SlamBall Planning Its Big Return Amid a Hot Alternative Sports Market

·6 min read

The 1989 movie Back to the Future Part II predicted the creation of both Zoom and SlamBall. During a video call taking place in the year 2015, the biography of the character Needles appears on the screen and indicates that one of the sports he plays is called “slamball.”

In the early 2000s, founder Mason Gordon invented the sport of SlamBall without knowing that it was included in that film (he was fixated on the name “smashball” but the trademark wasn’t available). Now, nearly two decades after disagreements with television networks forced it off the air, SlamBall is coming back.

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On August 3, the 20th anniversary of SlamBall’s first televised game, Gordon announced that the sport would be returning in the summer of 2023. A small subset of the population has been waiting for this day for years. “SlamBall might actually be the greatest sport of ALL-TIME,” Overtime tweeted in 2021.

SlamBall is essentially basketball played on a spring-loaded floor with trampolines inside the three point line. It’s full contact and fast, with on the fly substitutions and one-on-one face offs instead of free throws. Oh, and dunks are worth three points.

As an avid sports fan, Gordon was frustrated with stoppages in football and the lack of physicality in basketball, and was inspired by UFC’s mix of different disciplines. “I wondered if you could take that formula but instead of karate versus taekwondo, could you take the best elements of basketball, football, and hockey and blend them together,” Gordon said to Sportico in an interview.

SlamBall is poised to enter a crowded, yet flourishing, alternative sports market. UFC and Formula One have seen huge surges in popularity. Premier League Lacrosse recently closed a funding round at double its 2021 valuation. Ice Cube’s Big3 basketball league and The Basketball Tournament have found a footing, with 2022 marking their fifth and ninth years of competition, respectively.

Unlike those leagues, however, SlamBall is not simply trying to tweak the format of an existing sport such as basketball and appeal to its same audience. “With SlamBall, it’s a hybridization,” Gordon said. “We’ve created a product that is distinct, in the same way that UFC is distinct from boxing.”

The founders are working on potential rule changes to encourage more shooting and passing, but are largely sticking with the sport’s original format. SlamBall not only has a history, but also a proven track record of success.

In 2002, while still playing with unofficial rules on a makeshift court in a warehouse using old gymnastics equipment, Gordon secured a TV deal with The National Network, which would become Spike TV the following year. It aired six one-hour SlamBall broadcasts featuring two games each, which drew just 437,000 viewers on average. The Season 2 premiere in 2003, however, beat expectations with 2.3 million viewers, including 604,000 in the 18-34 male demographic alone.

The broadcast got a bump from a strong WWE lead-in, and there were about 50% more TV households in the United States back then compared to today, but the total viewership number is still impressive given the regime change at the recently rebranded network. It exceeds that of any Big3 game since its inception, or any WNBA game this century, in fact. “We kind of pressed a button 20 years ago in culture, and it just resonated with people in a really powerful way,” said Gordon.

But TV ratings plummeted over the course of the 2003 season, which Gordon attributes to a combination of late start times and a longer game that forced them to abandon the quick-hitting format that was part of SlamBall’s initial appeal. After ratings dropped off, executives at Spike TV wanted to take SlamBall in the direction of post-produced, packaged entertainment, whereas its founders believed in its viability as a legitimate live sport.

Working with IMG, they relaunched the league five years later with a championship game on CBS called by the absolute perfect announcer for the job: Gus Johnson. Despite being programmed directly against a Giants vs. Cowboys NFL game on Fox, SlamBall tripled its ratings projection with a 1.4 mark.

Gordon considered it a success. Others, apparently, did not. November 2, 2008, was the last time a SlamBall game was broadcast in the United States.

China became SlamBall’s home during the 2010s. Many original players created training programs there, and fans would show up to arena events an hour early to try to get on the court. Gordon sees SlamBall’s China era as a gestation period for the sport.

“It doesn’t really work when you just come out of the gate and then you have a spot at the table long term,” Gordon said. “That’s not how it worked with UFC, it’s not how it worked with skateboarding or action sports, it’s not even how it worked with esports. All of them had to have an impact, fade away, and then come back by popular demand.”

Social media content with the hashtag #BringBackSlamball surpassed 200 million total views over the past 12 months, and the sport’s focus on the slam dunk makes it perfect for the social media era. "Our seven seconds can compete with your seven seconds no matter who you are,” Gordon said. “In a world that’s reductionist, SlamBall really has a chance to stand out.”

In addition to highlights, keeping the length of games short will make them suited for a younger audience that may lack the attention span to sit through a two-hour live sporting event. “We had this right right out of the gate,” Gordon said. “We had two games in an hour, so our games were 20 to 22 minutes long, and were just perfectly formatted.”

Gordon is working with longtime business partner and sports producer Michael Tollin, who recently won an Emmy for the documentary series The Last Dance, another project that was more than 20 years in the making. Tollin and Gordon regained the IP rights from IMG in April 2022 and added LAFC president Tom Penn to their team. They’re still seeking investors, and discussions seeking a traditional linear TV broadcast are in the early stages, but they are “very confident we’re going to go in 2023 with the first summer SlamBall series,” Penn said.

The plan for next year is similar to a model used by several new sports leagues. There will be a tentpole summer league in Las Vegas with eight corporate-owned teams competing in a six-week regular season and a one-week playoff, followed by an international tour similar to that of tennis, for instance.

Eventually, the founders hope to establish four training centers in major markets across the country where they can cultivate SlamBall talent. In the longer term, SlamBall could leverage the rise of indoor trampoline parks to become more pervasive. “There are literally thousands of potential touch points for SlamBall courts,” Gordon said.

As far back as 2011, ESPN reported a new SlamBall season, but it never happened. Maybe the world wasn’t ready. “A lot of people that we talk to seem to agree that SlamBall was ahead of its time,” Gordon said.

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