appealed to their vision of themselves as disruptive outsiders. It also, not incidentally, promised to be another lucrative business.

The ongoing rupture of amateur basketball’s traditional order has played out quite publicly. On July 1, following a Supreme Court decision, the N.C.A.A. finally allowed its athletes to be remunerated for the use of their names, images and likenesses. Still, a vast majority of them end up earning only the basic contours of an education, even as sponsors, television networks and sneaker companies reap profits from the multibillion-dollar business the sport has become. But the dysfunction starts earlier: Games held between individual high schools, once the centerpiece of teenage competition, have become almost irrelevant. College recruiters prefer the A.A.U. tournaments, where they appraise hundreds of prospects in a weekend. A.A.U. teams, organized and run by entrepreneurs with varying motives who may or may not have coaching experience, crisscross America from March to October. “It’s totally unhealthy,” Ahlee Lewis says.

Amid the signs that the system was starting to unravel, Porter and Weiner saw an opportunity. They weren’t the only ones. In 2017, LaVar Ball, the father of two N.B.A. guards, created the play-for-pay Junior Basketball Association, a league for disaffected high schoolers that featured eight franchises nationwide. (All of them were nicknamed the Ballers.) That folded after one season. The Professional Collegiate League, founded by a group that included a former associate athletic director at Stanford, a Cleveland lawyer and the N.B.A. veteran David West, was supposed to start play this year as a salary-earning alternative to N.C.A.A. basketball, but its debut was postponed to 2022; it will require that players be enrolled in college to participate. And because players don’t become eligible for the N.B.A.’s draft until the year after their high school class graduates — a 15-year-old rule that may be changed after the current collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union expires in 2024 — the developmental G League now accepts prospects who have finished high school but don’t want to play in college.

‘They kept telling us, “You won’t be able to get the high-level players.” With every one that we were able to secure, it crushed that argument.’

But Porter and Weiner have something that those leagues do not: the 1.6 billion views their content gets every month. Their new venture is a professional league for teenagers that will take the place of A.A.U., high school and college competition. When they explained the concept to Carmelo Anthony, an Overtime investor who is playing in his 19th N.B.A. season, Anthony took to it immediately. “He literally interrupted us in the middle of our pitch and finished it for us,” Weiner says. “When we started talking to other people about it, many of them said, ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this.’”

Many of those people asked to buy a piece of it. Overtime is backed by the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a roster of investors that includes Jeff Bezos, Drake, Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and four owners of N.B.A. franchises. The most recent round of financing, in April, raised more than $80 million. Kevin Durant, Trae Young, Devin Booker and more than two dozen other current pros have joined Anthony in signing on. For its first season, the league has grouped 27 players, ranging in age from 16 to 20, into three teams of nine. They compete against one another and against high school and international teams that agree to play them. In the coming years, the league hopes to grow to six or eight teams that will face opponents from the G League, the best college programs and — “you never know,” Porter says — eventually the Knicks and Lakers.

Overtime Elite’s coaching staff is run by Kevin Ollie, who coached UConn to a national championship in 2014. The players are given personalized nutrition plans and training programs. They are marketed across Overtime’s social media network. (So far, sponsors include Gatorade and State Farm, which signed multiyear, eight-figure contracts with the league. Topps has a licensing deal.) And in the most obviously radical departure, each player gets a small share of the company and earns a salary of at least $100,000 annually, plus bonuses, depending on the contract he has negotiated. Jalen Lewis and some others make more than $500,000. (“There is a marketplace,” says Aaron Ryan, a former N.B.A. executive who has been hired as the league’s commissioner, “and players have varied value.”) In return, they have agreed to forgo their remaining years of high school and any chance of playing in college. That means no state titles or prom dates, no strolls on leafy campuses, no March Madness or Final Four. They also allow Overtime to use their names, images and likenesses, the same assets that college athletes have just earned the right to monetize for themselves, though the Overtime Elite players are permitted to strike their own deals with sponsors in noncompetitive categories.