Why Slamball's founder thinks the topsy-turvy sport may finally succeed
Is the world ready for Slamball?
Covid-19 has postponed, canceled, or dramatically reconfigured the sports world. But what if it brought Slamball back from the grave?
Slamball is a combination of football and basketball, played on a court with not one but four trampolines around each hoop. It involves high-flying dramatic plays that solidified a cult following. The sport is best known for its 2002 appearance on SpikeTV, where its second season premiere drew 2.3 million viewers.
But SlamBall was off the air by 2004.
Slamball has been rebooted five times – three in the United States, and two in China. It has never stuck, but it does have a devoted fan base. A 2012 SB Nation piece referred to Slamball as “A sport where we’re all superheroes.” Slamball’s Twitter feed, dedicated to sharing gifs of anti-gravity dunks, still has over 35,000 followers. SlamBall’s official Facebook page has 1.3 million followers.
Slamball is one of the biggest what could have been stories in the niche sporting world. And Slamball's creator, Mason Gordon knows it.
“It’s the thing that people point to and go: That should have been a lot bigger than it was,” he tells Inverse.
As Slamball’s Twitter account has been teasing for months, another USA-based SlamBall league is in the works. Oddly, Covid-19 could help usher that return along.
What makes Slamball a sport – Gordon often compares Slamball to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), it's another high-intensity combination of disciplines from other established games.
“Slamball is really a blend of different team sports elements into something that's faster, more aggressive, and more exciting,” he says.
Slamball requires the ball-handling skills and dunking finesse of basketball but ultimately rewards the pure physicality of football. Slamball players, Gordon explains, often came from one of those two backgrounds. The problem facing Slamball was how to turn it into its own thing – something more than a clash of two existing sports cultures.
The beginning was rocky. Basketball players had to get used to Slamball’s full-contact dictum. Football players had to learn that, yes, even in Slamball, fouls exist.
“Basketball players would get hit, and they'd be looking for a foul. The football players don't stop until they hear the whistle,” Gordon says. "Sometimes they would smash together in ways that would devolve into a fistfight or something like that.”
The result was a pressure cooker of tension, hard hits, and “incredible intensity,” Gordon says. There were also injuries: A famous one still that still lives on online was an open ankle dislocation in 2003 that required surgery. An open dislocation is a medical term for an injury that begins at the skin surface and runs all the way to the interior joint.
Today, SlamBall advocates try to maintain its intensity while promoting it as a more organized athletic affair. In 2015, Slamball was rebooted in China, where there is a now a college Slamball league. It proved to be a huge part of Slamball’s evolution.
Teaching college students to play meant the team had to develop a program that made Slamball doable for the average person. Slamball Asia developed a training program that taught Slamball fundamentals and created a generation of athletes who were also Slamball players.
“What's really different now is that we've been able to dial in the training program in China and really understand what works and how to bring someone along through the slamball curriculum to build a better slamball player from the ground up,” Gordon says.
The “curriculum” as Gordon calls it, means that Slamball has become a sport in its own right, moving beyond being a stage for football and basketball players to throw the same moves with an extra ten feet of trampoline-assisted vertical.
The Michael Jordan of Slamball – Stan Fletcher reigns supreme in Slamball history. Gordon calls him the best to ever play the game, but he’s also stayed on in a coaching role, and for six years was the head training director of Slamball Asia.
There are three positions in Slamball: one handler (like a point-guard in traditional basketball), two gunners (the one responsible for major offensive plays), and a stopper (a defender). A typical team will field five players in a combination of these positions. Fletcher was a gunner for the Maulers, a team in the 2002 iteration of Slamball.
Fletcher distinguished himself not by size, but his “incredibly creative mind,” Gordon says.
“He figured out that you could pass the ball to yourself between the bounces and recollect the ball while you're in mid-air.”
The spirit of Slamball – As Slamball’s founder and advocate, Gordon sees the sport as the “biggest missed opportunity” in the sports landscape. Each Slamball game is an over-the-top display, a dunk highlight reel for 20 straight minutes.
So didn’t why didn’t Slamball succeed in the first place? Part of it, says Gordon, is that there was little continuity. The first season of Slamball reportedly folded after disagreements between himself and Warner Brothers television.
The sport also suffered from competing visions. The President of IMG Global media, the company behind a 2008 reboot of Slamball (which also eventually ended), told The New York Times in 2008 that Slamball was “was more a television show than a sport.”
From Gordon's point of view, the real reason that Slamball didn’t succeed is that it arrived too soon.
That's partly because Slamball’s appeal is built upon a series of meme-able hits, and moves that are ready-made gifs. Gordon sees Slamball as a fit for digital streaming platforms, like Twitch, which weren’t around in the early 2000s. Now, they could be a critical way to reach Slamball’s target audience – people who love video-game style moves. Approximately 810 billion minutes of content was watched on Twitch in 2020, up 75 percent from 2019, and 135 times the amount of content streamed on the platform in 2012.
The Covid-19 pandemic has perhaps provided Slamball another chance to rise, phoenix style. The rest of the sports world has been forced to pause and rethink how to play. Slamball, Gordon reasons, can fill this void as a new, exciting thing to watch.
Critically, Slamball already has some experience with the “bubble” concept.
“We have a lot of interested people right now, because of the success of the NBA bubble in Orlando,” Gordon says. “Our model is actually a bubble.”
In 2008 Slamball created what Gordon calls a bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida (the same location where the WNBA’s Covid-19 2020 bubble is located). Slamball's IMG season consisted of a training camp that hosted about 1,000 people for three months. Eventually, it was paired down to about 70, he explains, as players were cut, and teams were formed. Players ate, slept, and worked at IMG.
They also weren't facing a global pandemic. As far as a bubble model goes, Slamball’s past experience in the IMG bubble probably only counts as an early proof-of-concept. The series Gordon envisions is still not funded and he won’t put a date on Slamball’s return.
“We've certainly waited long enough for the right opportunity,” he says. “So we're not jumping ahead.”
But a Slamball bubble could exist. And perhaps, an audience with nothing else to do in lockdown but look at a screen and share highlights on social media, is finally ready for it.