Carl George sends text messages as if each letter costs $100. Instead of, “Hey, there’s been a change of plans,” George will write, “Change.” And then he’ll describe the change, briefly. Multipart questions that demand lengthy responses are often answered with a single sentence. This can feel like a frustrating affectation until you see the device from which George sends these messages: a fixer-upper of an iPhone with a worn, red case that pings with calls, texts, and emails at a bewildering rate. One look at that phone makes it clear that he communicates so tersely not because he can’t be bothered to do otherwise, but rather because it’s the only way to ensure he’ll respond to you before it rings again.
The Champions Basketball League, which George founded and runs, has a real, physical office in Manhattan, but its de facto headquarters is wherever George and his phone happen to be. This summer, that has meant that the CBL has been all over the country. Changing the landscape of professional basketball in America, it turns out, requires a lot of travel. Especially when things aren’t going exactly as planned.
It has become trite to point out that the NBA is now a year-round league. The end of the Finals pivots immediately into draft hype, which leads into summer league, which coincides with free agency, which, now annually, shifts the balance of power in the league. This summer, in particular, has felt all-consuming: a wild draft, mega-trades before and after the start of a busy free agency, and now, late in August, Kyrie Irving’s shocking move to Boston.
But while the NBA fulfills its manifest destiny across all 12 months of the calendar, a different offseason movement has taken hold in professional basketball. This has been a summer not just of continued NBA expansion, but also of blossoming NBA alternatives — off-brand leagues that are jockeying for the attention of fans looking for on-court basketball with which to tide themselves over until October. The Big3, the three-on-three league cofounded by Ice Cube and headlined by Allen Iverson, has been touring the country since June; The Basketball Tournament, a high-stakes, single-elimination contest featuring former college stars and obscure journeymen, aired on ESPN. Even the NBA’s D-League, searching for a jolt of corporate buzz, teamed with Gatorade and rebranded itself the “G-League”; local runs like Los Angeles’s Drew League, thanks to high-quality play and cameos from NBA mega-stars, have sprung onto casual fans’ radars. Occasionally, their highlights make an appearance on SportsCenter.
The one thing that unites all of these leagues is that they almost certainly will fail. America is sports obsessed, but also particular about its consumption. Over the past 60 or so years, almost every new league, every alternative or companion to the big four of the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL, has eventually flamed out. Lurking among this summer’s startups, though, is the Champions Basketball League, Carl George’s brainchild and the one that — according to George, at least — is finally going to break through.
I first heard about George’s league almost two years ago, when USA Today reported that it was set to launch in the summer of 2016. What George and the CBL seemed to understand was that, for the basketball aficionado, there’s a dissonance between the personal connection the game fosters and the practical distance it enforces. NBA stars are now some of the world’s biggest celebrities, and college basketball is rapidly professionalizing. As elite athletes grow both more beloved and less reachable, the CBL seemed intent on giving fans — especially young ones — some of that intimacy back.
In early 2016, I wrote to George and the league, but never got a response. And when that summer came, the CBL was nowhere to be found. This, I later learned, was not the CBL’s first pump fake. In November 2013, George had teased an earlier iteration of the league, which he’d called the U.S. Pro Athlete Enterprises Extension Basketball League. George told reporters that the league would launch in the summer of 2014, but nothing came of the declaration. The CBL has experienced a failure to launch in the past. It wouldn’t be the last time.
I finally met George in July, on the heels of what had been a tumultuous few months for his league. In 2015, the CBL announced its plan to launch with 16 teams, but earlier this summer cut that number down to 12. The inaugural season was supposed to start in July, and yet when we met, there had still been no games, the league had announced only three rosters, and the proposed schedule for the regular season and playoffs remained unconfirmed.
This spring, George raised the stakes of this summer’s launch by allowing fans to buy shares in the CBL’s flagship teams, the Gotham Ballers and Los Angeles SuperStars. The program has been a boon for the CBL. The Ballers have raised more than $600,000 in investment money — at their own valuation of roughly $80 million — and the SuperStars have raised more than $130,000. It has also drawn heightened scrutiny. As the summer drew on without a CBL launch, fans who otherwise might have been simply impatient began to fear that they were being fleeced. Investors voiced their anxieties on the public message boards for each team’s StartEngine page. “I think this is a scam,” one investor wrote. Another posted, “It has been several months and I have nothing to show for my investment,” adding that it was “alarming that we are in the middle of July with no schedule out yet.”
