By AUSTIN KALT, DAMON BROOKS and JUSTIN HOAGLAND
The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism | Capital News Service
To find many of the most recognizable athletes on social media, you have to look past the rosters of the top professional leagues. Instead, look to the high school ranks.
LeBron “Bronny” Raymone James Jr., son of NBA superstar LeBron James, is one of the most followed teen athletes on social media with 6.6 million followers on Instagram. Mikey Williams, a five-star basketball recruit at San Ysidro High School, has 3.7 million followers on Instagram.
Stack that up against Joel Embiid, an NBA MVP finalist. Embiid has 6 million followers on Instagram.
Overtime and ESPN have played key roles in boosting the celebrity of high school stars. Like few others, these sports media brands have invested in new ventures aimed at developing teen players into tomorrow’s NBA superstars.
ESPN, alongside Paragon Marketing Group, launched the National Interscholastic Basketball Conference in 2021. The NIBC is a super league, with teams made of top-rated high school players. Around the same time, Overtime started Overtime Elite, an ultra-exclusive development program that is professionalizing teen basketball.
For these media companies, the goal is to build profitable brands in youth sports. For the players the goal is to wear an NBA uniform one day.
“I want to play in the NBA,” said Myles Hosten, who left his family and friends behind in England to play at Bishop Walsh. “The highest league possible… Whether it is the NBA or not, just to play pro.”
The growth of Overtime Elite
Overtime Elite was created by the media company Overtime and founders Dan Porter and Zachary Weiner. The duo met at William Morris Agency, where they worked on digital content. In 2016, the duo launched Overtime as a social media haven for elite high school athletes, posting highlight videos on YouTube and on Instagram.
Former Duke star Zion Williamson, one of Overtime’s first big stars, went on to become the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Williamson’s final high school game footage now has 5 million views. This is the 13th most-viewed video of more than 1,400 on Overtime’s YouTube channel. Overtime generates more than 1.5 billion views across social media platforms a month.
In October 2021, Porter and Weiner launched Overtime Elite. OTE recruited and signed 27 high school basketball players to contracts worth a minimum of $100,000 per year, splitting them up into three teams.
The teams play over 20 games a season, from October to March. Each team has their respective coaches, but all teams are overseen by the director of player development and former University of Connecticut men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie.
OTE players have their eyes locked on playing professionally. Joining OTE almost always means losing their amateur status. Currently, all but one player committed to the program is being paid. As salaried athletes, they’re considered pros and no longer are eligible to play college basketball.
Naasir Cunningham, the top-rated basketball prospect in the class of 2024, agreed to join OTE in April of 2022. He declined a salary in order to maintain his college eligibility. However, Cunningham will have the opportunity to profit from social media deals and other endorsements under new state laws permitting high school athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.
Overtime Elite’s basketball hub is located in Atlanta. It consists of three basketball courts, with the main court seating 1,300 and players live on the Overtime campus.
Training methods are sophisticated, with OTE providing players access to experts in analytics, nutrition and fitness. With Ollie, a coach who guided UConn to a national men’s basketball championship in 2014, OTE has one of the most respected teachers in the sport.
“You’re basically at a basketball lab and your game should get better,” said Sean Gregory, senior sports correspondent for TIME, who wrote an in-depth article about OTE in November 2021.
Overtime’s method for bringing OTE to its fans is unique. Games cannot be viewed live but full games are available later, after editing. OTE specializes in highly produced highlights that are posted on social media. That strategy is to build an audience, though it’s smaller than for Overtime’s main channel. In October 2022, OTE’s YouTube channel had more than 52,900 subscribers.
The difference in presentation — highlights for OTE, live game action for NIBC — represents one of the starkest differences between the competing basketball leagues and their approaches to hooking fans.
Marc Kohn, chief content officer at OTE, says followers of the league are interested in the backstories of their favorite players. “Look at how the next generation of athletes are important to young people. And young people are interested in following along on their journeys.”
Ghazi, commissioner of NIBC, is just as adamant that fans want to watch full games as they happen. “I still think live is at the essence of what we do…social [media] follows live,” he said.
In its first year, OTE has had success gathering sponsors. Gatorade, Meta, State Farm, and Topps all have partnered with the upstart league. Topps, the trading card company, even put out a series featuring all OTE players.
Investors, many with connections to sports, entertainment and tech, also are backing Porter’s and Weiner’s bold venture. OTE has already raised about $80 million from a group including hip-hop star Drake, Amazon chairman and founder Jeff Bezos and more than 25 NBA stars including Klay Thompson and Devin Booker.
The ascension of NIBC
The NIBC is a 10-team league composed of some of the best high school teams and players in the country. Teams are located all over the United States, from Bradenton, Florida, to La Porte, Indiana, from Mount Pleasant City, Utah, to Cumberland, Maryland, a town of roughly 20,000 people.
Unlike OTE, NIBC does not pay its players, so they all maintain college eligibility. NIBC games can be viewed live, with ESPN networks televising the entire 38-game schedule last season.
So far, the audience for NIBC games is small. The most-viewed games on ESPNU in 2022 totaled 31,000 views. In comparison, the 2022 NCAA Womens’ National Championship on ESPN drew 4.85 million views and peaked at 5.91 million.
Viewership numbers haven’t discouraged corporate sponsorship of NIBC, though. Last season, the league’s partners included the U.S. Marines, GEICO, Chipotle, and Gatorade.
Bill Carter, a former sports-marketing executive and adjunct professor at the University of Vermont, estimates such agreements pay NIBC from $300,000 to $500,000 per year, with most deals at the lower end.
For the brands, it’s about capturing young consumers by aligning with the top teen basketball stars in the country. According to Carter, the message to fans is: “I want you to see that the Oak Hill guys, the Oak Hill players, are drinking Gatorade because that’s what I’m selling.”
What does the future hold?
Still, for both NIBC and Overtime Elite, major questions remain.
Will NIBC be able to grow and attract more fans? Can the league achieve greater parity, instead of being dominated by two or three super schools such as Montverde, IMG or Sunrise Christian?
For Overtime Elite, the question becomes: Will the new pay-for-play venture be a successful pathway to the NBA for elite high school players?
Ghazi, creator of NIBC, expressed doubts about OTE’s model.
“There are questions, among coaches, if Overtime Elite provides a competitive in-game basketball experience that’s really going to develop players.” Ghazi said.
OTE officials dismiss those concerns.
“If anybody wanted to watch the playoffs and finals and the intensity that went back and forth between our teams… I’d say that was really, really high end basketball,” Kohn said.
It is too early to tell whether NIBC or Overtime Elite is the better option for getting elite high school players to their dream destination, the NBA. However, both companies already are reshaping the landscape of elite high school basketball.
Capital News Service is a student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. With bureaus in Annapolis and Washington run by professional journalists with decades of experience, they deliver news in multiple formats via partner news organizations and a destination Website.