If there is an expression to describe SlamBall it is “Live fast, die slow”.
Created by Mason Gordon, SlamBall was birthed out of a warehouse in Los Angeles, and for a time appeared as the next big thing in the sporting world.
The premise of SlamBall was simple, combine the elements of basketball, hockey, football, and gymnastics to provide a fast-paced and physical game, that provided awe-inspiring aesthetics similar to the video game culture that was quickly growing throughout America.
The execution however proved to be difficult. Gordon, like many innovators, needed partners.
He turned to television producer Mike Tollin to make his dream become a reality.
“He (Tollin) saw that I was either insane or I was onto something and he committed to work with me to develop the game. We’ve been working together ever since to build the sport toward global awareness and an international infrastructure.” (SlamBall History)
Tollin was reluctant at first, but ultimately took on the task, becoming the co-creator of SlamBall in the process.
In 200o, the first game of Slamball was played in a make shift half-court equipped with a basketball net and one spring-board.
The game featured Gordon and five other players with experiences ranging from football to college, and street basketball.
Mason tells an account of the first SlamBall court:
“It wasn’t a pretty site, I mean at one point I think one of the players actually fell through the floor”
The first games on the half-court served as a lesson to Gordon that changes were needed to allow for a relatively safe, flowing, and defensive game.
The final rendition featured a court that measured 100 feet by 62 feet, with two sets of four trampoline “quads” at each end of the court. The court also featured a Plexiglas wall similar to a hockey rink.
With a court that fit the demands of the game, Gordon added more players and continued to build the sport from the ground up.
In 2001, the first two teams were created: The Mob and The Rumble.
The game consisted of four players, divided into three positions:
Handler: Essentially the point guard of the team, controlling the offensive flow.
Gunner: Primary scorer of the team, comparable to a forward in hockey.
Stopper: Speaks for itself, goal is to prevent the gunner from dunking, and goal tending shots taken within the spring-board area.
Scoring followed a similar system to basketball, a three-point arc, two points within the arc, and in a SlamBall twist: dunks counting for 3 points.
The two teams played a series of games in East L.A. which were open to the public. The spectators were quickly impressed, and Gordon was quick to act.
Mason utilizing his partnership with Tollin, had the producer bring in media to witness the hard-hitting, high-flying, and aesthetically profound game first-hand.
This rewarded SlamBall with an exclusive contract with The Nashville Network (TNN), who were re-branding themselves as Spike TV.
Spike TV and the fall of SlamBall
In 2002, Mason held his first combine of 400 potential players and from that kept 60, they would become the first professional SlamBall players.
The summer of 2002 marked SlamBall’s debut on Spike TV.
The season took six-days to complete, but aired pre-recorded in a six-week television event.
SlamBall featured six teams in total: The Mob, Rumble, Bouncers, Diablos, Slashers and Steal.
Spike TV’s investment was an instant hit with the fans, Gordon was the least bit surprised:
”Conceptually, it sounds like a wild and crazy and wacky idea, but when you put a bunch of sports into a blender, it works,”.
Gordon’s game became one for the every-man, as 20,000 applicants reached out to Gordon in hopes of becoming SlamBallers.
Growth continued in preparation for the 2003 season, SlamBall added two new teams: The Bandits and Riders, along with a new court.
The 2003 debut brought in 2.3 million viewers, which was a 43% increase from 2002′s edition, and topped traditional sporting programs in the process.
However, 2003 would be the end of the partnership between Mason/Tollin and Spike TV.
Gordon hinted that this was the direction Spike TV wanted to take with SlamBall.
“The ratings were great,” Gordon said. “But ultimately, they wanted to go in directions we weren’t totally comfortable with. We didn’t see SlamBall as a packaged entertainment product like the Harlem Globetrotters or professional wrestling. We saw SlamBall as a legitimate sport.”
SlamBall Post-Spike TV
With no network home, Mason and Mike did not give up their goal on building SlamBall into a household name.
Instead the two took the previous success of the sport and went across the sea to Italy. Italia 1 debuted SlamBall in 2007, and enjoyed similar success. This led the talent agency International Management Group (IMG) to team with Gordon and Tollin; Their goal was to reunite the U.S. with SlamBall.
With financial backing from IMG, the 2008 season of SlamBall was televised on Versus and CBS. IMG attempted to broker a deal with Cartoon Network to air the sport in 2009, however the deal fell through leaving SlamBall out of American networks once again. SlamBall appeared in Australia for a year in 2009, but has yet to return to mainstream American television.
Mason Gordon’s SlamBall is still alive, and Mike Tollin is still involved in the production. Tollin believes there is still promise for SlamBall to return to its early glory:
“There’s a sense that it’s still out there in the consciousness,” Tollin said. “And people say, ‘What happened to it?’”
However, the broadcasting now only exists within the realm of the Internet. Six teams make up SlamBall, and highlights from the sport showcase on Facebook and YouTube. The sport still continues to reach out globally as well with the creation of SlamBall Australia.
Nevertheless, given the state of the global economy and the lack of historic establishment within SlamBall, the sports’ proliferation looks bleak, and the growth is nowhere near what it was in 2002-03. Gordon has acknowledged the pain-staking process growing SlamBall has become.
“There’s nothing easy about this,” said Mason Gordon, the Co-Creator of SlamBall “This is about getting your face kicked in day in and day out. Not just for months or for years, but for a long period of time.”
Time will judge if SlamBall’s story is that of redemption, or a slow and painful demise.