If George was dismayed by this reality, however, he didn’t show it. He was in Las Vegas for a weekend of meetings with the majority of the CBL’s brain trust: Mark Scoggins, who runs the league’s Western Conference; Bernt Ullmann, one of the CBL’s major investors and a key consultant; and Lisa Dinndorf, a league executive. The weekend seemed to be less about damage control and more about looking toward the future. On George’s slate was a meeting with a potential owner of a 2018 “expansion team” and exploratory conversations with potential business partners. He was relaxed and warm, and eager to tell me the origin story of the league, this time in greater detail than the time he had before, over the phone.
George, 56, is a software developer. He dropped out of college to start his first company, which he sold, at age 24, to Caterpillar Tractor. Later, he sold an educational software program, EdView, to Steve Jobs, who included it on the original iMac. If there is a through line to the software companies with whom he’s worked — seven in all, four of which were sold to Fortune 100 companies — it is that they solve logistical problems. And what inspired George to start the CBL was not a passion for sports, but a passion for a logistical conundrum.
Every year, the NBA cuts around 120 players. Once a player is cut, he has two choices: leave the country in hopes of extending his pro career, or stay in the United States and make, relative to the previous year, almost nothing. George told me that according to his calculations the average NBA player will make $3 million in his last season and around $25,000 the next year, mostly by selling his autograph. (He declined to share his methodology.) This sudden nosedive in earning power made no sense to George. How could there be no intermediate step between NBA glory and nearly total obscurity? More precisely, why had nobody built one?
It wasn’t, he learned, for lack of trying. Players in this predicament often search for a middle ground, attempting to monetize their talents while remaining in America by starting camps, clinics, and other companies related to basketball. George found, though, that these efforts fail almost every time.
“We did the math: There’s been 70,000 athletes that left their pro sports since 1950, and there’s no significant business founded by and run by professional athletes to speak of,” George told me. “There are business successes, but none of them are in their sports. The greatest professionals in their sport, in the world, and yet no successful business.” (Magic Johnson might have something to say about George’s claim.)
George realized that there were two main reasons for this gap. The first is that these businesses are expensive to start; the second has to do with fame. George estimates that of the roughly 450 players in the NBA, only about 50 enjoy fame that rises above that of their teammates. When an average player walks into a restaurant, most people will say, “‘He must have been in the NBA,’ instead of ‘that’s so-and-so,’” George said. “Their celebrity status as an athlete, 97 to 98 percent of the time, is entirely dependent on the fact that they play a team sport.” According to George, this reality creates a kind of paradox: Any player famous enough to successfully launch a basketball business on his own is likely so rich that the whole process isn’t worthwhile, but an anonymous 24-year-old who’s just been cut doesn’t have the name or the cash to do it himself.
George realized, then, that a solution to this problem — and the profits that potentially awaited whoever found it — required two things: a league to reestablish these former players as celebrities, and a business plan to monetize all of that resurrected fame. Then he attacked the problem like any diligent computer nerd: He researched everyone who had attempted this before to understand where they went wrong.
George is not a natural sports fan, but he has, through hard work, made himself into one. George talks about sports like someone who has studied a new language relentlessly but has never been to a country where it’s spoken. He knows an incredible number of highly specific sports facts — the average age of a player on pro golf’s senior tour, what percentage of NFL players are injured at the time they’re cut, how many professional athletes there are in America — and can speak eloquently about seemingly every aspect of sports business. Occasionally, though, a phrase will land strangely — like when George refers to someone as “the first player traded by Duke to the NBA” — serving as a reminder that you are talking to a sports outsider.
This doesn’t embarrass George. Rather, he and his team consider it a point of pride, proof that that their league is undergirded by rational business principles and not one person’s naive fandom. George, Bernt Ullmann told me, “Didn’t necessarily say, ‘Gee whiz, I love basketball, I’m going to start another league.’ He said, ‘I reject the proposition that someone can be worth millions of dollars in one moment, and the next moment be worth zero.’”
