Sandy Slade has lived a colorful life. The former basketball handler has rubbed elbows with the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul Jabaar and even sparred on the court with Hollywood star Benjamin Bratt as Halle Berry’s stunt double in Cat Woman (yes, really). She can spin up to eight basketballs at one time, and dribble four basketballs at once and has appeared on national TV many times including a Nintendo Game Boy commercial during primetime over the holiday season.
But Slade’s real achievement has been her success in breaking down any sport and making it easy for children to enjoy. Her oversize board game business, Skillastics, has gotten school children moving and now she’s aiming to get you and your kids off the couch.
“To be able to do something so unique and make a living at it, it’s something I will never forget. But in a way, doing my performances and all the things I did with basketball has been the training ground for bigger ventures. I’ve redefined myself now three times, from entertainment to education and now to the consumer-based market. I just feel like I have a bigger purpose … to make a shift in the way we view physical activity as a society. In my own small way, I am trying to ignite that change.”
Slade grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. A tiny place, actually, with only 598 residents and 130 students enrolled in the local school, of which her dad was the principal. Slade was big time into sports and got her career inspiration early on when she attended a basketball camp at 12 years and saw a woman doing basketball tricks.
“What really hit me was the way she made people feel. I thought to myself, I want to make people feel that way. So I went home and told mom and dad ‘I’m going spin basketballs for a living.’” Slade was true to her word and, by her junior year in high school, was performing and putting on small shows in the area.
In pursuit of her ultimate goal of becoming an entertainer and motivational speaker, Slade opted for a communications degree at Fresno State University, California, where she won a scholarship to play Division I basketball. Her basketball spinning skills got a lot of publicity and Slade found herself on the David Letterman Show and in USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and a variety of other media.
Graduating from college, Slade was crazy enough to think she could make a living at basketball handling. She moved to Southern California and stayed with a friend and her family. She was steadfast in her focus, practicing 6-8 hours a day and while trying to get publicity. The Chicago Bulls hired her to do half-time shows and after much self-promoting to other basketball teams, Slade was financially on her feet within three years.
“I traveled all over the U.S. and overseas doing half-times for NBA games and colleges. I also did thousands of school assembly programs, performing, getting kids involved, and then talking to them about destructive negative criticism and how to overcome that by sharing my own personal story. I guess it was the precursor of today’s anti-bullying movement.”
She loved her job and would have done it for the rest of her life but by, her mid-30s, Slade was starting to feel the physical limitations of her career choice and the effect of the near 300 shows a year she was performing. She started looking for alternatives.
“There I was. I had never worked for anyone. I had never even had a job interview. I tried to understand what else I was passionate about and realized it was the kids. After doing so many school assembly programs and seeing kids getting larger and more inactive, I wanted to do something to change that.”
Around the same time, Slade had been recruited to teach a workshop on basketball fundamentals to physical educators. “They loved it. I felt like I was home. I was helping these people get the kids who were intimated by sports to enjoy the game.” And so, while gradually downsizing her basketball handling performances, she built up a solid reputation as the go-to expert on teaching basketball fundamentals to PE teachers. Interacting with coaches regularly, she started to see their concerns about getting kids more active. And with this greater understanding came the idea for a new business: Skillastics.
While today Skillastics is a series of evidence-based oversize board games that develop children’s fitness and sports skills, it didn’t start out that way. Slade’s first basketball-focused prototype took a more DYI approach. “I literally sent out a bed sheet with hand-drawn activities and stick figures to my PE teacher contacts asking them to try it and let me know what the kids thought. I used their feedback to make some adjustments and in the end felt I had a great product that used a technique that really helped the teachers get the kids to enjoy the game.”
Initially, Slade financed everything on her own. She spent about $60K from idea to final product, which took three years to realize. She worked with a supplier in Taiwan and launched the 5×7 board game at the National Physical Education Conference. “I gotta tell you though, I was lucky. I made one big mistake but thank God it turned out okay. I sent samples to this supplier through the mail and never asked for a full prototype before I gave the go-ahead for production. The truck drove up to my garage and was unloading and I thought to myself, ‘boy, I hope it looks okay.’ I opened up that first box holding my breath. It looked absolutely perfect, but I could have been sunk.”
Seeing the overwhelmingly positive response, she knew she was on to something and looked to create other board games beyond the 26-activity Basketball Skillastics. She had an idea for a general fitness version but didn’t have the cash flow to create and produce another game. With the goal of getting a business loan, she headed to the Small Business Development Center and took a “Write a Business Plan 101” class. The instructor was so impressed with her idea, Slade was given a mentor and finally succeeded in getting a $100K loan for her fitness mat that to date is still her most popular product.
All the while she was doing the PE workshops and performing, “going 100 miles an hour”. She recruited her mom and dad to help with conferences and trade shows. The transition to Skillastics was slow, but in 2008 at the age of 55 years, Slade retired “The Spin Lady”.
Today her 11 Skillastics activity games are in more than 20,000 schools, afterschool programs, the YMCA, and basically any organization that works with children. And thanks to a $250K grant from Chase’s Mission Main St Grants, Slade has launched a new product aimed at families, moving her from the education- to consumer-based market. Fitivities brings the best parts of Skillastics to your living room.
“If we are going to change the way society views physical activity, it has to start in the home and it has to be fun. My goal was to bring a successful product that has reached 10 million children to the family setting. Unfortunately, my biggest competitor is an inactive society, but I’ve got it in my sights.”