When the BIG3 made the decision to cancel the 2020 season due to the obstacles the coronavirus pandemic brought, many thought it could mean the end for the league. Even co-founders Ice Cube and Jeff Kwatinetz had their doubts.
On the eve of the championship game taking place at Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, pitting Trilogy against the 3 Headed Monsters this Saturday at 3:30 PM ET on CBS, both Cube and Kwatinetz are able to reflect on the challenges they faced in resuming play for Season 4.
“Keeping the league alive was something that we were dedicated doing,” Cube said. “We knew we could sustain it for a year without play. If this would’ve lasted two or three years, who knows? Fortunately, we were able to get it right, keep it going and not fall on our face.”
Last year, the league lost one of its biggest sponsors in Adidas as the sportswear brand had to regroup due to financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adidas had supplied the jerseys and gear for the players as well as apparel for fans.
Several new sponsors did come aboard, including Microsoft as the official technology partner and jersey patch sponsor of the league. The tech corporation is also the presenting sponsor of the Young3: the league’s youth program. Other notable new sponsors include Verizon, Monster Energy, Zip Recruiter and Taco Bell.
Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles was recapturing the momentum with fans the league had created. After launching in 2017, the league had carved their own space amongst hoops fan, returning some of their favorite former NBA players back to pro-level action. Each year, the league saw growth in players wanting and looking forward to competing and in attracting hoop fans of all ages.
The 2019 season was arguably the league’s best seasons. In his debut Big3 season, seven-time NBA All-Star Joe Johnson took the league by storm, leading in points in setting a league record 175 points for a season. He also led the league in assists and field goals on his way to being named the MVP and helping lead the Triplets to a championship under Coach of the Year and Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie.
Johnson’s game winners and play made him the draw of the league. Each weekend, his highlights would be featured on various sports social channels. At 38, his play even earned him a training camp invite from the Detroit Pistons. He was one of the last cuts but the fact that the NBA was paying attention gave the game further legitimacy.
“The focus coming into this year was on regaining awareness, making sure people knew we were back and to remind them of what they liked about the league,” Kwatinetz said. “Successful leagues are so rare. The last one in the last 25 years was the UFC. To recreate the momentum both in the sports community and with fans was very difficult. We couldn’t take anything for granted and we realized we had to do that again.
“The thing we were really making progress on after the third season, and that we needed to recapture, was the sport of FIREBALL3 being a real sport. It’s not dodgeball or kickball. It resembles 3-on-3 basketball but we turned it into a professional sport. We had to reengage with those people and get our fans active again.”
FIREBALL3 is an innovative new set of rules that sped up the play and created new in-game strategies to further place the league in a lane of its own. The league was opened up to all athletes to try out and the minimum age to qualify was lowered from 27 to 22. A ton of money was also spent on COVID testing to make sure this season wouldn’t be derailed. The changes to the rules and allowing younger players to compete has only increased the level of play and further dispels the notion of the BIG3 as a retirement league.
With safety being of serious importance, Orleans Arena in Las Vegas was the host site of this season with stops in Dallas, Milwaukee and Chicago. While Vegas was a great location to get things back rolling for Season 4, Cube is already looking forward to returning to bringing the league to packed arenas across the world.
“We want to go around the country and the world and be able to put on games in places you didn’t think you would be able to see pro basketball,” he said. “We don’t want to have home bases and just be in a few locations. This league is built to travel. It’s a rolling All-Star Game if you ask me. In 2019, we went to 18 cities. We would love to break this thing up, play three games each during the weekend.”
Business partners and friends for close to 30 years, Cube and Kwatinetz have accomplished some monumental feats in the entertainment industry. The BIG3 has been a true labor of love and both can’t help but to light up when they discuss any facet of it.
Cube can’t speak on the league without trying to mention each person, sponsor and partner that has played a role in the league’s success. Kwatinetz says in five years, the goal is for the league to be one of the five biggest in sports and have FIREBALL3 become part of the overall sports culture.
You’ll see both men on Saturday, helping crown a new champion. They will be able to exhale some from what has been a year that tested the foundation of what they have in the BIG3. There will be plenty of smiles shared, but they won’t last for too long. As is the case with any new league — especially one that prides itself on innovation, forward thinking and always looking to grow — there is always work to be done.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” said Cube. “The journey has been one of a kind on a lot of levels. One of the hardest things that I’ve done in the entertainment space. I see why leagues fail now. We’re just blessed to be in a position where we’re trending in the right direction and it looks like we’re going to be here for a long time.”