George’s research took three years. It turned out that many people had the same idea, and most of them had failed spectacularly. George found roughly 300 abandoned startup leagues — from high-profile disasters like the XFL to quieter failures like the World Basketball League, which barred players taller than 6-foot-5 and folded after five years. He also found a few business models that worked fairly well, like those of the Harlem Globetrotters, Minor League Baseball, and the MLS. He hired people from successful leagues as consultants, and together they condensed the shortcomings of all of America’s failed leagues into four rules.
“We codified it, we studied it, and we drew the answers that came from the analysis,” George said. “And then we built a business in light of the answers, not ignoring the answers.”
George is tall and tan, and talks with a measured, easy cadence. He delivers the CBL’s pitch less like a stump speech and more like a college lecture — you can ask questions, but he’ll quickly steer the action back to his narrative. The primary message is somewhat counterintuitive: To show how prepared he is for every possible pitfall, he explains, in minute detail, all of the reasons that people like him fail, and how familiar he is with each of them.
George refers to his key findings as his “four rules,” but taken together, they are less like a list and more like a kind of gantlet, four roadblocks that all startup leagues face and that almost none have survived. The first of George’s four rules: You will not profit from games. And not just on tickets themselves, but everything — parking, concessions, T-shirt sales — that is sold in the arena on game day. For every dollar the NBA spends on a game, George said, it gets back only 30 cents in the arena; Minor League Baseball gets back 70 cents. (Again, George did not share his methodology for these calculations.) His study was littered with leagues that went under because they projected they’d make money on game day and didn’t build other revenue streams to prepare for the possibility that they wouldn’t.
When leagues realize that they can’t profit from games alone, George said, they almost invariably turn to the same solution: television. This leads to rule №2: Don’t rely on TV. According to George, a typical TV deal for a startup league, however, is one where the station pays the league nothing and places it in an undesirable time slot, but offers a third of the ad revenue. “They give away their two-thirds of the commercials for free, to their sponsors, because you’re untried,” George said. “Now you’re out trying to sell commercials that they’re giving away for free, and you die.”
These first two rules, George told me, account for “why 98 percent of the leagues die.” The few who manage to survive the economic realities of game day and television inevitably run into two problems. The first is what George calls “coverage,” or, specifically, a lack of it — when the interest in your league is so concentrated in one star or team that it isn’t scalable. This is rule no. 3: Don’t depend on the coverage. American professional soccer has been hampered by coverage twice, first when the North American Soccer League brought Pelé to America but couldn’t get fans interested in the games he wasn’t playing in, and again when MLS ran into virtually the same problem with David Beckham.
Finally, George said, MLS figured it out, with an innovation that the CBL said it will copy. Unlike the NFL or NBA, which sells off its teams, Major League Soccer owns every team in the league, and licenses them out. In doing so, MLS skirted George’s fourth rule: A startup league must retain ownership of its teams. If it sells franchises outright it also sells the market that comes with that team, and if the team fails in that city it either has to bail out the owner or lose that market.
These rules, George says, explain every single failed American league since World War II, and the CBL would prosper only if it was designed with all four in mind. So George plans to lose 50 cents for every dollar he spends on game day, and plans on making no money from television for the first three years. To turn a profit while losing money on games and making no money from TV, George has built out seven other revenue streams, comprising exactly the kinds of things — camps, clinics, charity golf tournaments, international exhibition games, merchandizing — that athletes have long tried to start but have lacked the capital to pull off alone. To protect its markets, the league will be the majority owner of every team, which in turn allows it to construct teams with an even distribution of star power on each roster.
This model inverts the common sense about how leagues should make money. The seven smaller revenue streams aren’t designed to draw fans to the games — it’s the on-court action that serves as promotion for the camps and events. “All of that, together, becomes our business,” George told me. Champions Basketball League is really “an events company.”
The CBL would play in cities that already had NBA teams, but would play only during the NBA offseason — a 14-game regular season followed by a single-elimination championship tournament in Las Vegas. The CBL would harness the basketball fandom of NBA cities during the summertime, and then spend the fall, winter, and spring playing everywhere the NBA doesn’t. “There’s 29 states in the U.S. with no NBA team,” George said. “Seventy of the top 100 cities, 48 of the top 50 countries. So the addressable market is really large. Where can we play basketball? In front of 4 billion people.” Everyone who caught a CBL game would be another potential customer for a CBL kids camp, or charity golf tournament, or sweatshirt.
