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College basketball is religion in NC. But its future, allure of UNC and Duke are in doubt
AP

College basketball is religion in NC. But its future, allure of UNC and Duke are in doubt

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In this file image, Cole Anthony #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives between Tre Jones #3 and Vernon Carey Jr. #1 of the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 7, 2020 in Durham, North Carolina.

In this file image, Cole Anthony #2 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives between Tre Jones #3 and Vernon Carey Jr. #1 of the Duke Blue Devils during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 7, 2020 in Durham, North Carolina. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images/TNS)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Among the power brokers within college athletics, the reactions that Ricky Volante has received about the basketball league he's charged with launching have ranged from concern to dismissiveness, along with the usual curiosity.

Some, he said, fear how the Professional Collegiate League might affect college basketball, a billion-dollar enterprise that remains the NCAA's most profitable entity. Others question whether an upstart league can gain enough traction to become a legitimate threat to the establishment.

One conversation stands out in particular to Volante, a Cleveland-based lawyer who is one of the PCL's co-founders and its CEO. He was discussing the league with someone he described as a "critical leader" in college athletics. As Volante remembers it, the individual expressed hope that the PCL would work — "that if we were successful, it would fix all of their problems."

"And his thinking was, number one, optionality within collegiate athletics would reduce their exposure from an antitrust standpoint," Volante said. " ... (Because) it's hard to argue that the NCAA has not monopolized college athletics."

In that way, then, the rise of healthy competition could be a good thing for the NCAA. In such a scenario "they could go back to being wholesome college basketball," Volante said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

The entire collegiate sports model has arrived at an inflection point. The NCAA recently found itself defending its "product," as its lawyer described it, and its oft-attacked definition of amateurism during a recent Supreme Court hearing in what's known as the Alston case, which has challenged the NCAA's restrictions on athlete compensation.

Meanwhile, the conversation surrounding whether college athletes should be free to profit off of their name, image and likeness continues to grow louder. Changes are certain to come, given various state laws granting NIL rights to college athletes, though it remains to be seen how the NCAA's own legislation adapts, or what limitations might persist.

It's against that backdrop of transformation, as well as the broader movement for athlete rights concerning everything from financial freedom to increased access to mental healthcare, that college basketball finds itself in something of a crisis. The men's game, at least, could soon face its greatest challenges in history — and if the challengers are successful, the sport could be upended.

"For college basketball, there are a lot of threats, I think, to the game," Jay Bilas, the outspoken ESPN college basketball analyst, said during a recent interview. "And they're not threats that our leadership, such that it is, is taking seriously. And they should. Because if people in positions of power think that access to talent is not a significant factor in interest, I think they're wrong."

The PCL is but one league that has visions of competing with the NCAA — and by proxy with the Dukes and North Carolinas and Kentuckys of the college basketball world — for talent. Another league, called Overtime Elite, or OTE, announced its arrival in March. It plans to launch in September, and will attempt to lure the best high school prospects with the promise of six-figure salaries and an academy-like experience rivaling the European youth soccer model.

Both the PCL and OTE are entering a basketball landscape that is quickly growing more crowded and competitive for the best young players. This time a year ago, the NBA introduced its own enhanced developmental path for elite prospects interested in bypassing college. That developmental league team, which came to be known as G League Ignite, offers players a one-year course in professional basketball, and reportedly pays prospects up to $500,000 for their time.

Four of the nation's top 20 prospects in the class of 2020, according to 247sports.com's composite recruiting rankings, bypassed college and opted to sign with G League Ignite last year. Two of the top 15 prospects in the class of 2021 appear likely to do the same. Others in recent years, like LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets, have chosen to play professionally in Europe or Australia while waiting to become eligible for the NBA Draft.

The current trends, and the increasingly attractive alternative paths that have emerged, or will, raise important questions for the college game: To what degree do the best young players value college basketball, and what it offers, the way they once did? And as newer paths become more well-worn and mainstream, what will that mean for the future of a sport that in some ways has already become a shell of what it once was?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL NOT APPEALING AS IT WAS

The question is whether these leagues will work and, if so, what their success would mean to college basketball as we know it. In North Carolina, the game is still something of a religion, and it's that way in Kentucky and perhaps in parts of Indiana or Kansas, too.

