Q+A: The Founders of Ballers Bridge
A new website looks to take the middle man out of high school basketball recruiting.
by Bill DiFilippo / @bflip33
The world of high-school basketball recruiting gets bigger and bigger every year. Various websites have their rankings of their top-150 or so recruits in the country, with massive databases available for fans and coaches to look up other two, three or four star players. Their commitments are huge news, sometimes even streamed online or on ESPN, as we saw when Jabari Parker committed to Duke in December. Sometimes, commitments are the topic of discussion among experts, as we saw this past May when Andrew Wiggins committed to Kansas.
But what about everyone else? What about the guys who have dreams of playing college ball, whether in D1, D2, D3, JuCo, NAIA or anywhere else, but can’t get their name out there as easily as the elite guys?
A new website called Ballers Bridge looks to take care of that issue by, essentially, cutting out the middle man. The site, which is based on the popular website LinkedIn, is a way for recruits to connect with other recruits and coaches across the country.
Started by two former employees of the Cleveland Cavaliers with no experience running a website, Gerald Cannon and Armand Brown, Ballers Bridge launched on July 25. The two sat down with SLAM to discuss the website, their inspiration for making it and what they hope it turns into.
SLAM: What is Ballers Bridge?
Gerald Cannon: Ballers Bridge, essentially, is a LinkedIn for high school athletes. It’s a way for players who are not considered one of the top-tier players in the country, like the top 200 guys, to be able to create more exposure for themselves, more opportunities for that athletic scholarship right now.
SLAM: What was the inspiration behind starting this?
GC: The inspiration behind Ballers Bridge came originally from just myself having gone through the process, growing up with a family that didn’t know about the process at all, and not being seen as that top-tier guy. There’s so many hurdles out there for guys, you don’t know about the process, so that already puts you behind. And then you want to get your name out there, so it was just something that I experienced going from high school to college and then from college to playing professionally overseas. I thought a lot of things that could have helped me and made the process a lot easier.
SLAM: What history do you two have, both with basketball/recruiting and with technology, like starting a website?
GC: I guess telling you the story would be helpful, because it kind of encompasses everything. We both live, eat, sleep and drink basketball. I played basketball in high school, in college—at Morehouse in Atlanta—then played professionally overseas for five years in Japan and Romania and Norway and Mexico, just being able to see basketball all over the world and see how fast it’s growing and seeing how in tune people are with it. Armand and I met during one of the biggest times in sports, too: working with the Cleveland Cavaliers during the whole LeBron James and LeBron being there and the madness that was Cleveland, and then eventually The Decision. That’s when Armand and I really started putting the idea together and seeing, talking about what are some of the different hurdles out there and how can we correct them?
To the technical question: neither Armand nor I have a technical background, and when you come up as an athlete, basketball is life because it has to be. So the technical part was probably one of the biggest things. Through Ashley Gilligan, a co-worker of ours with the Cleveland Cavaliers, we were able to be connected to our technical guy, Aaron Cavano, who came in and brought the technical piece. It was big for us because the branding that’s out there right now, we don’t feel addresses a player. Players connect, and as a former player, I won’t just use anything, I won’t just wear anything, and you guys know that, I’m sure, at SLAM, you grab that target because you’re focused at that guy. You know what you want. It’s the same way with tech, we feel: it has to be something that’s branded to a player and something they can connect with. If it’s not authentic, I don’t see players using it.
SLAM: Have you guys begun generating interest from players, whether they are in the top 200 or just lesser known guys?
Armand Brown: To the last question, just one more point I wanted to add. What was really big in terms of just forming our business was, we got into an accelerator program out here in California called StartX, it’s a Stanford-affiliated accelerator, one of the best. And going through that program really helped us acclimate to business in Silicon Valley. Gerald’s from the southeast, from Atlanta, I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina, and I’m a former high school basketball coach while I was working before Ballers Bridge. So going out to Silicon Valley and getting into StartX and just becoming involved in the Silicon Valley community was absolutely, it was priceless for us.
GC: It changed our whole business, and you look at a sports company and being able to leverage what these amazing people are doing out in Silicon Valley. We moved out here just because of the program. We dropped everything, moved, because we just knew we have to be there. And it’s amazing what those guys are creating on the tech side, and then to bring a business like sports into that atmosphere, we feel like we can do something amazing.