After years of interviews, consultations, and spreadsheets, George said he had found not just a solution to the epidemic of failed sports leagues, but, if his research was correct, practically the only solution. He had cracked the code. Now all he needed was some basketball players.
The most passionate sports fans are, somewhat ironically, often the quickest to trash the athletes we obsess over — benchwarmers “suck”; an injury-prone player is “soft.” George, though, speaks about replacement-level players with a profound, endearing reverence.
“The last guy on the last team at the end of the bench in the NBA is in the top 500 players in the world. That’s an enormous accomplishment,” he told me. “A pro basketball player has spent more time in his sport than your doctor has spent in medical school, college, and high school combined.” And yet, according to Sports Illustrated, 60 percent of former NBA players go broke within five years of retirement.
Many startup leagues have treated this financial precariousness like a business advantage, and have lowballed their athletes. The CBL however, proclaims that its salaries will be abnormally competitive. For the regular season and playoffs, as well as a handful of offseason exhibition games, clinics, and events — about 80 total days of work, George estimates — a player in the CBL will make an average of $200,000. The rest of the year, players can do whatever they want, including play overseas.
The CBL is only for players who have played, for at least a single game, in the NBA, and all players must be no more than three years removed from their last professional season. This requirement is meant to ensure a high level of play, but it also serves as a marketing hook. “Players only from the NBA,” reads a page of the prospectus that George hands to potential investors. In the corner of its laminated cover is the NBA logo.
George wants his league to become “part of the ecosystem” in the NBA, so that the transition from the NBA to the CBL is eventually as natural as the transition from college to the pros. “What we built,” George said, “is really in the middle of uprooting your whole life to play overseas, and making nothing.”
Word of the CBL has quickly spread through NBA circles, and some players said they couldn’t believe how good it sounded. John Wallace, who starred at Syracuse before being drafted by the Knicks in 1996 and enjoying an seven-year NBA career, has signed on to coach the Gotham Ballers. “I would have played in Champions League as long as they would have allowed me to,” Wallace said. “Play for two months in the summer and get a six-figure check? I mean, who wouldn’t do that?” In the past six months, George told me, the CBL has turned away between 300 and 400 aspiring players.
George’s pitch didn’t stop at big salaries and cushy hours. In the CBL’s players he saw not just athletic talent, but also future employees of the league’s business operations. Players with limited post-basketball career options could become the managers and coordinators George needed to staff his “events company” and run its seven revenue streams.
He calls this job-training program “Champions University,” and it caught the attention of Mark Scoggins. Scoggins grew up next to Inglewood’s Great Western Forum. At 16, he got a job there selling peanuts and popcorn in the stands, and spent the next few decades working his way up the Lakers’ corporate ladder. Eventually, he became the executive vice president of corporate sponsorships for the Lakers and the WNBA’s Sparks. From there, he spent more than five years as executive vice president of corporate partners and relationships at Magic Johnson Enterprises, the Lakers legend’s sprawling collection of businesses.
When he met George, Scoggins was working in Chicago, as the chief revenue officer for the NBA’s Retired Players Association. When he heard about the CBL and Champions University, he was ecstatic. “The first thing I thought was ‘job creation,’” Scoggins told me. “Carl’s vision is exactly what the RPA’s was, and that’s to try to develop these guys’ careers after they retire.”
Scoggins left the RPA in 2014 and by November 2016 he’d joined the CBL. In Scoggins, George found a true insider, someone with a lifetime of basketball experience and a commitment to helping retired players. “They can’t all get into broadcasting, they can’t all get into coaching,” Scoggins said. “I want these guys to shadow me in the front office and learn how to put deals together and talk to ownership groups and all that stuff.” (The CBL, though, has yet to share any kind of plan for operationalizing this program, and Champions University is not mentioned in the 20-plus-page prospectus given to potential owners.)
Younger players who still have their best basketball ahead of them are key to the CBL’s success. But those players — cut before their primes and relatively unknown — aren’t famous enough to entice fans. The ones who are — who made tens of millions in the NBA and are too old to be considering a comeback — wouldn’t be moved by the six-figure paycheck or the job training.
