Despite his illustrious 17-year NBA career filled with highlight-reel dunks and seven All-Star selections, Tracy McGrady is in the same boat as many parents in 2023: He can’t get his two teenage sons to sit down and enjoy a live sports game.
But what his 13- and 17-year-old sons do watch, McGrady says, is short-form YouTube highlights. That sparked an idea to highlight what he calls “the pure essence” of basketball—what he grew up playing on his childhood driveway with siblings and buddies—that caters to shorter attention spans: one-on-one games.
“I know that there’s a pool of talent out there that nobody knows about,” McGrady says. “There is a great deal of world-class basketball talent that needs to be put on a platform where fans can sit down and be entertained by their skill set.”
McGrady partnered with Jeffrey Pollack—who is a serial sports entrepreneur known for founding The Sports Business Daily and holding senior executive roles with the NBA, Los Angeles Chargers and other professional sports leagues—to form the Ones Basketball League (OBL), which tipped off competition in April 2022 in Houston.
During its proof-of-concept season last year, OBL visited six regions across the United States: Houston, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, the District of Columbia, and Los Angeles. Each regional event started with 32 players, aged 18 and over, who competed in seven games on a Saturday (“seeding day”). The games were played half court and first to seven points or to 10 minutes (with the win going to whoever had the most points at 10 minutes).
The top eight players from seeding day then continue on to the “Sunday Showcase” and a three-round single-elimination tournament to determine the regional champion, who took home $10,000. The top three players from each region were invited to the OBL National Championship in Las Vegas (July 15 – 16) for a winner-take-all $250,000 prize.
McGrady says five players earned G-League tryouts, and one got invited to play overseas. He said these are the types of opportunities the OBL intends to provide for players going forward. This year’s winner was John Jordan, who took home the $250,000 championship prize, enough to move out of his mom’s house, five minutes from where McGrady lives in Houston.
The 2022 championship, with overtime, finished in just 15 minutes: perfect for a Gen-Z audience.
“That championship game was some of the greatest competition I’ve seen,” McGrady says. “Just the way it played out, we couldn’t have scripted it any better.””
But the competitors aren’t nationally ranked high schoolers or professionals looking to stay in shape in the off-season. McGrady says he wants the OBL to spotlight under-the-radar talent—from players at fitness gyms to those who just work on their game daily. McGrady says he found much of the talent on Instagram and through word of mouth. The league is not for players with more than two years in the NBA, he says.
Despite that, the competition and atmosphere didn’t disappoint in year one.
To make his vision a reality, McGrady had to put his “GM hat” on. McGrady needed someone experienced in building startup leagues, so he turned to Pollack, a partnership that McGrady says was a “no-brainer.”
“I was just praying and hoping that he was interested in coming on board and being a part of OBL,” McGrady says.
Pollack says he was already a fan of McGrady from the All-Star’s NBA days, but the two also share a law firm in Los Angeles, which made the introduction. They first talked over Zoom, and when McGrady began sharing his vision for OBL, Pollack said the chemistry between them was “immediate,” and it was an easy decision to come aboard.
“I heard a couple of things that resonated right away,”” Pollack says. “First was that OBL is perfectly designed to be a sports league that not only can be global but is geared directly to Gen Z. … I think we all know that the sports world is changing rapidly. Through the pandemic, everyone’s digital consumption habit accelerated probably five years in just 12 months, and more than ever before, we’re living in an age in the sports industry where new sports properties can, if they’re done right, quickly find their audience and footing and start to tell their stories.”
What also resonated with Pollack, he says, is how OBL reflects McGrady’s change-oriented mindset and heart: “Tracy very much wants to create a platform for change and opportunity. OBL is here to put a bright light on the lives of gifted players and talented athletes who, for whatever reason, have not had their moment,” Pollack says.
And once the first OBL event of the season launched in Houston, Pollack says he and McGrady accomplished two goals: prove that OBL’s style of one-on-one basketball creates exciting and meaningful competition for the participants, and show that it also provides an entertaining experience for the audience.
“When you go to an OBL event, you see the wall between the participants and the audience disappear,” Pollack says. “It all becomes a really interesting and exciting vortex of energy that is unlike anything I’ve encountered in 30 years in the sports industry.”
But in the proof-of-concept season, OBL wasn’t selling any tickets. Pollack says the first event in Houston saw 150 fans: “all friends and family.”
However, by the time the championship in Las Vegas rolled around, the Dollar Loan Center drew 1,500 people to watch Jordan win. In any case, Pollack says the inaugural season “wasn’t about revenue. It was about realizing the promise of Tracy’s remarkable vision, and we did that successfully. Now, plans are in place for our full launch, hopefully this year. We’re talking to the right strategic partners for media distribution and investment, and that’s all underway.”
At some point, OBL will have a global ranking system and competitors will play for ranking points—a system that’s already developed but not published. He says the OBL has already ranked the top 100 players in the country.
And to drive the league’s hope for a global brand, it wants to find talented players and compelling personalities, Pollack says.
“We like to think of ourselves as the American Idol of sports,” Pollack says. “The doors have now opened wide so that if you’re a player who hasn’t made it to the majors, you’re no longer discounted by the industry. There is now an opportunity for you to shine with OBL.”