And yet even here the game is in trouble, its past overshadowing the reality that it's not as magnetic as it once was; that something has been lost. When former North Carolina coach Roy Williams announced his retirement earlier this month, he said he was no longer the right man for the job. It's not hard to make the leap that he felt that way not because he lost his talent for coaching, but because the game changed.

Williams won three national championships at UNC with veteran teams led by players he'd spent years mentoring. The last of those championships is only four years old yet already it feels like something out of a bygone era. More recently, Williams' most talented freshmen all left his program after one season — either to enter the NBA Draft, or to transfer somewhere else.

Keeping track of player movement in college basketball has become a dizzying exercise. As of Sunday, there were 1,391 players in the so-called "transfer portal," according to the website verbalcommits.com, which tracks the movement. Among 357 Division I teams, that's an average of almost four transfers per school.

Then there are the players, more and more every year, who leave school early to turn pro. A decade ago, in the 2010 NBA Draft, there were seven first-round selections who were freshmen, and that was a high number then. Last summer, 12 first-rounders were freshmen and two others, Ball and R.J. Hampton, would've been freshmen had they not skipped college to play in Australia.

Each of North Carolina's four ACC schools have suffered from instability in recent seasons — whether it was the revolving door of transfers at Wake Forest under former coach Danny Manning or the constant churn of one-and-dones at Duke or the smaller yet no less impactful versions of both at UNC and N.C. State. Last year, Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts thought for a while that he'd landed a difference-maker in Josh Hall, among the nation's top 30 prospects in the class of 2020.

But Hall, who spent a year in prep school in Hickory, never arrived on campus and instead chose to enter the NBA Draft. He wasn't selected, but still managed to sign a two-way contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he has spent most of the season with its G League affiliate.

"College is not going to be too appealing to the ones that's ready to go" pro, Quincy Hall, Josh's father, said. The elder Hall put his son in the category of those who didn't see the benefit of spending time in college — even a season. Quincy Hall, who coached some of his son's AAU teams, said younger players these days aren't drawn to the college game like they were.

"Lot of these kids, they're coming into the game and they're ready to play like right now," he said. "They're so far advanced from where we (were) when you and I were coming up. All these kids, they have personal trainers and things of that nature now, and a lot of them, they really are ready to go straight to the NBA."

Dwayne West, who for 21 years was the executive director of the Garner Road Basketball Club, one of North Carolina's most successful AAU programs, agreed with the thought that college basketball has lost its luster among the younger generation. It was a particularly telling statement from someone who'd helped more than 200 players earn college scholarships over the years.

"There's definitely a change in perspective as to what the traditional route of a kid in basketball is today," said West, whose brother, David, is part of the PCL's leadership team.

"I think the most important thing is you've got guys that are now, instead of going to college they're going to Australia, they're going to the G League, they're doing all these different things," Dwayne West said. "Because they're starting to see themselves as a commodity and as a way of saying, 'Well if I have this talent, why is everybody else benefiting from it from a life perspective?'"

When his brother was playing with the Indiana Pacers, Dwayne once visited Indianapolis and made time to drive by the NCAA headquarters there. He was struck by the opulence of it; how to him it looked like the home of a Fortune 500 company instead of the epicenter of an organization that attempts to sell people on the purity of its mission and the ideals of amateurism.

"That amateurism stuff is whack," West said, and more and more he has noticed how the kids who come through his Garner Road program have embraced a potential basketball path that doesn't include college.

"Now you have our third and fourth-graders that know R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball, or whoever it was, went down to Australia and now LeMelo Ball's with the Hornets and he's doing work," West said. "So you've got third and fourth and fifth graders that's looking at that going, 'He didn't go to college? What school is he attached to?' So it's being placed in their minds."

PCL LEADERS HAVE LEGITIMATE CREDENTIALS

Volante played baseball in college until an elbow injury prematurely ended his playing days. He went onto law school with an interest in college athletics administration, and developed a taste for college sports reform during an internship with the Mid-American Conference.