What George offers them, instead, is a facsimile of NBA life. The night before games, George said the league will host player dinners that serve as small NBA reunions, and that he has made sure that player accommodations are appropriately luxurious. “Everyone flies first class, stays in the Marriott,” he told me. Eventually, George plans to start a player services unit to handle some of the things that NBA teams usually take care of for their players, like apartment and car maintenance, and tax filing. For players who miss the perks of their old lives, the CBL might be as close as it gets to being back in the NBA.
Scoggins estimates that the CBL’s current players are split evenly between those who are playing because they really need the opportunity, and those who are playing purely because they miss the competition and camaraderie. Daniel “Booby” Gibson sits, in a way, right in the middle of this divide. After two seasons at Texas, he was drafted by Cleveland in the second round, became a productive sidekick to pre-Decision LeBron, and signed a five-year, $21 million deal to remain with the team. That contract, though, would be his last.
Gibson is now a musician and a cast member on the VH1 reality show Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, in which he stars alongside his estranged wife, singer Keyshia Cole. He told me that his primary interest in joining the league was the chance to alleviate his “competition depression.”
“When you don’t have to wake up every day and get in the gym, and go up against those top athletes, you try to figure out where to find that fire,” he said. “And when it’s done for some guys, it’s hard for them to figure it out. I feel like this league will give guys that opportunity to figure it out while still having the opportunity to compete.”
Gibson appreciates that George and his team take the CBL players’ off-court ambitions and talents seriously. “As a basketball player, you kind of get boxed in, and people just automatically say that that’s all you’re able to do, that’s all you’ll ever be able to do,” he said. “And that, to me, is the worst thing you could say, because I could have gone to college on an academic scholarship.”
And while he said that the CBL is his first priority, Gibson is excited to use his reentry into pro basketball to promote his music and his reality television gig. “I’ll be able to showcase my ability as a writer, and as a musician, but at the same time be able to showcase my ability as a very, very talented basketball player,” he said.
On the morning I spoke to Gibson, I noticed that he appeared on the roster of both the Gotham Ballers and the L.A. SuperStars. I asked him, somewhat uncomfortably, if he knew which team he was actually on.
“I’m playing wherever they want me to go,” he said, laughing a bit. “I can get traded any day. As many games as I can play, I’ll play. But I think — right now, I’m in L.A. — so I believe I’m on the L.A. team.”
The CBL’s leadership glows when discussing the talent and charm of its players. “They’re just one-of-a-kind, every one of them,” Dinndorf, the executive, told me. But there is one unfortunate reality about which the league does not mince words. “Our guys are not in the top 500 in the world. They’re just not, and they won’t be. That belongs to the NBA,” George told me. Selling former NBA players on the CBL and its enticing combination of short hours, nice paychecks, and luxury perks wasn’t hard. But selling fans on subpar talent is a tougher task.
On quality of basketball, the CBL will always be vastly inferior to the NBA. So George said he has had to design his league to be vastly superior in every other regard. His teams will play in college-sized arenas, offering more intimacy and better views of the game. Ticket prices will range between $18 and $45, with the average admission costing $25. With a short, 14-game regular season and a March Madness–style, single-elimination playoffs, he’s combined the best of the every-game-matters NFL and the anything-can-happen NCAA. As more fans get priced out of NBA arenas, the CBL could be well positioned as an affordable pro basketball alternative. “Our core demographic is a family of four that’s never been to an NBA game,” George said.
The CBL also plans to entice these families with an unprecedented level of player access. The first hundred kids at every game will get to participate in the pregame shootaround; after the game, players will stay on the court for around an hour to take pictures, sign autographs, and schmooze. “To walk onto the court [after the game], versus walking out of the arena,” George said, “is magical.” Rosters have been constructed, George told me, with an eye toward both parity and local support. The Gotham Ballers roster and front office is stocked with former Knicks and Nets, and players who grew up in New York; ditto for the Los Angeles SuperStars and Boston Rebellion.
Bernt Ullmann is the president and CEO of Star Branding, an agency he started with Tommy Hilfiger, Andy Hilfiger, and Joe Lamastra. Between 1999 and 2004 he was president of FUBU, and he currently works with Jennifer Lopez, Adam Levine, and Nicki Minaj. Ullmann was partly behind the idea to outfit each roster with hometown heroes. “It stands to reason that this comet, the celebrity comet of the players, there is a tail — it doesn’t just go to zero,” he said. Placing each player in the city where his celebrity was at its peak, he told me, “is how you keep that star shining.”
