The return of SlamBall: Co-founder Mason Gordon discusses new season

The return of SlamBall: Co-founder Mason Gordon discusses new season

SlamBall is back!

After a two-decade hiatus, the trampoline-basketball league returned thanks to an outpouring of support from fans. The new season of SlamBall is airing on ESPN, which has allowed the league to get a ton of attention – from older fans who are nostalgic about the sport as well as younger fans who have seen highlights on social media.

In recent weeks, legendary rapper Snoop Dogg and Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes were among the fans who have raved about SlamBall.

The trampoline-basketball league recently celebrated the 21st anniversary of their first broadcast, and it has a ton of momentum moving forward. They have raised more than $11 million from notable investors such as Blake Griffin, Michael Rubin and Gary Vaynerchuk. Also, Circa Sports is now putting out SlamBall betting lines, which is a big step for the league.

With the SlamBall playoffs tipping off tonight on ESPN, I caught up with SlamBall’s co-founder and CEO Mason Gordon to discuss how he came up with the sport, the decision to return now, the process of recruiting players, the reaction from fans this season and much more.

You just celebrated the 21st anniversary of the first SlamBall broadcast, which is crazy because it doesn’t feel that long ago. 

Mason Gordon: “Yeah, the time does seem to fly by and it is kind of wild, but there’s just been this weird kind of intense focus on SlamBall – not just from me, but from everyone who’s been involved with it, from the coaches who used to be players, to the coaches who are still coaching. I mean, imagine coaching a sport across 21 years; it’s unbelievable. That’s [Ken] Carter, Brendan Kirsch, Hernando Planells and Kevin Stapleton. It’s pretty amazing to see.”

What are some things you learned from the running SlamBall the first time around that you’ve been able to apply now?

Gordon: “Things have changed over the years, only in that the sport has become more sophisticated. And we have bigger, stronger, more-skilled athletes doing it. I mean, I love the old-school guys, the pioneers, who really put SlamBall on the map. But these new guys are really poised to take it to another level, and we're seeing incredible stars like Gage Smith and Tony Crosby II really being born in front of our eyes. And that's really heartening to see.”

I read that your inspiration for SlamBall was playing video games and wanting to combine multiple sports. Can you tell the story of how SlamBall was initially created? 

Gordon: “Growing up, I played basketball, I played football and I played video games. That was kind of my three-pronged focus in life. I loved the physicality of football, but I didn't love that you played for eight seconds and then you stood around for a minute. And in basketball, I loved how fluid and athletic it was, but when you get slapped on the wrist, you're looking for a foul. So I always had this idea in the back of my head, like, ‘Could you combine the best elements of these sports?’ And then the other thing I did was play NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, which were these two over-the-top video games that Midway put out and were just kind of cultural phenomenons. The concept was that the sports action was cartoonish and big and huge, and the dunks were gigantic and the hits were gigantic. And I was like, ‘Could you do this with real athletes in real life?’

"The idea all kind of coalesced when I was very young and I watched the very first UFC. What are we on, like, UFC 299 or something? I'm talking about UFC 1. And [watching] that blew my mind, because what I looked at was they were taking all these different fighting styles and blending them together into something that young people loved. And I'm not a martial artist, I'm a team-sports guy, so I was like, ‘Could I take the best elements of basketball, football, hockey, and blend them all together into something that really worked?’ I went into a warehouse, built a court out of spare parts, and somehow got basketball and football players to play the same sport together. And that was the hardest part of the whole thing. Once they both bought in and started playing together, the magic really started to happen.”

The early SlamBall teams were made up of streetball players and football players. How did you recruit these players and persuade them to adopt a new sport? 

Gordon: “I was a hooper, so people kind of knew who I was in the area. I would show up and they'd be like, ‘Oh, that's the dude who can jump a little bit and who hacks everybody.’ (laughs) So the idea was I had a little bit of credibility to go see some people. I recruited a lot of friends that had some crazy 40-inch verticals and stuff like that. Then, I recruited football players. And the funny thing was, as we got them all on this court that was made out of spare parts, the hardest part was the football players would hit the basketball players, and the basketball players would just want to fight. So, we would be breaking up fights every 60 seconds and we couldn't really learn the sport. So what I did is I checked myself into the game and I pulled the football guy aside and I was like, ‘Hey, I want you to hit me harder than you've hit anybody in your life, and I want to make sure everybody sees it. Can you do that?’ And he looked me in the eyes and he was like, ‘I've been wanting to hit you since you opened your stupid mouth.’ So this guy came from about 30 feet away and absolutely pancaked me into the glass. I ended up breaking three ribs and I was wheezing, but I got up and I kept playing. And so when the basketball players saw that, they were like, ‘Okay, well, if he's out here and he's actually banging around with us, then we can suck it up and be tough too.’ And then once we got past that and got the football and basketball skills blending together on the court, that's where we really started seeing the amazing progressions in the sport.”

