The story of SlamBall: A sport where we're all superheroes

Courtesy photo

You may have thought that SlamBall was dead, owing to it falling off of American television. But the sport's founder is pushing it in the grassroots and in international markets, and hopes to one day see it in the Olympics. Will SlamBall survive?

Mason Gordon did not set out to create a sport for superheroes -- just one where any person could emulate them.

Born from a wicked imagination combining basketball, gymnastics, hockey and football with a video game mentality, this Frankenstein of a sport began like many ideas; as a sketch on a napkin. With four trampoline spring beds built into the floor at each end of the court, the sport eventually known as SlamBall had "the fluidity of basketball, the aggressiveness and physicality of football ... and also this idea that video games kind of unleash your imagination in the sport," Gordon said.

Gordon, who is nothing if not ambitious and driven, developed SlamBall with almost reckless abandon. On the one hand, he scrutinized much of the game's details, meeting with physics professors at the California Institute of Technology to ensure what he wanted to put into practice could at least work hypothetically before he tried it as his own lab rat. But on the other hand, he built a complex court comprised of old spring floors and spring beds from gymnastics facilities around Los Angeles with no background in engineering but with his body at serious risk.

And yet it worked. After carefully recruiting five players from a pool of more than 500 to join him on the court, Gordon put on a game that convinced Spike TV executive Albie Hecht to give Gordon and his sport a deal, landing them in the homes of much of America for two seasons from 2002 to 2003.

SlamBall quickly became popular with its high-flying acrobatics akin to the NBA Jam video game franchise that features similarly impossible physics combined with basketball. Variety reported that the second season's premiere earned 2.3 million viewers in 2003. It also drew just 2.9 percent fewer viewers in the key demographic of men aged 18 to 34 than a Saturday Major League Baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. Unfortunately, popularity waned as television disagreements forced the league off the airwaves. It returned with sparse broadcasts in 2008, airing on what was then NBC's Versus channel, CBS and even occasionally Cartoon Network.

Without the same television presence that its viewers had become accustomed to, SlamBall recessed in the minds of many fans. They presumed the sport dead or long dormant, but make no mistake: SlamBall is alive and looking to make its resurgence with a broader perspective.

Gordon, now 35, recognizes that his sport has not had the exponential or linear growth one would hope, but the league's managing director insists that the path it is following is a healthy one.

"If you look at the history of a couple major sports that have come along in recent years -- specifically skateboarding and mixed martial arts -- the flagship standard is that both of these sports struggled over time," Gordon said. "They did really well, then they fell off, then they did really well again and at some point really disappeared before coming back and taking over pop culture in their respective sports market. I think SlamBall is following that trend."

Where SlamBall differs is that unlike skateboarding, people cannot simply go outside and play the game. Despite the (understandable) shortage of dedicated SlamBall courts, participation has always been one of the main draws of the game. The attraction of enormous slam dunks without the usual requirement of extraordinary physical gifts is remarkable. Gordon acknowledges "this universal sort of thought of ‘That's something that I could be great at.'"

But a lack of SlamBall facilities hasn't stopped fans from trying to make their own makeshift courts without the same technology that Gordon and his team have been developing for over a decade. Nick Juby, 26 of Broken Arrow, Okla., recalled putting three trampolines around a basketball goal with his friend as a 17-year-old who loved watching SlamBall. "We just ran at each other and tried to dunk on each other for an hour." Juby knows all too well the attraction of being able to reach unrealistic physical feats in sports. During a high school basketball game, Blake Griffin -- now an NBA superstar who needs no trampoline to play SlamBall -- caught a missed shot off the rim and threw down a vicious putback dunk on Juby. Never had he felt more grounded, Juby said.

While reaching fans like Juby domestically remained important, Gordon decided to look abroad to spread the sport to fans all over the world. SlamBall went to Italy. SlamBall went to China. And coming soon to Australia: SlamBall! The game has also reached large networks overseas, including Mediaset in Italy, CCTV in China, One HD in Australia and Cuatro in Spain. "These are the biggest markets and the biggest broadcasters in those markets respectively in the world," Gordon said. "So to be able to reach those levels at such an early age in the sport's development is something I'm really proud of and my partners are really proud of."

Expanding upon this even further, Gordon took his league's best players and held a training program and tournament in China that wrapped up just a month ago. After building the specialized court for the community, SlamBall coaches (including former NBA player Kenny Anderson) taught 100 athletes the ins and outs of the game in Hangzhou, China.

Gordon asserts that the success of his sport will ultimately derive from putting the game into the hands of the people. "It's one thing for people to be able to enjoy SlamBall highlights from the internet and on television but to be able to participate ... we think that these are major victories on the road to establish as a sport that people can see and also participate in."

Yet even Juby, who had grown up with the niche sport and took to playing his own variation of it, did not know SlamBall still operated to its current extent. Neither did Matt Turner, a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who had watched it with his father when Spike TV televised games. And neither did Loren Lee Chen, who actually wrote a story on the league in 2008 when SlamBall reached out to bloggers.

Juby and Turner both suggested that a stronger internet presence on social media would go a long way towards increasing SlamBall's exposure. "Having a strong web presence is always a plus on that, especially with as much time that a lot of basketball guys spend on Twitter," Juby said. With the absence of television broadcasts, SlamBall fans and potential SlamBall fans have mostly been left out in the cold. But increasing visibility through social media can fill the void, especially to help bridge the gap when trying to balance domestic and international expansion. It seems the league is en route to addressing these issues with a website redesign that launched in the past week that highlights its videos and social media accounts.

Regardless, the good news for those that love SlamBall and its nonstop ridiculous athletic feats is that Gordon and his partners have plans ready to expand in a variety of directions. Not only is SlamBall focusing on its international efforts, but grassroots involvement will also see an increase as they expect to complete new courts in a dozen markets over the next 18 months. Gordon also says they've been in talks concerning a possible documentary for ESPN's 30 for 30 series.

Meanwhile, with such impressive investments at home and abroad, Gordon maintains lofty goals for SlamBall's next five to 10 years. "SlamBall will be played grassroots in over 100 countries," Gordon said of the spot he realistically hopes SlamBall to reach within a decade. He continued, "It will be a provisional sport in the Olympics. There will be a SlamBall world cup and there will be multiple SlamBall tournaments that are played year-round all around the globe and a regular season of SlamBall that will take place in America every year to bridge the end of the NBA season with the beginning of football season. If there ever was a sport that could bridge the gap between the end of the NBA and the beginning of the NFL, SlamBall was it."

It's undoubtedly a tall task, but for a sport that showcases its players as close to superheroes as realistically possible, Mason Gordon could be the greatest superhero of them all with a complete revival of SlamBall and transformation into a major worldwide sport.

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