It’s hard to take notes when bouncing on a trampoline.
Every time I put pen to paper I rebound, springs shooting me three feet into the air. My pad is full of scribbles, but I’m euphoric. Bouncing is making me feel incredibly relaxed.
I’m at the House of Air trampoline park in San Francisco, bouncing on their dodgeball trampoline court. They call this pit “The Colosseum,” and they built it specifically for dodgeball. It has high sides, is ringed with nets (to capture balls), and it contains 22 conjoined trampolines — including the walls.
The House of Air is one of the 500 trampoline parks across America. Four years ago, there were only forty parks. That’s a 92% growth rate.
And trampoline dodgeball is why the bounce business has grown.
It sounds like a joke, but the bouncing version of dip, dodge, duck, dive, and dodge should be taken seriously. If you take revenue of $250 million dollars seriously.
That’s how much Sky Zone, a franchised trampoline park run by 31-year-old CEO Jeff Platt, is predicted to make in 2015. That’s up from $168 million in 2014 and $88 million in 2013. Platt became CEO when he was 25-years-old. And this is just one franchise – there are many others (though Sky Zone is the biggest).
One of the reasons for Sky Zone’s rise in revenue is Platt’s long-term vision. To help achieve its full potential, he knew he needed to get media attention. So to do that he created the Ultimate Dodgeball Championships… on trampolines.
Established in 2012, the first Ultimate Dodgeball Championships took place in Los Angeles, with a prize fund of $100,000. They skipped 2013, and in 2014 they held the second championship in Las Vegas.
48 teams competed in the 2015 championships, this time for a prize fund of $50,000. The tournaments are so popular that Snapchat agreed to feature the third championship as a Snapchat Story, which was viewed 25 million times.*
And the winning team, Team Awesome from Gaithersburg, MD, took home $20,000.
This is growth marketing at its finest.
But how did this happen? Scroll back a decade and Sky Zone was under performing. The trampolines were empty. People weren’t interested. It looked like it might fail. What lessons can we learn from how it pivoted into a big business?
How trampoline dodgeball was born
In 2004, 62-year-old Platt senior, Rick Platt, was looking for a new opportunity after retiring from his scrap metal business. He thought a hybrid sport that combined trampolining, football, and basketball could be a hit. He spent $2 million building a 17,000 square foot trampoline park in Las Vegas. The first year, revenue was around $412,000. But this showed no sign of increasing in year two. Platt senior was concerned.
“Everybody thought this would be difficult to pull off,” Platt junior told me. “But I was young and didn’t think about the business aspect. I thought it would be cool to own your own sport.”
Two years later, 22-year-old Platt junior opened a second park in St. Louis, where he went to college. He was studying for his BA in marketing and entrepreneurship. Platt senior stayed in Las Vegas, running the first park. Three years later, Jeff Platt took over as Sky Zone CEO. He was 25-years-old.
“Success in dodgeball depends on your own players; it’s like business,” he told me. “It’s who your team is, and your strengths and weaknesses.” But he likes throwing best: “I’m more aggressive when I play!”
Expansion and pivoting was key to Sky Zone’s success, Platt admitted. The initial struggle was understanding who his audience was. His father believed it would be athletes, but Platt realized that the youth demographic was making up a huge part of their sales.
He started focusing on this audience, building discounts and specialty nights. Slowly, with word of mouth, people started coming in. He found that his biggest demographics were guys aged 8-15 and millennial men. Now Sky Zone parks average 1,000 people a day.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that people started understanding what trampoline parks were, Platt told me, and that’s when SkyZone started getting major media attention.
However, it wasn’t until Platt put on trampoline dodgeball competitions that things blew up.
He kept the basic dodgeball format, with some alterations for the trampoline element. You can rebound and let the ball fall between your legs, and you can slam into the floor and bounce away to avoid a hit.
People loved this. Growth accelerated, and more Sky Zone franchises opened across America.
Today 75 people work at Sky Zone’s headquarters, and Platt has around 10,000 staff across all locations. Trampoline Dodgeball is in all 115 Sky Zones worldwide.
Next year, dodgeball will be in about 185 Sky Zone trampoline parks (if all proposed franchises open).