That’s an amazing story. I remember watching SlamBall when I was in middle school, so there’s definitely a lot of nostalgia when I’m watching now. What kind of reaction have you gotten from fans who used to watch and are now returning to the sport?

Gordon: “Snoop Dogg, Patrick Mahomes, Pat McAfee, these are the people who are flipping out about SlamBall, and in the best way possible. We're incredibly heartened to see that kind of reaction from big-time influencers. But it's really the rank-and-file fan out there who brought SlamBall back. About three years ago, a hashtag #BringBackSlamBall started going crazy on the internet. And 20-year-old highlights from SlamBall were going viral every single week like clockwork. It was amazing because it was just people who checked out SlamBall late at night on Spike TV all those years ago millions and millions of people and we pressed this button in their hearts and minds that never really got unpressed. So when they started interacting with this #BringBackSlamBall hashtag with videos and stuff, we looked at it and there were over 200 million views at the time, and now it’s over half a billion. And we were like, ‘You know, I think the timing is really perfect to bring SlamBall back.’

"My partner and I kept telling each other that we weren’t going to do it until the timing was absolutely optimal. But alternative sports are red-hot. Young people are looking out for sports to call their own the same way that fight fans gravitated to MMA as opposed to boxing because that fan base was kind of aging out. So, I think the opportunity for a team sport like SlamBall that has this kind of mythical quality that has picked up over the years as a real sport, and as a hybrid sport where basketball and football cultures collide. You don't have to squint that much to see the opportunity for scale here.”

SlamBall feels perfect for this day and age, with highlights that can blow up on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, so I think younger fans will fall in love with this too. 

Gordon: It definitely is. Our TikTok is about 90 days old and has well over 100 million followers and millions and millions of likes on the account, so we're obviously doing really well with the young demographic. [I think it’s] because SlamBall generates these unforgettable moments that seem to just be very shareable and people want to put it out and share it wider when they experience it. And I think what's really interesting about SlamBall is that people watch legacy sports now mostly through highlights and they actually kind of lose something in the sports-viewing experience by watching highlights because when somebody's taking a shot, you know they're going to hit it, right? When somebody's driving to the basket, you know they're going to hit the shot. So you're actually kind of missing the live experience of watching it.

"But SlamBall has half-hour games. You get a whole game in a half-hour. We have this amazing format where four teams play three games. One plays two, three plays four, and then the two winners play in the main event. So watching Slamball on ESPN, it's kind of like watching Fight Night and you've got this ability to follow the story with a beginning, a middle and an end. So what we keep hearing from people is that when they come to SlamBall, they're not on their phones once. Or when they're watching SlamBall, they're not on their phones. That's the highest compliment I think you can be paid in today's culture.”

By the way, your social-media person does a great job. I love the captions, memes, etc.

Gordon: “That's working out really, really well. Shout out Bailey, he's absolutely the best and we love working with him. Also, Harrison works with us on our social. We really, really love what's been done on that side of things. And we think we get it. We don't take ourselves super seriously. But we're a real, legitimate sport with high-level professional players. But the fun factor in SlamBall is dialed up to 11, and we're very proud of that.”

SlamBall used to be on Spike TV and Versus. Now, it’s on ESPN. I’m not trying to bash Spike TV or Versus, but I’m sure being on a big network like ESPN has its advantages.

Gordon: ”I would never disparage Spike TV because they took a chance with us, giving us a national-television deal when we were in a warehouse, still figuring out the rules. That move by Spike TV and Viacom was absolutely amazing, and I'll be forever indebted to them for giving us a national platform for a sport that got invented on a napkin. But the vision for SlamBall from the very beginning was for it to be live, bettable and engageable. And back in the day, people really responded to SlamBall as a real sport, which it was, and a real league, which it wasn't. We were a television show. We would get all the teams together, we would play all the games, and then we'd release the games three months later. That's no way to build a sport. That's no way to build affinities. That's no way to build team loyalties or stars. It's really just a way to make canned Ninja-Warrior-type content. And Ninja Warrior is super successful, but it's different than what we want to do.

"We want SlamBall to be live, immediate, tuned-in programming, something that you create time in your schedule to consume, so it's really important for us to be live, bettable and engageable. And I'm so happy to report that as of [last week], SlamBall is bettable in Nevada through Circa Sportsbook and additional sportsbooks that are piling into SlamBall because they see this as a signature summer sport that spans the difference between the end of the basketball season and the beginning of the football season.”

You mentioned that the fans and their #BringBackSlamBall posts influenced you and your partner. But behind the scenes, what went into reviving the league? What were the conversations with potential broadcast partners like? 

