As the viral sensation returns to ESPN airwaves, get the insider’s view on SlamBall from its Las Vegas training camp with co-founder Mason Gordon.
Inside a nondescript warehouse a mile away from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on a toasty Friday morning in July, groups of ready-for-anything athletes in elbow and knee pads bang against hockey style boards and glass, talking trash and cheering on opponents and teammates alike.
“Fuck him up,” one player yells.
The outsiders who are allowed to witness these proceedings indoors were forbidden from taking photos or video of a blog-era viral sensation poised to make a comeback in a major way with its highlight reel dunks, hits, and rejections that seem tailor-made for the newest social media generation: SlamBall returns to television Friday, July 21 to tip off a four-and-a-half week season in Vegas thanks to a new ESPN media deal and a business model its creator Mason Gordon believes will be a sustainable global moneymaker that’s far from a fad.
It’s been more than 20 years since Gordon designed the first makeshift SlamBall court out of spare parts in East Los Angeles, and the newest iteration is far more advanced than the last time the trampoline-powered sport aired on American television in 2008 following its original 2002-2003 run. It’s no longer just a collection of sporadic highlights, Gordon said — there’s skill, technique, and strategy involved, with head coaches drawing up sets. Further, the league’s official website positions the league as one in which basketball and football cultures collide.
As we watch a live scrimmage, one player gets fouled in the act of shooting, setting off a penalty shot where the fouled player goes one on one with the opponent who fouled him.
“We don’t do free throws here because nothing’s free in SlamBall,” Gordon boastfully told Boardroom.
The best 64 players from this minicamp, known in-universe as “Super24,” were drafted onto the new league’s eight teams with names like the Mob, Rumble, Lava, Slashers, Ozone, Wrath, and Buzzsaw. Players can reach as high as 20 feet in the air jumping off the trampolines stationed on the court, with dunks counting for three points and layups and jumpers amounting to two. With 20-minute games split into four five-minute quarters, the action is sure to be fast-paced and intense.
At training camp, scrimmages are designed to have these athletes get a sense of how SlamBall looks and operates at full speed and with contact. All told, the goal of SlamBall is to attack and create space, and to get there, Gordon has assembled what he believes is a group of athletes unlike hoop fans have ever seen: If you wondered how physical this new league is going to be, half of these players have basketball backgrounds and half have football backgrounds.
“We’re looking for the most kinetic, most explosive, most unbridled athletes,” Gordon said. “They translate the best to SlamBall because here, athleticism rules.”
When not creating or iterating around the resurgent league, Gordon is a highly acclaimed television producer at Mandalay Sports Media, owned by Golden State Warriors co-governor Peter Guber and co-chaired by Mike Tollin, who executive produced The Last Dance and is a SlamBall co-founder.
“I’m the one guy that you can come work for that won’t begrudge you those 20 hours a week that you’re putting into SlamBall,” Gordon recalled Tollin telling him in pitching him on Mandalay Sports Media. Gordon ended up working on The Last Dance, documentaries about Shaun White, Carmelo Anthony, and a slew of projects for Vice TV, connecting him with the highest-level leagues and executives. It all put Gordon in position to make sure SlamBall was in the best possible spot when it was time to go out into the world again.
Twice a year, Gordon said a company or a billionaire would approach him and want to bring SlamBall back as an American Ninja Warrior-type entertainment company. He preferred to wait, however, until the timing was perfect and the sport could be both engageable and embeddable.
“I’m saying the same thing I’ve always said, but for the longest time I was looked at like a clown,” Gordon said. “And now all of a sudden what I’m saying is somehow this presaged market fit. Ninety percent of what we did in that warehouse 20 years ago is still on that floor today.”
So, why is now the perfect time for SlamBall to return as a nationally televised pro sport?
Alternative sports are red hot right now, Gordon said, and when SlamBall signaled that it was ready to get back in business, he raised $11 million in a Series A funding round in March 2022 from heavy hitters like David Blitzer, Michael Rubin, Gary Vaynerchuk, Blake Griffin, David Adelman, and lead investor Roger Ehrenberg of IA Ventures. When SlamBall ventured out into the broadcast market, Gordon said he received offers or interest from every major sports broadcaster, whether they already held NBA or NFL rights or not. ESPN won out, but in Gordon’s words, “It’s not hyperbole to say that there was a bidding war for SlamBall.”
