A start-up 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 this year.
Ricky Volante, a Cleveland-based attorney and the CEO of the start-up league, said he has already had conversations with between 100 and 150 top high school recruits and college players about joining what will be in 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 $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 does not pay the league any rights fees; the network and the league will split ad and subscription revenue. Andre Gudger, a tech entrepreneur who worked in the Obama administration as the director of the Office of Small Business Programs and as deputy assistant secretary of defense, 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 such as Verizon Fios and some streaming services. It is available in around 40 million homes in the United States.
Gudger believes he is 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 is not affiliated with any NBA franchise to recruit top high school graduates and pay 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. Those, though, don’t provide the same educational component as the PCL, nor have they announced plans 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 expects 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, Atlanta, Raleigh and Charlotte.
Most new sports leagues struggle to gain traction, and there is plenty of risk for players 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 he is 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 $10 million.
Volante said the league has raised a substantial amount of money from venture funds and wealthy individual investors but not enough to fund the entire league as of today. (Overtime has raised more than $80 million, with investments from Drake and Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.)
“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 court 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 no matter what the NCAA allows, the PCL will be far more permissive, from endorsement deals to non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to group licensing. He has 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.