Gordon: “Yeah, so when we saw #BringBackSlamBall going so crazy on the internet, these videos were just going insane.  I'm not talking about 200,000 views, I'm talking about 8.5 million views, 11 million views. These were, like, Justin Bieber video numbers (or at least for the first month of Justin Bieber or whatever, I don't want to overdo it). But the numbers were really, really huge! So we were trying to be kind of low-key about it, like, ‘Yeah, maybe this will work out. Let's go talk to some investors.’ And it's funny: everybody we talked to was like, ‘Oh my God, this is unbelievable. This is brilliant.’ And we were like, ‘Really? Because we're saying the same things we've always been saying.' But I think something changed, like the ground shifted under our feet. And I think it had a lot to do with these trampoline family fun centers like you've probably been to for a 6-year-old’s birthday party. It’s crazy but I think that was driving a lot of interest because everybody's been on these tramps, and they can identify with the athletic experience and all that kind of stuff.

"So we talked to investors, and everybody wanted to be in. Everybody wanted to be in and it's a very challenging capital environment right now, but we were oversubscribed in just a few months. So that was incredible to see. Then, we went out to broadcasters and we were like, ‘Look, man, SlamBall is pretty cool, somebody's gonna give this thing a shot.’ But what we didn't expect is that every single sports network made us an offer or signaled the strong intent to make an offer. We could pick our partner. For us to be able to say, ‘SlamBall is back and it's on ESPN,’ is a conversation-ender with respect to [questions like]: ‘Is this a real sport? Does this deserve to be live?’ All of those questions are in our rearview mirror and we can just focus on putting the best possible sports product in front of people and build for the future. We think we've got a shot to be the UFC of team sports, and I'm gonna keep saying that until it's true.”

I was going to ask about trampoline parks! Many of these trampoline parks have full-court basketball and it’s super popular among kids and teenagers, so that makes a lot of sense. You started SlamBall when you were 25 years old. What was it like to invent a sport and have it nationally televised at 25? That had to be surreal. And does it still feel surreal now?

Gordon: “It felt surreal at the time. [Now], hopefully, I make measured statements and I don't like to overhype stuff. Hopefully, I've grown in my experience over the time because I think you would have hated 25-year-old me (laughs). I was literally just too dumb to know any better. Like, ‘Yeah, yeah, we're gonna create a sport and it's gonna take over the world!’ And my partner, Mike Tollin, who's an absolute genius he's the guy behind ‘The Last Dance’ Michael Jordan series and ‘The Redeem Team’ [documentary], ‘The Captain’ Derek Jeter series and all this other stuff that you've seen. Mike Tollin is the guy that really had a vision for SlamBall. He was like, ‘Listen, building a sport from scratch is insane and we're just a couple of guys. But what we might be able to do is get this on television and, if enough people love it, over time, we can back our way into a more traditional league model.’ That's literally what he said to me, verbatim.

"I didn't think it would take 20 years, but the fact is we got to where we wanted to be with the right partners, and we're growing this thing by leaps and bounds. And every single week, the sport is getting better and more people are finding it and loving it, and we think there's a real place in the market for this. Basketball and football fans want action every single day and then they're not getting it [for months]. There's this giant desert in the middle of the calendar, and we think SlamBall just fits that to a T as a hybrid sport combining the best elements of basketball and football players.”

You talked about finding streetball players and football players to join the initial SlamBall league. How did you find new players for the current league on ESPN?

Gordon: “Maybe the thing I'm most proud about is that people are accepting SlamBall as a highly authentic sport, and I think a big part of that is that the sport has an internal logic to it, right? Like, we don't have some celebrities pretending to coach our SlamBall teams just to get more reach on social media. The best players who ever played SlamBall are some of our head coaches now, and some of our former coaches are still coaching SlamBall, so it's amazing to have a bunch of people who were with me in that warehouse on a court made out of spare parts who are still part of SlamBall today. A large percentage of my organization are people who have been with us over the years, so that’s something I'm extremely proud of.

"In addition to that, we have this great new generation of guys. We started reaching out to new players and we thought we'd have to make this whole pitch, ‘Hey, there was this thing and it was on cable TV 20 years ago and…’ But literally every single person was like, ‘Hey, hey, stop talking. I've been wanting to play SlamBall for the last five or six years because it's been in my social-media feed!' The opportunity to play this has been, like, built into [their] psyche over many years. Everybody that we reached out to wanted to play SlamBall, so we made the training camp invite-only. And since we announced the ESPN deal, now the calls that we're getting are like, ‘I played football at the University of Alabama and I have two national championships, and I want to play SlamBall!’ The pipeline of athletes for SlamBall, I think, is just gonna be absolutely spectacular.”

That’s really exciting. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Gordon: “Yeah, we’re just very excited about the upcoming playoffs and SlamBall is available on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN+. Our playoffs are Tuesday, August 15, and Thursday, August 17. We've got a lot of great things planned for the playoffs. I think people are really gonna love it.”

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