SlamBall: The sport ahead of its time is making a long
With the NFL, the NBA, MLB and MLS, the US sports industry is a fiercely contested market, but Mason Gordon, the founder and CEO of SlamBall, is hoping that this gladiator-esque sport can attract fans.
First launched in 2000, SlamBall has become well known for viral social media clips of crazy moves and this July, after a two-decade hiatus, the sport is making a return in Las Vegas.
“SlamBall is all-contact basketball, four-on-four hockey-style substitutions, on the fly movement, and the physicality of American football or rugby piled on for good measure,” Gordon tells CNN Sport.
The sport has four trampolines in front of each basket, leading to jaw-dropping moves as players bounce as high as 20 feet in the air.
In the early 2000s, excitement around the sport earned SlamBall a TV deal, but subsequently it has been out of the limelight in the US, though interest has kept on bubbling on social media.
“SlamBall is special because it’s a brand that has lived on in social media in a really powerful way. It’s almost become like this mythical thing with younger demographics,” reflects Gordon.
Making its comeback for a 2023 summer league, SlamBall will be back on TV screens, via ESPN, and hopes to attract new viewers.
“I had this recurring dream all the time,” Gordon says of the origins of the sport. “Every time I would go to sleep, there were these two figures, and they would come up into frame, they would collide and then they would fall out of frame.”
While Gordon dreamed, another up-and-coming sport, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), was beginning to make its mark in popular culture.
“My mind was blown by the idea [of UFC] because I think a lot of people were looking at it as a freak show,” says Gordon.
The SlamBall founder remembers seeing Gerard Gordeau face kicking Taylor Wily in the first-ever UFC fight and being captivated by their contrasting styles and combination of skills in the Octagon – fascinated by how fighters from different backgrounds came together to create a new and exciting form of sporting entertainment.
It ultimately inspired Gordon to create his own sport.
“It was taking the idea of that concept of smashing all these team sport elements together, and then marrying that to the dream that I had of the figures colliding in the air.”
So Gordon reached for a napkin, made an initial sketch and SlamBall was born.
The sport quickly gained popularity in its first home – a warehouse in east Los Angeles and, soon, thousands of people were coming down to watch amateurs take on this new and exciting game.
Stan “Shakes” Fletcher was one of the sport’s early stars.
“We like to say he’s an alien from a planet that already had SlamBall,” laughs Gordon as he talks about Fletcher, who is apparently nicknamed ‘Shakes’ because “he has all the moves.”
Fletcher was the real life embodiment of Gordon’s desire to intertwine and connect sports together.
“Shakes” had experience of playing basketball, but also speaks of having a “football and martial arts mentality” and was comfortable doing flips having skateboarded.
The fear of being hit out of the air never entered Fletcher’s mind.
“I’m trying to be where you’re not, that was the whole thing,” he tells CNN Sport. “It’s the whole martial arts mentality, man.”
Fletcher’s SlamBall playing days might now be behind him, but he says he will be on hand to give demonstrations and teach the next generation of players during the sport’s relaunch. He laughs as he explains he may no longer be the Michael Jordan of SlamBall, but more of a Julius “Dr. J” Erving figure to the next generation of players.
SlamBall co-founders Gordon and Mike Tollin have been involved in some of sport’s biggest documentary series working as executive producer and co-chairman, respectively, at Mandalay Sports Media – the company responsible for producing “The Last Dance,” “The Redeem Team” and “The Captain,” among others.
While working on these projects, the pair waited for the right time to relaunch SlamBall.
“We put together a world class group of investors that really see the vision of this, some of the biggest names in sports anywhere and they really see the value of this,” Gordon explains of SlamBall’s return.
In 2023’s market, the pair believe there could not be a better time to come back, and commercial sports expert Ben Peppi says the power of social media will be crucial for SlamBall’s potential success.
“Digital will be absolutely key, and digital existed in a very different way 20 years ago,” Peppi outlines. “Social media didn’t exist, Twitter didn’t exist, TikTok didn’t exist.”
As a result of this accessibility, Peppi says SlamBall will be able to reach a key demographic.
“There’s a new demographic of fans and there’s a new younger audience that want new sports to be able to watch or play. So in essence, it is actually a great time for alternate sports to try and take off.
“That doesn’t mean that it’s still not extremely challenging because it is a very saturated market and it’s incredibly difficult to do. But, if you get it right, you can definitely build momentum very quickly.”
The hashtag #BringBackSlamBall has garnered more than 200 million views on social media, according to ESPN, and the sport is now targeting a younger audience.
“They can really engage with our short format, our TV half-hour games and then that content can really break down into viral clips that can go out on a regular basis,” says Gordon.
Eight teams are scheduled to compete in the SlamBall relaunch, which gets underway on July 21 in Las Vegas.
“We think there’s something really special cooking here and we’re going to find out this summer,” Gordon says.
“There’s just no quit in us, right? We believe in this thing. We believe that it’s got a destiny as a global sport and something that is on the landscape long term.”
The success of SlamBall’s return isn’t guaranteed, but after years of perseverance and persistence, those involved are confident that the sport is here to stay.
“I don’t think this is going to go away anymore,” Fletcher adds.