Jumping back into it

Times Staff Writer

A winded Shaun Cobbs listened as three judges critiqued his performance on a makeshift obstacle course in a North Hollywood gym. He was one of about 250 athletes last month who shot hoops, jumped on trampolines and tried to bull their way past guys built like NFL linemen armed with padded shields.

Their shared goal: to play Slamball, a fast-paced, collision-prone blend of basketball, gymnastics and football played on a Plexiglas-enclosed court with trampolines embedded in the floor.

Cobbs, 24, fell hard for the sport during its brief cable television run a few years ago. And, despite some Simon Cowell-like criticism from Slamball founder Mason Gordon, the Houston resident was invited to training camp in Florida.

His response: “Where’s the closest airport?”

It will take more than a hard-core cadre of fans, however, for this wanna-be league to elbow its way back into an increasingly saturated sports environment.

Slamball, which survives on YouTube, largely deflated in 2003 after a two-season run on what is now Spike TV.

Enter IMG. This time, the powerful sports marketing firm is involved, brought into the game by Chris Albrecht, who recently took over IMG’s global entertainment operation and was the HBO executive credited with turning “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” into television staples.

The theory is if they get the sport part of Slamball right, TV will follow.

The line between sport and entertainment has blurred.

“You start to wonder what comes first, sports programming that warrants a place on television, or if it’s the burgeoning cable television landscape that’s always looking for any type of sports or entertainment programming that might be able to draw,” said David Carter, executive director of USC’s Sports Business Institute. “You wonder how far any of these emerging leagues will get.”

What’s raising eyebrows in the sports marketing world is the appearance of New York-based IMG, better known for such traditional sports as golf and tennis and such high-profile clients as Tiger Woods and Maria Sharapova.

Albrecht sees Slamball as a potentially lucrative sport that can spin off programming for television and the Internet that would appeal to hard-to-reach young males from the suburbs and urban neighborhoods.

“There’s the potential for expansion” in the U.S. and overseas, said Albrecht, who was ousted from HBO last year after his arrest in Las Vegas on suspicion of assaulting his girlfriend. He later pleaded no contest to battery and paid a $1,000 fine. “This thing can be in business for a long time if we can get it right,” he said of Slamball.

Which is what Slamball couldn’t do the first time, when a studio unexpectedly bought Gordon’s pitch for the still-evolving concept.

Slamball won a time slot partly because Gordon -- who first sketched the idea for the sport on a napkin -- had attracted support from Hollywood producer Mike Tollin (“Smallville” and “Coach Carter”) and former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce.

But Gordon was still tinkering with the one-of-a-kind Slamball court and players barely had time to learn to effectively use the trampolines. When some viewers began to view Slamball as American Gladiators on trampolines, the plug was pulled.

“In retrospect, it became clear that we had redirected our focus from building Slamball’s infrastructure and attracting investments in local teams to putting on a really great TV show,” Tollin said.

It’s a given that sports must be entertaining, but they can’t simply be entertainment, said Wade Martin, general manager of the AST Dew Tour.

“You’re not a sport if fans can’t develop a rooting interest,” Martin said. “You’re a spectacle or entertainment. That’s not to say they can’t be entertaining or amazing spectacles to watch, but what makes sports great is that rooting interest.”

The men behind Slamball say there is room in the crowded sports arena for this street-style basketball game on trampolines, which lead to more acrobatic dunks. And there will be plenty of collisions with defensive players who are known simply as stoppers.

Gordon, 31, points to the resurgent UFC as the sport’s role model.

“They had a good product, but it initially stalled,” Gordon said. “They were able to reformulate it, got their act together and came out with something that was a top draw.”

In late April, 64 players were drafted for eight Slamball teams that will tour the U.S. in spring and summer of next year to reintroduce the sport that bills itself as a “real-life video game.”

But first, Gordon is planning a single venue event in Los Angeles over the first three weeks in June. Although a site has not been set, Slamball organizers are in talks with officials from three venues.

The business plan calls for investors to buy into the league, which would own the eight franchises. Such team names as Mob, Slashers and Maulers underscore the potential for on-the-court mayhem.

Given the failure rate of new leagues and sports, Slamball’s success will depend as much on its management team as on the players drafted out of training camp at IMG’s complex in Bradenton, Fla.

For starters, the sport won’t be able to boast it attracts the best basketball and football players, since those players will have gone to the NBA and NFL. And the only Slamball court, which Gordon built years ago in an East Los Angeles warehouse, is at the IMG complex.

“I don’t think you’ll be hearing a bunch of guys saying, ‘Let’s go get a pickup game of Slamball going,’ ” said Chris Stiepock, general manager of ESPN Original Entertainment. “That lack of courts is going to be one of their biggest obstacles.”

Croce, however, said his career in the NHL as a Philadelphia Flyers trainer and his ownership stake in an NBA franchise lends credence to Slamball. He also said Slamball will draw sufficiently talented athletes who, over time, will deliver game action that will get a big bounce from IMG’s worldwide sports marketing machinery.

“The first thing you have to do is make awareness,” Croce said. “You could have the best product in the world, but if you don’t market it effectively, it doesn’t matter. So you use TV as a marketing tool to stimulate fans’ fancy and interest.”

Albrecht, who was introduced to Slamball by Tollin -- the two had worked together on HBO’s “Arliss” series about a high-flying sports agent -- said Slamball’s most important challenge will be “getting the sport part of it right.”

“Credibility has to be the first foot going forward, which means a real training camp, a real exhibition season and a real showcase for what this sport can be,” Albrecht said.

That’s fine with Cobbs, who failed to get drafted but won a place on the developmental squad and hopes to eventually win a place on a Slamball team.

“The big thing is knowing how to land,” Cobbs said. “These tramps are professional grade, so they’re teaching us how to fall down and not get hurt. Backyard tramps don’t teach you that.”