How DodgeBall the movie helped Trampoline Dodgeball become a real sport
Dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge
Part of Ultimate Dodgeball’s success is that it’s intrinsically linked to Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. In 2004, DodgeBall: A True Underdog story was released in theaters and grossed $167,791,704 worldwide.
It spearheaded the return of adult dodgeball in schools and colleges, and helped make playground dodgeball a real sport, spawning international dodgeball leagues and governing bodies.
It paved the way for Ultimate Dodgeball to become a thing. Which doesn’t make all dodgeball players happy.
“As much as it pains me, I have to say that the first big burst of people playing dodgeball was because of the movie,“ Chris D’Angelo, author of “If you got the guts, we got the balls,” told me. “I know of at least one social sports entrepreneur who stood outside of movie theaters and handed out flyers to join her league. I joined because I loved throwing the ball and getting people out in kickball.”
World Dodgeball Federation President Brian Li said the movie was his catalyst for creating the federation. “It inspired the world to play dodgeball again, to relive our childhood memories,” he told me.
“It was purely for fun, and as there were no official rules at the time, we sort of mixed and matched different rules we found online and made up the rest. Because of the fun nature of the sport, through word of mouth, the league grew to over 60 teams in a few years.”
D’Angelo has tried playing trampoline dodgeball, but said that he wasn’t very good. “I hadn’t stepped on a trampoline for even longer than most people have gone without playing dodgeball,” he admitted. But he thinks the bouncing element takes dodgeball to a new level.
He credits its growing popularity to larger leagues, (NDL, Elite, IDBF, and Trampoline Dodgeball) as they’ve been hosting large-scale tournaments. These come with serious cash prizes.
The King of viral sports
Getting the public interested in a growing sport is something 29-year-old Alex Benepe knows all about. He’s the creator of Quidditch. Well, muggle Quidditch to be exact. Yes, that Quidditch.
Today, thousands of people across the world play Quidditch, a game adapted from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Benepe created the first adaptation in 2005, and went on to run the nonprofit United States Quidditch Association for the last decade.
Platt spotted Benepe’s potential and recruited him. In May 2015 Benepe joined Sky Zone as their Director of Leagues, heading up the Ultimate Dodgeball Championship Series.
“With emerging sports the challenge is to show it to people, the sort of thing you have to see to believe,” Benepe told me. “When you see the level of athleticism in trampoline dodgeball, and the top players, it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to do it.”
Benepe said that running the Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball league has similarities to his Quidditch work. “The main difference is Sky Zone is a franchise system, so there’s working with managers and parks.”
Benepe’s goal is to get Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball as much attention as he can, and help it turn from a strange niche sport into a worldwide phenomenon. One of his methods to get attention is to focus on where millennials are; Snapchat’s an obvious place with over 100 million daily users.
“As soon as I started at Sky Zone it occurred to me that it would be good Snapchat story,” he said. Benepe had partnered with Snapchat before for Quidditch events, and reached out again. “Trampoline dodgeball is a visually stimulating sport, and shifts and dodges would look great on Snapchat!”
Snapchat agreed. Fast forward a couple of months and they had a deal.
“They did a great job of showing people around the world how awesome the sport was,” he said.
And this was all for free.
Because the Snapchat story was branded as Ultimate Dodgeball Championship, not the “Sky Zone” championship, it didn’t cost Sky Zone a penny. And Sky Zone’s branding was in a lot of the videos.
This was great for the sport, as the extra attention meant interest – and more players.
Going forward, Benepe is planning to bring more awareness to people. “Most people are familiar with dodgeball,” he said. “This is a high-flying trampoline version of gym class dodgeball – we take it to a new level.”
Dreaming big – and dealing with dissension
But a couple of factors might get in the way of this taking off on a more serious level.
“One of the major pitfalls is how few places there are to play trampoline dodgeball,” D’Angelo said. “Regular dodgeball can be played anywhere.”
This may change as more parks open, but this brings us to point two.
In order for Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball to achieve extreme success – I’m referring to the Olympic dream, folks – it needs to meet some major requirements.
“The Olympics are the pipe dream of any dodgeball player,” D’Angelo said. “You want the sport that you love to be something that you can play on an international level and have your country recognized for it.”
