LAS VEGAS — SlamBall may be deemed as a startup but its success is over 20 years in the making.
Its cofounders are award-winning multimedia storytellers Mike Tollin and Mason Gordon. They drew up the concept on a napkin over 20 years ago and brought the first iteration to life in a Los Angeles warehouse with a recorded show on broadcast TV in an era before social media.
The pair of executives kept looking for the right time to bring the sport back, especially with the success of “blended” sports like Mixed Martial Arts, the emergence of streaming and social media platforms and the continued explosive engagement tied to SlamBall’s two key elements: football and basketball.
The timing was driven by the fact that 20-year old highlights continued to have a life on platforms around the world, especially in China, and a viral social campaign by many of the sport’s most dedicated followers, called “#BringSlamBallBack” was generating millions of views over the past few years.
As Gordon describes it, the time to test the waters became clear. “We had seen the growth of niche sports and really felt if we built this right, we could become the UFC of team sports,” he said recently as SlamBall is in the midst of a seven week residency (don’t all big name entertainers deserve a Vegas residency after all?) at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas. “We always have been a sport built on a coveted demo, the sports fan who is an adrenaline junkie. Now with over 20 years of tweaking, with better technology, amazing athletes, coaches who are well schooled in the tactics of the game, a massive worldwide social media audience and a great partner in ESPN, we were ready for launch.”
That regular season launch has seen full houses, views of highlights and highlight sharing in the millions, endorsements from everyone from Snoop Dog to Patrick Mahomes, investors that include Blake Griffin, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Michael Rubin, live gambling lines through their partner Circa Sports, and since fans asked for it, select broadcasts in Spanish through a two-year ESPN partnership.
“One of the great things about our re-launch is that we are taking a great deal of listening from what our fans want, and then implement those changes in real time,” Gordon added. “We don’t have the shackles of a legacy sport, we are refining as we go, and that refinement is reflected in everything from fan interaction in the arena at Cox to the camera angles we adjust in our broadcast. We don’t say no, we ask why not?”
Gordon also reminded us that another key element for growth is in accessing and building the individual stars of the league. “SlamMan” as he is called, has played in the highest levels of Division I football and basketball true, but there are also track stars, world record holders and rugby players. “Our prototypical athlete has freakish athletic ability and tremendous grit, and those are the stories we are bringing out. We have authors, teachers, an MMA fighter…the storylines are pretty endless and speak to wide audiences.”
Getting recognized by those audiences, and bringing in brands and engagement, takes time, and in all those areas, SlamBall has already started to gain momentum as the season wraps up this week with the playoffs taking place next week.
“We realize we have a long way to go to maturity,” Gordon said. “But when we look back on this re-launch season here in Las Vegas, we will see that we have hit benchmarks beyond what we had hoped, and this offseason, and next season, will be even better.”