Two days after the 2020 NBA Draft on Nov. 20, I received a text from former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson, whom I had worked with at CBS Sports headquarters:
Matt, I work with a band called Overtime. Can I put you in touch with the co-founder to share our vision for a major concept that will hit the market next year?
Of course, I said “Yes”.
Shortly after, Overtime co-founder Zack Weiner contacted me. He didn’t give any details on the “major concept”, but said he or a senior manager would call me in the next few days.
I was grateful that Avery had thought of me for their project, and I intended to listen to them. However, I didn’t know the Overtime company, and I am regularly asked for new consulting opportunities, so nothing seemed so atypical to me.
A few days later, I got a call from Shea Dawson, Athlete Relations Manager at Overtime. She shared some details about overtime as a business and explained that they have a new project in the works that will be a “game changer”. She continued to tell me that their group felt that my background, experience and skills would be useful to them. Unfortunately, she was unable to fill me in on the details of the project, as I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement first.
After speaking with Shea, although I was still unclear about it, I became more intrigued by the potential opportunity.
While waiting for the NDA to be emailed, I started doing my research on overtime. I learned that the company was founded in 2016 by Zack Weiner and Dan Porter, who had worked together at WME, a leader in the talent agency industry. They started by raising seed money. Early investors included former NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA star Kevin Durant. I then discovered that Overtime was a media company that creates unique content and targets a younger audience. (In 2019, Overtime was generating over a billion video views per month.)
So naturally, I became more and more intrigued to find out more about this mysterious project.
I finally got Shea’s email which included the NDA. I signed it and returned it almost immediately.
Then, finally, the phone rang. It was Shea:
Matt, I’m so excited to share the details with you. We are creating a new professional league for high school players. We want you to help us put it together.
I had a lot of questions:
- Where would they play?
- Would they be paid, and how much?
- Would players go to school and graduate?
- Would draft-eligible players make it into the league?
- More importantly, what would happen to the players once they finished the league, and would they be eligible to play in college?
Despite my questions, I agreed to explore ideas for getting involved. So for a few months I had a handful of video conference calls with Shea and Aaron Ryan, a former NBA office executive who worked as a consultant for the newly proposed and unnamed league.
It all finally started to take shape in mid-January 2021. They named the league Overtime Elite (OTE). Aaron was hired as commissioner, while former NBA player and executive Brandon Williams was named head of basketball operations. Additionally, I accepted a short-term counseling contract to become a Scout counselor for the group.
On March 4, 2021, OTE was publicly announced, releasing some project details. To start, Overtime managed to raise $80 million. The newly raised money was allocated to build an arena in Atlanta, Georgia, and provide league players with salaries of a minimum of $100,000 per year, among other things. The news spread like wildfire and the feedback was mixed.
On the one hand, NBA commissioner Adam Silver sounded optimistic, saying he had no problem with young players getting paid and thought the optionality was good. But, on the other hand, many of my friends in the industry were tearing up the idea – some publicly and many behind closed doors.
What was the big deal with OTE, you ask? Well, I’ll come back to that in a minute.
As a scouting advisor, I helped set up the scouting department and assessed potential players. Our group worked hard and we did a good job. However, once OTE started recruiting, negotiating and looking to sign players, our scouting department shifted from evaluating players to recruiting them.
It was a necessary change for the band, no doubt; however, I felt it put me in a compromising position given my involvement in so many different areas of basketball, including handling the NBA draft and scouting coverage for BasketballNews.com. I enjoyed working for OTE, but decided to leave the group to avoid further conflicts of interest.
My last day working for OTE was May 14, just over two months after OTE’s launch date, four months after my start date with the company, and six months since I first heard about OTE. ‘Avery for the first time.
I may have left, but of course the show went on.
Our recruitment department has identified the right players. Williams and Tim Fuller, the director of scouting and recruiting, did a great job recruiting them. Then, on May 21, a week after I left the group, OTE announced that the league had signed its first players: Class of 2023 five-star prospects Matt and Ryan Bewley. Then, Ausar and Amen Thompson after them. Next up is Jean Montero, a top playmaker from the Dominican Republic. After that, there was a steady stream of new signings, one after another. OTE was rolling!