The primary purpose of the Las Vegas trip in July was a meeting with Floyd Mayweather, an acquaintance of George’s who, he said, was close to agreeing to be the lead owner of a CBL “expansion team” in the city. George warned me that Mayweather’s schedule was subject to change, especially since he was slated to fight Conor McGregor in a matter of weeks, but it had been my understanding, based on our pre-trip conversations, that I would be able to sit in on the meeting if it did happen. At a Starbucks at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, George ran down his itinerary. “I’m supposed to go see Floyd, so I will not take you with me there,” he said. “We’re still negotiating with Floyd, but we’re in agreement, basically. If I was one step further, I’d take you to the meeting.”
To counter, perhaps, this bad news, George took out his phone and showed me a video of him and Walt Frazier, who is the Gotham Ballers’ president, sending a “Christmas card” to Mayweather. Hey Floyd, George says from the backseat of a car, we thought we’d say hello. I’m here with Walt, and he told me he saw you at a number of Knicks games this year. Frazier smiles into the camera and says, What’s up, Champ! What’s going on? “That was our Christmas card. And how joyful is that?” George said. “Literally, in every way.” He offered to buy me a frozen yogurt, and then took off.
In Las Vegas, I found the CBL’s brain trust to be a mix of contrite and defiant. Everyone I spoke with acknowledged that the delays and setbacks were a problem, but strongly rejected the notion that they were proof of carelessness. Instead, they considered them evidence of extreme caution and prudence.
“People say to us often, ‘Why did it take you three years?’” George said. “My response is, do you understand how much work it took to not just be another failure? [And] we still have to execute to make sure we don’t fail.”
The regular season, George said, would be shortened to four or five games, and serve as an “inaugural summer showcase” of what’s to come in 2018, when the CBL will expand to 24 teams. There would still be a playoff tournament this September, at the end of which the players on the winning team would split $1 million. The CBL was close, Dinndorf told me, to agreeing with an arena to host those games.
The CBL seemed caught in a pickle that was both of its own design and, if you buy George’s research findings, completely unavoidable. Running a new league with enough perks to lure players who are popular enough to entice fans is incredibly expensive. So, too, is building a fan experience that is attractive enough to overcome the challenge of employing players who are no longer the best in the world.
Assuming each roster has 10 players, a single season of salaries could cost the league roughly $24 million. Add to that compensation for coaches and staff, the costs of renting stadiums, travel for the players, and all the other things that a sports league needs to run smoothly, and the margin of error is spectacularly thin.
In June, the CBL told me that there would be two player training camps, one in California and one in New York. I made plans to attend. A few days before training camp was scheduled to start, however, it was postponed. A few weeks after that, the postponed dates were scrapped. When I asked Scoggins why training camps had been canceled, he cited the prohibitive costs of flying players out for something that wasn’t going to bring in revenue. “We weren’t as financially fiscal as we wanted to be in certain areas,” he told me. “[But] we were in other areas.”
Dinndorf, whose résumé includes stints at Microsoft and Rollerblade, is responsible for personally answering every angry comment on the StartEngine pages, and was feeling the effects of the delays in a visceral way. She told me that the league’s front office was discussing what they would wear to the inaugural game, and some people suggested wearing shirts with their names on the back, like a jersey. “I thought, I’m not sure I want my name on the back of mine, because, literally, there’ll be so many people mad at me,” she said. “And you [also] have the guy who’s like, ‘Lisa! Hey! Thanks! This is my son! Remember I emailed you 14 times?’”
Dinndorf was also worried that the CBL was losing control of its own narrative. Its mission, she said, was gigantic: extend the careers of athletes and honor their accomplishments, and at the same time give joy to families who have been priced out of professional sports and have seen their idols become increasingly unreachable as the big four leagues grow larger and richer.
“What I’m most nervous about is that the story gets told [as] a straight-up basketball story, and they bite us about that part,” she said. “The story is so much bigger than a summer season, and where I think we’ll get torn down is, ‘This was shorter than you said’; ‘you haven’t announced the teams’ — all these pieces that are easy to bite us about.”
