One of my favorite conferences to attend every year is the annual Sports and Entertainment Alliance in Technology (SEAT) conference. It’s one of the leading events for C-level execs at professional sports teams and leagues. This includes the NFL, NBA, MLB and MLS. But it also includes major college athletic departments. And it’s the only business conference I know of where I can moderate a general session panel while wearing my Eric Dickerson authentic throwback jersey.
Historical Basketball League
Speaking of which, I had the pleasure of hosting a fireside chat with two of the C-level executives of the Historical Basketball League (HBL). I’m talking about CEO and cofounder Ricky Volante and COO David West. David also played 15 years in the NBA and was a two-time champion with the Golden State Warriors. The chat was all about the HBL.
This startup basketball league looks to provide college athletes with an alternative pathway to the NBA. So it seeks to disrupt the NCAA’s stranglehold by paying athletes, giving them scholarships and allowing them to benefit financially on their own personal brands. The discussion proved so interesting that my CRM Playaz partner Paul Greenberg. And I asked Ricky and David to join us for an episode. So we could dig in a bit more and discuss why they decided to challenge an organization with the power and clout of the NCAA.
Below you’ll find an edited transcript of our conversation. To see the full conversation watch the video or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.
How the New League will Disrupt the Older Model
Brent Leary: So, Historical Basketball League. You got to tell us what it’s all about and you also got to tell us about the name too.
Ricky Volante: Yeah, so I guess we’ll start with what it’s about. We’re trying to become the primary destination for elite college basketball players across the globe competing directly with the NCAA and then to some extent also with organizations like the MBL and the G League. But we’re trying to become that 18 to 23 year olds that are the best in the world at what they do in terms of college basketball. We want them to be playing in our league. Yeah, if you want to-
David West: Yeah. Again, a lot with Ricky said, we were aiming to become the premier destination for college basketball athletes to start. We want to create an environment that is centered around them and give them options and opportunities that benefit them more than the universities.
Where the Historical Basketball League Got its Name
Ricky Volante: The name itself. So, in 1929 the Carnegie Foundation had a commission that was similar to what Condoleezza Rice recently did with the NCAA. And what they were trying to do was determine whether or not universities were providing anything beyond a scholarship to their college athletes. And so, they surveyed 121 universities and found that 84 of them were outright paying players.
When you think back to that point of time, Harvard was a football powerhouse. Why? Harvard paid more than everybody else. And nothing more than that. I mean, Harvard was one of the first super stadiums within college football. They redevelop them and the University of Pennsylvania pretty much changed the entire landscape of college football building the first 30 and 40 and 50,000 seat stadiums back in the beginning of the 20th century. And again, that’s because they were paying more than the other universities.
Brent Leary: It wasn’t because of the Ivy League and all. It was about cash.
Ricky Volante: I’m sure that there are Ivy Leaguer’s that’ll tell you that it was because of the education. It was not because they were paying the most.
Where the New League Differs
Brent Leary: Wow. All right. So, let’s talk about why you guys founded to do this. What was the reason that you just wanted to come out and pretty much try to disrupt what the NCAA is all about?
David West: Yeah, I think first of all, it’s the right thing to do. When I was looking at the layout of the league and the concepts behind it and what the intent was. It was just the right thing to do. There’s career opportunities that exist off the backs of the labor of these young athletes. And they are the people that have the fewest opportunities, the fewest career choices. Particularly while they’re in school. So, the model that we have is just the right model to present to the market at this time.
Paul Greenberg: So, fill us in a little more on the actual model. What you’re actually going to do with these athletes. And what your plan is for you too.
An Inside Look at the New League’s Setup
Ricky Volante: Yeah. So to start with, we’re a single entity. So, we’re going to have eight teams. The cities that those teams are going to be located in going north to south: Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia, Raleigh and Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta.
Paul Greenberg: And why that?
Ricky Volante: Atlanta was a critical one for us. But overall if you break down those markets, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and DC are three of the top 10 markets in the US. When you throw in Baltimore and Charlotte, you’ve got five of the top 21 markets in the US. And then Richmond, Norfolk and Raleigh, where a lot of people might scratch their heads and say, “How can you throw those in with the others?” They ranked as three of the top eight markets in terms of NBA viewership. And so, Norfolk was number one, Raleigh was number seven and Richmond was number eight.
