Dog shows. Billiards. Logrolling. Sumo wrestling. Hot-air ballooning. Spelling bees—yes, spelling bees. All of these have aired on TV’s self-proclaimed “worldwide leaders in sports,” ESPN and ESPN2, at one time or another recently. If you’re asking yourself, “What in the hell constitutes ‘sports’ anymore?” and/or, “Why exactly do we need all these sports channels?” you’re not alone. (If you’re asking yourself, “What’s wrong with dog shows?” however, you are very much alone and I’ll ask you to step away from this column—now, Cookie!)
Still, in a TV business where these and other glorified hobbies like bowling, golf and fishing are actually considered broadcast-worthy “sports” by umpteen networks, you just know the reception the new SlamBall (TNN; debuts Saturday, Aug. 3, 10 p.m.) is going to receive from the tube-sports community: chilly to nonexistent. Just like World Wrestling Entertainment, the Arena Football League (go, uh, SaberCats?), RollerJam skater smackdowns and MonsterJam truck rallies, the extreme-sports hybrid of SlamBall (focus groups have apparently shown that BiCapitalization equates to marketable ’tude) is something that could only exist on TNN.
God bless ’em, The National Network—now a full two years past its MTV buyout and subsequent name-switch from The Nashville Network, but still insisting on being called “The New TNN”—could not care less about pleasing the critical intelligentsia. This is television For the People and, in some cases, By the People: TNN’s 888-POP-1090 voice-mail line takes over 100,000 calls a month, playing back a good number of them on the air as promos (“This is Ed, and I’m frying baloney in my duplex and watching Baywatch on The New TNN!”). If ever there was a channel for the “great unwashed” in the “flyover” states, those squares between New York and California that both hold in contempt, TNN is it.
Once they get over the sneaking suspicion that it’s just an X-Games update of BASEketball (Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 1998 sports-satire bomb that combined baseball, basketball and slutty cheerleaders), the TNN crowd will probably latch onto SlamBall before it becomes the new national phenomenon … or the new XFL (which also bombed despite slutty cheerleaders, come to think of it).
Shimmying skanks on the sidelines is about the only eye-grabbing ingredient not in the SlamBall mix, which utilizes skills and rules from basketball, football, hockey, soccer and trampoline gymnastics in crazy-quick 30-minute games. The oversized court features a 12-foot-high Plexiglas surrounding wall to keep the ball in constant play (though described as “hockey-style,” the court looks more like a leftover set from TNN’s Robot Wars), and full-contact body checks are allowed/encouraged outside of the SlamZone. That’s right, the SlamZone: A quad of recessed trampolines underneath each basket at the ends of the court that makes for high-flying above-the-rim (and sometimes above-the-backboard) action—kind of like a bizarre Crouching Tiger, Michael Jordan video game.
Sound ridiculous? Yes. Look ridiculous? Hell yes. The Next Big Thing in sports? Former Philadelphia 76ers president and SlamBall venture-partner Pat Croce thinks so. “It’s really exciting to be involved in the first-ever action team sport,” he says. “I love the action and the energy and the potential.”
The action and energy are there—the aerial aggression and scoring power of likely breakout star Sean “Inches” Jackson are nothing short of amazing to watch—but potential? Again, it’s going to be a tough sell to the “legit” sports world where SlamBall obviously aims to be, not slumming in the nebulous arena known as “sports entertainment” with pro wrestling and monster trucks. Despite initial appearances, these people are dead serious about making SlamBall at least as ESPN-worthy as spelling bees.
Not that a little BASEketball-style glitz could hurt: The team names aren’t bad (the Diablos, the Mob, the Steal, the Rumble, the Slashers and the Bouncers make up the entire United SlamBall Unlimited league at the moment), and the speedy game times are perfect for short attention spans, but where be the sex appeal? There must still be a few unemployed XFL sideliners, and is there anything that can’t be improved with the addition of slutty cheerleaders? I think not.