Through it’s positioning between the cultures of basketball and football, the league aims to be the best of both worlds. It’s combining elements of both sports, it’s played by athletes with backgrounds in both sports, and the season will elapse in late July and into August between the NBA and NFL seasons during what’s perceived as a relative slow period as it relates to sports viewing (and sports betting). As the summer winds down, Gordon wants viewers across the country to debate whether the best SlamBall players are the ones with football backgrounds versus basketball.
“I’ve got a small forward from Kansas lining up against a linebacker from Nebraska,” he said. “Where else are you going to get that? And it’s the Russell Crowe Effect, right? ‘Are you not entertained?’ You’re going to be entertained.”
Connor Hollenbeck is a 29-year-old “stopper” for the Gryphons and a 6-foot-6 former wide receiver for the Indoor Football League’s Iowa Barnstormers. Not only does SlamBall pay better by comparison, but he gets to hit people while playing basketball, providing the hoop head more of what he always craved.
“The fans are looking forward to seeing the highlight dunks, but I’m going be stopping all that so they’re going to see some highlight blocks,” Hollenbeck told Boardroom.
The first pick of the 2023 SlamBall draft’s second round, the upstate New York native is tasked with blocking everything that comes his way, knocking players off course on the trampoline and dashing their dreams of dunking in his face.
He likened getting used to and preparing for SlamBall to jumping off a cliff without a parachute.
“I enjoy contact,” Hollenbeck said. “My mentality is I’m ready to get hit and hit other people, so I enjoy that. It actually surprised me how good on a trampoline I was compared to others. I feel like I’m already a step ahead, so that puts me at an advantage.”
After each team has two hours on the court during training camp, the rest of their days are filled with film sessions with their head coaches and offensive and defensive coordinators, weight training, and short-burst plyometric jumping sessions to strengthen joints.
Bryan Bell-Anderson is the No. 6 overall pick for the Ozone. He’s coached by his father, Trevor Anderson — a former SlamBall player himself — who was able to select his son on Father’s Day. The 22-year-old Bell-Anderson played cornerback at Columbia University and has an MMA and jiu-jitsu background, providing an insane amount of athleticism as a “gunner” poised to become one of the league’s top scorers. His experience in so many different disciplines, he said, helps the architecture major project fearlessness on the court.
“A lot of people’s problems on the tramp is [that] everyone here’s athletic and everyone here has jumped up before, but for a lot of people, the real problem is once they get in the air, they’re not comfortable being out there,” Bell-Anderson told Boardroom. “They’re worried about how they’re going to fall. They spoke about how they feel comfortable being in the air. They’re just literally afraid. And we started saying, ‘Just let go and let God get it.’ You just got to let go and just be comfortable. My background helps me be not really be as concerned as other people.”
Gordon thinks he’s found the most raw, explosive athletes and hardcore competitors who have undeniable sports and entertainment value. Slamball employs an aerial coach named Pat Graves who refers to himself as a “flight instructor” to his 15,000 Instagram followers; his job is to take these 6-foot-6 athletes and teach them to channel the acrobatic agility of a 5-foot-6 gymnast, and that’s precisely what Gordon expects to see on the SlamBall court.
With the goal of the league to combine elements of basketball, football, hockey, and video games, Gordon envisions shaping Slamball into team sports’ answer to the UFC, which pioneered combining different combat sports styles into one sport in the 1990s and quickly became a global success story among younger demographics.
SlamBall’s current deal with ESPN is for two years, and Gordon wants this season to create a level of visibility so the sport builds a pipeline of unbelievably talented, explosive athletes from top college football and basketball programs over time. Perhaps in the future, the season could run from right after the NBA Finals until Labor Day in the US, with the eventual goal to expand to create city-based franchises.
“I’ve got a backlog of people that want to be involved in future financings, and the inbound interest around regional SlamBall rights has just stunned me,” Gordon said, envisioning a growth trajectory that would enable SlamBall to become a year-round sport in which players are competing in events and tournaments around the world like they’re traveling tennis stars. With the league already distributed for television in more than 100 countries, he imagines an Australian Cup, a Tokyo Grand Prix, and an Italian championship.
Players like Hollenbeck said they’re on board with a plan that would seemingly come with higher pay.
As Gordon looked out on the practice court inside the discreet Las Vegas warehouse, he beamed with excitement knowing that his brainchild was again ready for prime time.
“That’s my life on a plate out there,” he said. “This is 20 years of banging your head against the brick wall.”
This year, he squared up to that wall and smashed right through it. Gordon’s SlamBall is back.
And from where he sits, the high-flying action is here to stay.
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