Paul Greenberg: So, what becomes the value to the athlete?
How the Historical Basketball League Helps its Athletes
Ricky Volante: First and foremost, we’re going to be providing them with salaries, salaries of 50 to $150,000 per season. Beyond that, we’re also providing them with five year guaranteed scholarships. Which can be completed on a non-continuous base or on a continuous basis. So, if they go to the NBA, they can come back and complete it at a later date. In addition to that, there are not restrictions on name, image and likeness.
So, they can sign endorsement deals. They can have agents. They can have financial planners, they can have attorneys. All the things that in some way shape or form is either impermissible or severely restricted by the NCAA. We felt taking a focus on having it as player centric as possible would allow us to bring in maybe not all, but a good percentage of the elite basketball players in the US. And globally and then from there your revenue streams. Going back to your question about the business side, people are going to tune in and watch.
A New Model for Sports Sponsorship
Companies are going to want to be associated with these athletes. Another thing that happens within college is you have this inefficient relationship between sponsors and players. Because the sponsorship deals can’t be directly with the players. They have to be with the university. Which means you have to work through the athletic department, which means the players get nothing out of it. So, the athletic department is playing middleman. The Athletic Department forces the athletes to participate. They’re getting nothing out of it.
Brent Leary: What I like about the model is people are getting salaries. They’re getting paid. But they’re also getting scholarships. So, instead of having to be tied to the university who’s under the NCAA rules, which restricts money they can make. Now, you’re basically allowing these athletes to get a salary. Find the college of their choice and then you give scholarship money for them to go to that. And they get the opportunity to build their own brand and actually make money off of their own brand as opposed to the NCAA making money off of their brand.
A Different Kind of Summer Job
David West: Right. And in the most simplified form is it’s just you have a student who has a summer job, right? So, these guys’ job is in the summer. Their job just happens to be basketball. In the fall, winter and spring, they are students where they are developing and training in an academic pursuit that fits their needs. And is best going to serve them as they look forward to their professional futures.
Ricky Volante: It’s a great analogy in a lot of ways and when you think about it, for CS majors, Google has a program that pays a CS major, if you get into it, $100,000 for the summer. None of us would ever think-
Brent Leary: For the summer?
Ricky Volante: Yeah.
Paul Greenberg: OK we’re done with the show… We have to go fill out a job application.
Giving Players Ownership of their Brands
Ricky Volante: None of us would, in our craziest minds think that makes that student’s academic experience less meaningful because they’re getting paid while they’re in college. All of us were like, “No, that’s exactly what you should be doing.” If you develop an app, if Google itself was developed out of a Stanford course once upon a time, it’s Stanford doesn’t get 100% ownership of that as a result of the fact that it was developed in a Stanford class. So, there’s those types of things that again, it would be insane for us to say that Stanford should have had 100% ownership rights of Google, but if a Stanford athlete is playing for Stanford, they pretty much do.
Paul Greenberg: One of your criteria was they have to be a college student. Now, let’s say they’re incredibly talented, but not college student and when I say not college, I’m deliberately not saying high school because if you remember years ago, huge amount of street talent in New York for example, right? So, what about those kids?
Looking Beyond the College Community
David West: That’s why we aren’t going to try to fit a square peg into a circular hole. We’re going to work with those kids and their families and our academic advisors and our nonprofit to find an education that suits their needs. So, we’re not going to say, “Okay, you’ve got to go to this university.” No, we’re going to say we’ll identify the kids. We know the kids that don’t fit the traditional classroom model, but we can put them in a trade school-
Paul Greenberg: And you’ll work with them, get them into the trade school?
David West: We’re going to work to get them into … Each one of our student athletes are going to have an educational track that they’re on. And I guess no singular athlete will have the… There won’t be a cookie cutter look at it. We’re going to be very nimble with it. We’re going to make sure that it suits the needs of that athlete. And we’re going to utilize the community college network, local college, smaller universities, online curriculums. Like we said vocational and trade schools if we have to. But we’re going to find some education that fits each one of our athletes.
Life Off the Basketball Court
Ricky Volante: And that’s part of what we want to do is instill upon these guys what they can do on and off the court and how everything off the court impacts what they do on the court as well. So, financial literacy, public speaking, media training, selecting and vetting agents.All these things that whether you like it or not, it’s going to impact how successful you are as an athlete.