But in order to be selected for the Olympics you need to be a sport that’s played in the World Games. And to qualify for this, you need to have a sport that has one set of rules that everyone plays by. That means the same size court, same style of ball, and same rules about dodges and dives.
“That’s the sticking point,” D’Angelo explained. “Everybody wants to play the sport the way that works best for them.”
The Olympics might not be viable – for now – but its popularity has lead to the growth of more tournaments and competitions. Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball is part of Sky Zone’s brand, but other companies are looking to compete.
“The World Dodgeball Federation will host the first Trampoline Dodgeball World Championships in 2017, and a beach dodgeball world championships in 2018,” president Brian Li told me. Li thinks it’s a positive that companies like Sky Zone are pushing for tournaments, since a corporate blessing means bigger prize funds and more support for players.
And a push to make this a spectator sport. But Li is concerned that prize money potentially “promotes incentive for players to cheat, and kills the honor system for the sport.”
The bouncing for fun route
Back at the House of Air, Programs & Safety Manager Carlee Williams tells me that they have no intention of creating a prize fund for their trampoline dodgeball team. A trophy – and sometimes free drinks and bounce passes – are what teams here get.
She doesn’t see the need.
She’s been running the Adult Dodgeball League for three years, and it’s one of their most popular programs. She’s even started a junior league for competitive 10-year-olds.
And they’re always booked up. The House of Air has a number of trampoline courts (aerobics, dodgeball, free play) and they’ll rent the full space out for $750 an hour during the week, $1000 an hour on weekends.
Regular clients include Twitter and Facebook; large brands bouncing around for team bonding events.
“Teams wear silly costumes, but they’re very competitive,” she said. “They walk out playing music. The Ball so Hard team walks out to a Jay-Z song.”
At House of Air it’s about fun and fitness. Teams go drinking together, they hook up…
And the rules are loose. “Groin shots are fair game,” Williams laughed. Face shots happen, but she said people try and avoid them.
Williams, an ex-cheerleader, also runs a trampoline fitness class. “Getting the lymph system moving is something I focus on,” she said. “There are big health benefits in trampolining. Jumping for 10 minutes equals running for half an hour.” And it’s good on your joints.
Former Olympian Al Carter said, “Rebound exercise is the most efficient, effective form of exercise yet devised by man,” which is something that NASA backs up.
The global growth of bouncing
Trampoline dodgeball might sound quintessentially American, but it’s gaining traction overseas. Sky Zone is currently in Australia, Canada, and Mexico (amongst others), and Platt is looking to expand globally into Spain, France, and Asia. And with this, there are a number of cultural issues to navigate.
For instance, in Saudi Arabia Platt has to pay attention to the modesty laws, and schedule separate nights for men and women.
“In another country you have to adapt your branding and tone of voice,” he said. “You can’t assume it will translate the same way.” Another interesting market was Australia; they like things more “extreme there,” Platt said.
He brought in a “performance wall” for this demographic. That’s a vertical wall you run up with a trampoline below to catch you. “We’d love it in the U.S.,” he said, “but there’s less risk tolerance here.”
Platt often has to convince his team that he understands brand positioning.
“Senior management is older than me, and I explain that millennials are the next wave of CEOs.”
Bouncing into the future
“The major challenge with people accepting it as a sport is they always think it’s just a kids game,” D’Angelo said. He’s hopeful that growth will continue, but knows it’s still a struggle. “Dodgeball becomes a much more competitive and intricate sport as an adult!”
But they need people to try it to realize that.
At Sky Zone, Benepe is working on this very problem. “In emerging sports there’s a lot of need to develop and strengthen referral programs and help people start new teams,” he said. “The big difference is with Quidditch we made it up as we went along; here we have a large network with infrastructure and support.”
Platt said that his business is “providing active entertainment spaces,” and he’ll continue to innovate and create around that, “whether it’s ninja courses or trampoline activities.”
So what will keep this sport growing? For Platt, it’s about the effect it has on people.
“When you jump, you feel a sense of freedom. You’re free from gravity and totally present in the moment,” he said. “You’re not focusing on anything else.”
Now that sounds appealing.