On October 24, they held their first Pro Day. After the event, NBA staff and members of the media were thrilled with the facilities and the level of talent. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict. I had planned to attend a few days of their games in December, but out of caution and an increasing number of COVID and flu cases around the sport, the games were cancelled.
A few weeks ago, I finally made it to Atlanta to see OTE’s finished product. Along with seeing all the players our scouting group has reviewed and discussed for months, I got to see the OTE Arena firsthand.
While working for OTE, I participated in semi-regular video conferences hosted by Tim Katt, who led the development of the arena. I expected it to be impressive, but my expectations were far exceeded. I was blown away by the building as soon as I entered.
Bright lights, advanced technology, music and cameras were the first things that jumped out at you. It was undeniable that it was a unique place. Keep in mind, I’ve spent my entire life in and around basketball, and I’ve seen the game from just about every angle possible, all over the world. So I wouldn’t consider myself someone easily impressed by basketball facilities – and I was impressed!
My former colleagues, Louis Lehman and Matt Verden, gave me a tour of the facility. The more I saw, the more impressed I became. It wasn’t the glitz and glamor that impressed me as much as the resources I saw for young players to develop. For example, players have access to a personal chef for three meals a day, an incredible workout room, and top-notch strength and conditioning spaces. Additionally, OTE has a well-built (and deep) coaching and support staff led by former NBA player and college head coach Kevin Ollie. Nowhere else in the world provides comparable levels of resources for players aged 16-18.
Once the games started, the talent arose. Montero is the main prospect in this year’s upcoming draft. He is likely to be the first draft pick to come out of the Overtime Elite program. The Thompson Twins look like up-and-coming lottery picks for 2023. And then guys like Alexandre Sarr and Tyler Smith also look like they have promising NBA careers in their future. And that’s just to name a few; there’s a ton of talent currently under contract.
I spent three days in Atlanta spending time with the OTE staff and familiarizing myself with the setup and evaluating their young prospects. On my flight home, I collected my thoughts. I couldn’t help but think that OTE is generally misunderstood. I think a lot of people just see “fuzz”. However, I see it differently.
Cameras, bright lights, loud music and league-created content are the means to generate money (via sponsorship and advertising) to be able to provide such an incredible infrastructure to develop player marketing – but more importantly, to help them grow as basketball players and young men.
Given my role and background, I tend to be hyper-focused on developing young prospects as basketball players, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the educational element of OTE as well. The league’s website states: “OTE offers a direct instruction model led by individual instructors who teach both 1:1 and in small groups with a student-teacher ratio of 4:1. OTE complements a traditional course offering with a focus on life skills, including financial literacy, media literacy, advocacy and sports, and basketball business.”
That all sounds good, but what it doesn’t mention is that Overtime owner and co-founder Porter served as the first president of Teach for America. Since education is such an essential part of Porter’s background, education has been a focal point since the idea’s inception. So, although they provide non-traditional education, I can assure you that OTE’s education program is well-honed.
Overtime Elite is a special place and a great option for top teenage basketball players. I’m proud to have played a small role in helping it move from an ambitious idea to a successful reality.
But I’m going to address the elephant in the room now…
What’s wrong with OTE? (Yes there is one.)
In order for prospects to join the league, they must sacrifice their college eligibility and pursue a career path instead. This alone made the league controversial and subsequently labeled as disruptive in the basketball industry.
However, recently it was announced that the NCAA has approved OTE players to participate in NCAA-certified AAU events this spring and summer.
Is this the first step for players to be able to sign with OTE while maintaining college eligibility? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so.
That said, I’m going to leave you with a few questions:
- What is the difference between a high school or college student receiving NIL offers and signing with OTE?
- Who would be hurt by letting OTE players retain a full option and allowing them to play college if they choose?
- Is there any good reason OTE players aren’t eligible to play in college other than arbitrary NCAA bylaws?
The questions are meant to be rhetorical, of course. However, I believe they are essential.
So let’s keep asking ourselves these questions!