"I just had huge chips on my shoulder, seeing how athletes were treated," he said.

He recalled a time when an administrator in the conference office grew irate when a MAC football team wanted to place a special patch on its uniform during a nationally televised game. In other moments, he said, he took notice at how the conference office defended arcane NCAA rules over the well-being of the athletes the organization purports to serve.

In time, Volante met Andy Schwarz, an economist with a specialty in sports economics who testified for the plaintiffs in the O'Bannon case, which became a catalyst for the NIL movement. Meeting Schwarz, Volante said, "just totally blew my mind" in regards to college athletics reform.

"He started challenging me to think bigger," Volante said. "And here we are six years later, almost."

The PCL planned to launch this summer, with teams mostly throughout the Southeast, before the pandemic altered the league's plans and in many ways put it on hold. Its vision was ambitious: An eight-team league of about 90 players, all college-aged, who'd receive salaries in the range of around $75,000. They'd be allowed to pursue whatever marketing opportunities they could generate, and would also be required to be enrolled in a college academic program.

The league boasts a leadership group that doesn't lack credentials. David West, a Garner native who spent 15 seasons in the NBA, is its Chief Operating Officer. Schwarz serves as the Chief Innovation Officer. A number of athletes and former athletes serve as advisors, including T.J. Warren, the former N.C. State standout forward, and NFL Hall of Famers Terrell Owens and Champ Bailey.

Volante believes that this is the right moment for the PCL, or something like it, to emerge.

"The simplest answer is that reformation is messy," he said of the timing. He has looked at college athletics reform through the lens of social justice, and has come to believe, like many critics of major college athletics, that it is built on a system of exploitation and unpaid labor.

"We keep ending up this same scenario, of changing little things around the periphery and little things around the edges to make it marginally better," Volante said, "but not actually addressing the core issues. Which is at the end of the day, we have predominantly white male administrators and coaches profiting off of a system that's primarily driven by Black male and female athletes."

Volante expressed hesitancy about the long-term prospects of the PCL. Some investments the league had been counting on had fallen through, he said, because of the pandemic. The endeavor is far behind where it thought it'd be at this point. In one moment, Volante said the league would likely launch next summer; in another he couched that possibility with an "if."

Even without playing a game, though, he believes the league has accomplished part of its mission.

"We've certainly had an impact," Volante said. "I mean, at the end of the day, whether the PCL ultimately launches or not — we forced the NBA to change their thinking. We forced Overtime now, with OTE, to put forth something like this, and to do it in a quick way. If we weren't out pressing the buttons that we're pressing, everybody would be exclusively focused on reform."

OTE OFFERING A DIFFERENT PATH FOR BEST OF THE BEST

The OTE model is similar to that of the PCL's, though with the distinction that OTE will attempt to sign high school players, and not those who would otherwise already be in college. The league is backed by Overtime, a company known for its strong social media presence and its viral highlight clips, usually shot by a network of freelancers who film high school basketball games nationwide.

Like Volante, Aaron Ryan, the OTE Commissioner and President, believes his league fills a void that has needed to be filled. Unlike the PCL, though, OTE's mission did not arise out of a desire to reform college athletics as much as it did a desire to provide young, coveted basketball prospects a better path, one more conducive to helping them reach their goals.

"I played college soccer, so I know the path and the experience of being a student-athlete," Ryan said of the traditional route of becoming a college athlete. "And for many, that's still the right path that they should pursue."

And yet, he said, "there is this unique group — the elite of the elite" that OTE will attempt to serve. The league aspires to attract 30 of the best high school prospects, aged 16 to 18. Though those players would be too young for college, they would forfeit their college eligibility given the NCAA's amateurism rules.

OTE's players will all receive six-figure salaries, starting at $100,000 and escalating beyond that for some. Like the PCL, OTE promises an educational and academic component, including an emphasis on life skills and curriculum — public speaking, social media management and financial literacy, to name a few — catered to those hopeful of becoming professional athletes.

Overtime is a young company, but it has quickly gained an audience among the younger generation of basketball fans and players. The company employs a network of thousands of stringers who film high school games, an Overtime spokesman said, and prospects often recognize the brand given its ability to help players make a name for themselves.