Brent Leary: And you were saying you don’t get that from college. You talked to a lot of young talent and if things don’t go the way they expect them to go, they’re lost.
David West: Most athletes today are in educational tracks that meet the needs of their athletic requirements, right? So, your schedule, your schooling, your major, your class schedule is all built around to make you most available for athletics. So, there’s very little space or room for the guys who want to pursue certain academic tracks. If it interferes with your sport, then that’s something that’s off the table, right? Because you go to that school as an athlete first. Particularly the scholarship athletes. And that’s one of the narratives we want to change. And we want to fight, right? Players have the right, if they want to commit themselves to the sport.
Looking Forward to a Time After Sports
Sports are a global phenomenon and a massive opportunity, not just at the player level. But the whole range of athletics can be available to these guys. So, for us it’s most important to put them in tracks that fit what they want to do. And fit what we ask them. What is your idea; What are you gonna do after sport; What are you going to do while you’re in sport? Because as a professional and former professional now, the conversation is, for us, once you become a pro, you can’t wait to figure out your next step when the basketball is done.
So, you’ve got to start figuring out your next steps while you’re in your career. And that’s relatively new for professional athletes. Because we were trained and brought up to put all of our eggs in this basket. And then for this younger generation, this new, this future athlete, they have all types of interests. And they have all types of ideas and things that they wanna pursue such as being media mavens.
I mean, these guys are talented. They have other things that peak their interest and basketball is still their centerpiece. But they don’t buy into the idea that they’ve got to deny these other aspects of themselves and not build these other aspects of themselves just to play the sport.
Historical Basketball League Reshapes the Industry
Ricky Volante: That’s part of how we want to reshape how people view college athletes to start with. But athletes overall; they aren’t just athletes. A lot of people only think of it in that term that an athlete is an athlete. They have huge significant platforms. They have significant influence. And we want to be able to again start to shape that a little earlier. So that these guys understand going into the NBA, this is what I can accomplish, not just on the court.
But off the court to have a more profound success on my community, where I came from, from my family. All those types of things because a lot of these guys come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. And that’s part of the stress that is associated with the current system is that these guys have to go a year unpaid. And again they come from families that live below the poverty line. They’ve got people that are counting on them to make it.
Going Up Against Giants
Brent Leary: This has been great. But I got to throw one thing out there. I mean, you are going up against the NCAA. And all the power and money they have. So, what are the things that keep you up at night the most? What are the biggest challenges that you foresee with battling a behemoth?
Ricky Volante: Well, I’ll start my answer by saying mountains are there to be climbed. So, this absolutely it’s going to be a mountain. We aren’t shying away from that. They were formed in 1906. College sports generates about $13 billion a year. The financial power and economic power that they can wield is significant. And it’s not just the NCAA. A lot of people think about it in just those terms.
There’s a lot of institutions and corporations and donors and alums and universities out there that all benefit from the status quo remaining as it is. And so, there’s a lot of people out there that if we’re successful, their pockets are going to get a little lighter. So, for us it’s about maneuvering and finding the right groups that want to be associated with us and work with us.
Taking a Look at Distribution
Take distribution as an example. Looking at purely digital companies that don’t have long standing relationships with the NCAA or conferences. And there’s a lot of them out there that people don’t even realize. Facebook Watch, Amazon Prime, Twitch, Flow Sports, 11 Sports, Caffeine Stadium. And I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch.
Once upon a time when leagues were trying to compete against, whether it’s the NFL or the MLB or whatever, you had four channels. Sometimes two or three channels. And those were your only options to distribute. That’s no longer a challenge today.
Getting the Product in Front of the People
We can get the product in front of people, but it’s about finding mission-aligned investors, going back to your original question now. Mission-aligned investors who understand what we’re trying to accomplish as much on the court as off the court. People that are going to understand that this is going to take time to develop and develop the right way.
What we launch with next June, a decade from now is probably going to look very — those two products are probably going to look very different. But because we have a clean slate, because we don’t have a century’s worth of policies and procedures that have always been in place that we have to follow. We can tweak and go back and forth on different things to find out what the fans want. What’s going to be supported. What the players want and so, I mean, yeah, it’s all a challenge. But if it was easy, someone would have already done what we’re doing.
This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.
This shows how being disruptive works. It is about introducing a new idea and getting it to work.