Two weeks after my conversation with Dinndorf, Deadspin published a story that was a near-perfect reflection of her anxieties. The piece, written by Tom Ley, was published on August 10 with the headline “Startup Basketball League Talks Big, Gets Big Investment from Fans, Fails to Start on Time.” In the piece, Ley outlined a number of the CBL’s shortcomings, including its string of delays this summer. Ley also reported that representatives for Kenyon Martin, one of the CBL’s marquee stars, told him that Martin was not involved with the Gotham Ballers. An assistant for Shawn Marion, another Gotham Baller, told Ley that Marion’s involvement with the CBL was “up in the air,” and added, “I hope it doesn’t happen. Who wants to pay to see a bunch of old guys play basketball?” And contrary to what the league had been telling investors all summer, Ley reported that Nassau Coliseum had not confirmed that it would be hosting any Gotham Ballers games.
Some of my conversations in Las Vegas felt similarly incongruous. George’s acknowledgment of the CBL’s players not being in the world’s top 500 seemed to clash with his assertion that, “We can build teams, quite frankly, that would win the silver in the Olympics, no problem. And I’m not overstating the case — that’s really the case.” On their crowdfunding pages, the Ballers and SuperStars advertise perks packages that include the opportunity to watch the teams practice. I asked Scoggins how, given that not every CBL player lives in his team’s city, the teams would find time to practice together. He said, “There won’t be those practices in the sense of traditional practices. There will be walk-throughs, the day of the game.”
When George listed the offseason pursuits the CBL schedule gave players the flexibility to pursue, he said, “Go back to medical school and continue to play, become a congressman and continue to play.” He then added, “All examples, by the way, of players that we have.” I asked George who in the CBL was running for Congress, and he said, “As we announce the teams, I’ll take you through the rosters. I don’t play the name game beyond [that].”
On my second day in Las Vegas, I met everyone for lunch at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. Half the TVs above the bar were switched to ESPN, which was airing The Basketball Tournament. George and Ullmann had just met with someone who was trying to start what sounded like a luxury Airbnb, for things like mansions and yachts. The CBL was intrigued by the possibility of linking this company with some of its players, and then offering its superfans a chance to rent, for a weekend, their favorite player’s unoccupied vacation home.
The CBL is priced for a family that can’t afford to attend an NBA game, but the league has also built into its model features at the other end of the financial spectrum. A $25,000 investment in the L.A. SuperStars, for instance, gets fans, among other things, access to one of the exclusive player dinners, and the opportunity to be an honorary assistant coach for a game. Dinndorf told me, also, that she and George are building an app that will allow fan investors to buy unoccupied seats on the flights that their team takes to road games. “They’ll be able to travel with the team,” she told me. “It should have been live like a week ago. I am getting bombarded with, ‘Where’s this thing?’”
At lunch, we discussed the Las Vegas expansion team. “Floyd Mayweather is a lead owner. You can say that in print,” George told me. But George’s meeting with Mayweather was scheduled for later that afternoon. “Floyd’s first request was could he play on one of our teams,” George told me. “The answer was ‘No.’ Hasn’t been in the NBA.”
George was similarly upfront about the inaugural game, which he told me was now slated for August 16. He described it as “a four-hour celebration of basketball and music and fun in New York City,” and gave me a detailed rundown of the action. “We have the basketball announcer from Rucker Park, Hannibal, on the court. We have DJ Clue from Power 105 — he’s gonna be the DJ for the day,” George said. “Cardi B is going to sing at halftime, and T.I. is going to do six to eight songs at the conclusion of the game. And then he’s going to be part of the reception on the floor, along with our players and our fans.”
When I returned from Las Vegas, there was still no public announcement of the August 16 opener. A few days later, I received an email noting that the start date had again been pushed back.
Amazingly, the CBL is not the only league that George and his team are preparing to launch. They are planning, eventually, to have similar leagues and event companies for baseball, hockey, football, and a number of summer and winter Olympic sports.
“Football will launch next year, in 2018,” Dinndorf told me. “There’s no question about that. The other sports, I think, will be based on how football rolls, and the Olympics will be based on how those roll.”
The football initiative will be different, Dinndorf and George explained to me, in that there will be no league, no teams, and no games — just camps and events — largely because most retired NFL players are too injured to play again. “Football will be in all 50 states,” Dinndorf told me. “What football will do is anchor us in each state, and the rest of the businesses will be easier to build, because there will be an infrastructure in each state.”
