The Historical Basketball League (HBL), a brand new form of college basketball set to launch in 2020, is marketing itself as “the first college basketball league to compensate and educate its players based on their market value.” It is rethinking the NCAA’s definition of amateurism while attempting to improve the economic outlook of their athletes and help build the athlete’s individual brand. Many have offered solutions to “fix” the NCAA, the HBL is taking action. CEO and Co-Founder Ricky Volante believes that “this could be the perfect storm of circumstances to finally bring about wholesale changes to collegiate sports.”
HBL vs. NCAA
Year after year, we see 68 schools and their recruits compete in the NCAA tournament. While many have acknowledged the inherent unfairness in college athletes supporting a billion dollar industry, the NCAA’s amateurism model lives on. The price for these players is a college scholarship, where more time is spent on basketball than attending classes. Sports economist Andy Schwarz, who is also Chief Innovation Officer and co-founder of the HBL, views the NCAA as an economic cartel that fixes prices, generates profits, and shares those amongst themselves, all in the embodiment of “amateurism.” The HBL intends to disrupt that model by shifting the market towards one that includes negotiations and fair dealings between players and leagues.
The NCAA’s near-monopoly over college athletics operates without a market to distribute profits, and according to Schwarz, the odd man out is historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Where in 2016, a Division I HBCU could account for $950,000 in NCAA revenue, a Division I SEC school would pull in $41 million. Consequently, highly ranked schools produce NCAA advertising revenue, which would then go back into their basketball programs, creating an inability for a lower revenue HBCU to compete.
But, the HBL isn’t directly competing with the NCAA, and in fact a school who joins the HBL won’t be precluded from also being NCAA affiliated. The HBL season will be played in the summer, with championship contests held on holiday weekends. The idea is that players will not miss classes to attend games, allowing them to focus on academics as much as basketball. The HBL views itself as parallel to the NCAA on campuses, whereas they mean to only add revenue rather than directly replace any the school gains from the NCAA.
Player Benefits On and Off the Court
Unlike the NCAA, players will earn a minimum salary of $50,000 to $150,000 per season, group licensing opportunities through the HBL and its corporate partners, have the opportunity to sign endorsement agreements, and the ability to monetize their social media accounts. Beyond providing the players with money, the HBL intends to help develop the human behind the player by offering workshops and seminars such as financial literacy and insurance policies. The league is also offering five-year scholarships ranging from need-based to academic and athletic. Beyond the pay and scholarship, the players will be provided with benefits that any other typical employee has. The HBL is providing players with a 401K and appropriate insurance plans put in place to handle any potential injuries.
The HBL aims to create a league where the players are treated as their own single-member LLC, whereby they’re provided with tools to develop their personal, business, and athletic brand. Players in the HBL are permitted to sign with an agent without sacrificing their eligibility, and are made visible to scouts through exposure by HBL streaming and broadcasting. Along with general games, players have the ability to participate in the Winter International All-Star Tour and Preseason Combine and Tournament, allowing players to also gain international exposure.
Historical Basketball League Inaugural Season
The HBL’s inaugural season will launch in June 2020 and consist of six teams in the Eastern Conference and six teams in the Western Conference, with plans to expand. To date, those cities have been narrowed down to twenty: Atlanta, Baltimore/Washington D.C., Boston, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Jacksonville/Miami, Pittsburgh/Philadelphia, Richmond, Austin/Houston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, New Orleans, Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and St. Louis. The HBL, in an attempt to better prepare its players for the NBA, will implement NBA-style rules including four 12 minute quarters, NBA three-point line, and a 24-second shot clock.
The Legitimacy of the HBL
In taking a major step towards its launch in 2020, the HBL hired two-time NBA champion David West as the league’s COO. In this role, he will oversee the development of basketball infrastructure, including recruitment, scouting, and NBA relations. With David West having played 15 seasons in the NBA, he has the first hand collegiate and professional experience needed to develop this league and be an invaluable mentor to incoming players.
West’s intention for the league is to attract talented college athletes who both want to play basketball and want to be compensated for it. The obvious challenge becomes raising enough money to start this league to make it into a viable NCAA alternative. Schwarz told the Wall Street Journal that it would take $30 to $40 million, in addition to generating revenue, to continue to operate the HBL. In an attempt to do so, the HBL has already secured funding from over a dozen investors and is in early-stage talks with streaming services. For partnerships like this to happen though, the HBL needs to secure top talent high school players.
To some people, the HBL is a gamble, one where an athlete is a few years away from making high pay money in the NBA, but is instead choosing to take a new route in the HBL that pays between $50,000 and $150,000. Another obstacle to attracting talent is the upcoming NBA G League, which will offer select players who are not draft eligible yet, the chance to play for $125,000. In response to this, Volante states the HBL allows players to have a say in which city they play in and to compete amongst other 18-23 year olds. According to Volante, HBL players will then avoid competing against the almost 30-year-old players fighting for their last chance at the NBA.
Volante points to West, and how his presence in the league sets them apart. West has been involved in discussions with the NBA and Player’s Association. He is also in tune with the mindset that motivates them, and how the NBA is focused on the players that reach their league, not the totality of college athletes. David West wants to create a league to bring “what’s going on under the table above the table.” The HBL has started the process of securing the necessary funding, but the question becomes will they be able to garner the top talent needed to draw in revenue and disrupt the monopoly.
Is the HBL the Answer?
Like it or not, changes are coming soon to the NCAA model. The NBA G-League has recently taken steps to raise salaries to entice high school players to join its ranks. College athletes have attempted unionization. The NCAA has been hit with numerous antitrust lawsuits, including the most recent decision in the Alston case. The HBL now intends to beat the NCAA “cartel” by creating a league that competes with it. Time will tell if the HBL is able to attract talent and ultimately become a viable option for high school players looking to gain an education while also being able to earn a living.