"The relationships that Overtime has with these athletes are organic and they are cultivated in the field, with our creators," said Ryan, who arrived at Overtime after 21 years in various positions with the NBA and NBA Entertainment. He worked his way up from a producer with NBA Entertainment, in 2003, to the league's senior vice president for global marketing partnerships.

More recently, Ryan was the Chief Operating Officer at Relevant Sports, which specializes in promoting soccer in the United States. Ryan recalled building partnerships with "some of the biggest clubs in the world, as it relates to European soccer," he said, and he toured the facilities and academies of some of Europe's most well-known soccer clubs, including Real Madrid.

"If anything," Ryan said of the kind of model OTE is attempting to build, "we're a bit late to the party. But I'm glad we're here offering OTE in its holistic fashion."

START-UP LEAGUES, NCAA SHARE UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Both the PCL and OTE have yet to sign their first players and, in the case of the PCL, at least, there's some level of doubt about whether that milestone will happen. Yet both leagues have made other personnel moves that lend a sense of credibility to the start-ups.

In January, the PCL announced its first coach, Alan Major, a former Charlotte 49ers head coach who will lead the D.C. Stealth. Greg Oden, a No. 1 NBA Draft pick before injuries derailed his career, will be an assistant.

OTE, meanwhile, announced last week that Kevin Ollie, the former Connecticut coach who guided the Huskies to the 2014 national championship, will serve as the league's coach and director of player development. Both Volante and Ryan say the right things about their operations, despite the challenges surrounding any organization starting from scratch — much less a sports league.

Though the missions behind the CPL and OTE differ slightly, the underlying principles behind both are similar: That they're building something that's needed, providing athletes with a path that would suit them better than the traditional route of going to college.

"The exploitation of college athletes did not begin in 2020," Volante said. "It has long existed and long been around. But, as everybody sat home and saw weekend after weekend of football games being canceled, of 97% (COVID-19) infection rate with LSU's football team ...

"Whatever facade that was left up about the whole experience and aura of college has been totally torn down. And I can tell you, in talking with players and their families, there isn't a whole lot of convincing that is needed anymore. They are actively seeking other options."

Volante and Ryan acknowledged their reliance on investors. Fundraising has been more of a challenge since the pandemic for the CPL, and Volante said the league wants to have enough of a financial runway to sustain itself for two or three years before launching.

OTE has the benefit of being backed by a parent media company whose investors include Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. David Stern, the former NBA Commissioner who died last year, was also an investor.

"We know we have the right foundation, and now it comes down to execution," Ryan said, "and we feel really strongly in that area, as well."

"There's subscriptions, integrated sports betting, data, analytics, merchandising, video games — all those sorts of things, now NFTs," Volante said. "Like there are a lot of ways that I think we can generate revenue and will surprise people to the level at which revenue can be generated, especially if we're successful in recruiting from the upper echelon of the talent pool."

That's another primary challenge for both leagues: Can they attract the sort of talent that would help them build an audience? And if the players come, will the public care, anyway? Even if OTE successfully recruits the best of the best, college basketball will retain the advantage of tradition, and the intangible mystique of UNC vs. Duke or the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

At least for now. The other side of that argument is that the college game is bleeding talent, and has been for a while, and that these leagues, if they succeed, will only hasten the talent drain. That's what concerns Bilas, who remains an advocate for the college game despite his fierce criticism of the NCAA and its approach to amateurism.

"What the game will look like in 10 years is largely dependent on what happens in the next year," he said. "So, if the Supreme Court, who's hearing the Alston case, rules favorably toward the athletes, I think we can see things open up ... (and) players are more likely to choose college and stay in college, if they can make money.

"And so I think the game would look substantially different in a positive way if that happens.

"If it doesn't happen ... then I think you're going to see alternatives more attractive to the best players. And when the best players do it, more than the best players are going to do it, because more want to be the best players. So you're going to see an exodus of the top-tier of talent, and ultimately that's going to hurt the game, and hurt the product."

In that scenario, Bilas said, the financial success of the NCAA tournament would undoubtedly mask the sport's decline. In time, though, reality would catch up.

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