George told me that he also wants his leagues to revolutionize the way we use technology to watch sports. “Think about body cams and sound,” he implored. “I’m listening to the announcer, and six players [wearing body cameras and microphones]. And oh yeah, I’m not even at the game — I’m in Taiwan.”
His pace quickened as he imagined other possibilities. “Do write a paragraph about what can be. The world needs to hear this stuff. They need to think differently. Why isn’t the first 10 minutes before every baseball game a home run derby for charity? Want to change baseball? Make the last 10 minutes before the game a home run derby — $10,000 to the winner’s charity,” he said. “Everybody wants to see that! Nothing’s different! Write that for me. Write that one piece — why isn’t that the last 10 minutes? I’ve told that to 10 different [MLB] owners.”
To Dinndorf, the uproar about the CBL’s struggles comes down to a matter of aperture. She understands investor frustration, but seems to feel that that being a little under months late, in the scope of what they’re building, isn’t a disaster. “It’s easy, with all startups, to point at the things that could be wrong, or aren’t right, or why it won’t work,” she said. “The truth is that it really is a revolution for all the constituents, for sports, if we can bring affordable sports — really affordable — at this pro-level quality.”
It would be unfair at this point to conclude that the CBL will fail, or is being dishonest, simply because it has run into some of the challenges — rising costs, schedule changes — that many startups face. In some ways, the league has already earned vindication from the Deadspin piece. It announced, recently, that Nassau Coliseum would indeed host the first CBL game, the Ballers versus the Superstars, on August 23, and began to sell tickets.
The launch, though, was dotted with inconsistencies from the outset. The rosters for opening night were considerably different — and featured far less star power — than what the CBL continues to advertise on its website. Martin and Marion were missing from the Ballers’ roster, as Deadspin had suggested they might be; the Superstars were set to feature only two of the nine players it advertised all summer. (Many of those missing players have been participating in the Big3.) And the season was set to start with the rosters of nine of the CBL’s 12 teams — the Philadelphia Glory, Miami Beach Kings, Atlanta Speed, Phoenix Desert Cats, Dallas Dunkers, Chicago Hoopers, San Francisco Cyber Ballers, Orlando Juice, and Detroit Powerdrive — still unannounced.
On Tuesday, the day before opening night, the CBL announced via Facebook that the game was being postponed. It attributed the delay to “circumstances beyond our control,” and promised to refund all ticket purchases.
Later that night, on the Ballers’ StartEngine page, George offered a surprising response to a frustrated commenter. “When we release the details on this Thursday you will see the depth of the issues we have been wrestling with for the past 20 days,” he wrote. “As you will see we are suing for tens of millions of dollars so this is a major issue and we have all the history and background to win.” George did not specify who the league planned to sue, or why.
Later that night, George sent me an email that expanded on, but did not clarify, the circumstances of the postponement. “Despite our good faith, fair dealings and established legal rights, third parties have acted improperly to prevent the scheduled launch of our season,” he wrote. “We are in the process of filing a significant lawsuit this week. We will release the details of this in a formal statement on Friday.” This email, it seemed, had been sent out to every fan investor. It included George’s cell phone number, which he encouraged recipients to use if they had any questions before the official statement was released on Friday.
The news of the postponed game and impending lawsuit — and George’s reframing of this development — felt like a microcosm of the CBL’s summer. “We have earmarked 25% of the damages from this lawsuit to go to the players and 25% to go to the Gotham and LA SuperFAN [sic] owners,” George wrote in his email. He mentioned this in his StartEngine comment, too. “So there is a way,” George wrote, referring to the lawsuit and the earmarked money, “[that] it will greatly benefit all.” George was again plowing forward, spinning the CBL’s greatest humiliation as a golden opportunity for players and fans.
I had left Las Vegas not quite sure what the CBL was, or what it would eventually become. I had thought that I would see the inner workings of a major new development in professional sports. Instead, I was offered a sales pitch studded with a hint of radical honesty. As we parted in July, Carl George made me an offer. “Quite frankly,” he said, “shadow us over the next year.” It was the CBL experience all at once: an invitation, a request, a preen, a prediction, a delay, a hope. The schedule, it seemed, was once again being pushed back. And once again, I felt intrigued enough to stick around.