SLAM: Alright, going back, have you guys begun generating interest from players, whether they are guys who are lesser known—not the top 150, top 200—or have you started getting interest from guys who are considered elite recruits?
GC: Yeah, definitely. What’s been important to us is to be in front of the user. Even though we have basketball backgrounds, we do not want to create something off of what we think players need. I think that’s the mistake people often make. We’re constantly in front of our users, whether it’s AAU teams, high school teams, parents, coaches, we’re in front of everyone. It makes sure that this is something they want to use, and something they will use. We’ve recently surpassed 5,000 registered users in our community, and we see that number increasing quickly in the summer. We had an amazing summer, doing tournaments like the Peach Jam, being out in Vegas right now, northern California has been great to us, it’s a ground and pound thinking right now is what we say.
AB: We have players from across the spectrum, guys who are JUCO, NAIA, all the way up to D1 guys. And I think the D1 guys, what appeals to them, is the site. It’s a unique way to display themselves that’s not currently out there.
GC: We really wanted to eliminate the chicken and egg problem from our company, so we attended the NABC convention at the Final Four. That was an opportunity to get in front of coaches at all levels, like Armand mentioned, from JUCO all the way up to the top D1 guys and say, ‘Hey, do you guys need anything else? Where are people falling short? What’s going on?’ and the feedback that we got from those guys was game changing for us because we saw that problems still exist and we know we can correct it using their feedback and we’re building relationships with coaches. We’re close to 1,000 coaches that we work with in our network right now, and it’s big for us to build relationships with these guys and to take their feedback. So as we create and implement our tech, we make sure we’re doing it the right way and not just putting something out there.
SLAM: And these are coaches across all levels, from big name Division 1 schools to the no name NAIA schools.
SLAM: What do you guys plan on doing to help your company grow? Just keep going to tournaments, talking to as many people as possible?
GC: We will always do the feedback. The feedback has probably been one of the biggest things for us because, again, we are connecting with the athletes and they appreciate it. The parents really appreciate it because, not only are people out there in front of them as a, ‘Hey, I was a former player, I know what you’re going through, I know what my mom went through trying to help me out, this is helpful,’ they really appreciate it and like it and they appreciate that we’re not trying to charge them with several thousand dollars to sign up for it. When I grew up, I didn’t have money, extra financial money to pay for, $1,000, $2,000, $500, my mom couldn’t handle that, so that’s why the whole LinkedIn model came about because any player needs to be able to at least create a profile to where they can put their name in the hat and have their information online and organized. There’s too much technology, too much out there right now for it to not be that way. Something simple, something easy. These guys are using Facebook, they’re using Twitter, and it’s missing the mark. Why not have all that information together and be able to use it in a community that’s set up just for you? And the guys like it.
AB: Staying on the ground, whether it be at the grassroots AAU tournaments, the high school basketball season. Being in front of our users and getting their feedback, because we’re a new technology company, we’re in Silicon Valley and we use the feedback from players to continue to be innovative and give them unique ways that we can help them.
GC: We’ll also continue to utilize our advisors and our mentors in Silicon Valley from a technical business standpoint to really make sure we scale Ballers Bridge the correct way as well. We have a lot of people surrounding us that are helping us that are really involved with what we’re doing. It’s an exciting time for us, as you can imagine.
SLAM: Last question, do you guys plan on having it be just for the lesser known players, or do you one day hope to be a recruiting service on the level of things like Rivals, ESPN, 24/7, stuff like that?
GC: We feel like what we’re doing is creating something unique. We think Ballers Bridge is going to help other players at all levels. We want a social recruiting site, a global social recruiting site. When I was overseas and playing, just seeing those guys in Europe, seeing those guys in Asia, and just, their love for the game and what they wanted, how involved they were. But they had no connection to guys that were outside of that area. No connection to coaches, they had nothing. We want, we have a big vision for Ballers Bridge that goes far past a high school recruiting site, we’re just trying to really stay focused in our approach.
SLAM: Alright, that’s it unless there’s anything else you want to add.
AB: We want to make sure we mention Alan Stein, he’s an advisor to our company and he has been a major piece to this puzzle. His influence in the basketball space has really helped us move Ballers Bridge forward. Alan believed in our vision, helped spread the word and connected us to key basketball influencers when we were at a very early stage.