What can Roller Derby learn from World Cup futbol?

Soccer is the world’s game, whether we like it or not in the US.

To some it may seem slow, complex, but really it is a very simple game. And they are smart enough not to muck it up.

Continuous action (note they do not allow television to have commercials during the play, except for a small visual of a product by the score); the one referee doesn’t slow things down……for some reason the fans don’t like officials huddled and the players not playing….and not excessive rules.

The fans know that any one score can mean so much so the anticipation is tremendous.

And if anything, there certainly is not an excess of cheap points.

the players don’t stop and just stand around.

And continuous effort and speed, and the fans love it.

That’s all I am saying.

Obviously if your attendance is maintaining and growing don’t pay any attention to the above.

So he helped with the creation of modern Roller Derby but didn’t know it: Frank Deford

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Frank has been a friend for longer than either of us want to think about. And he laughingly said “You will always be the Commissioner.”

I related elsewhere how we met in Oakland and he ended up writing the longest piece ever for a single issue of Sports Illustrated to date about the Roller Derby The March 1969 article was read by 10 million people, a different 10 million than the 15 million that watched our games every week on television across America and Canada. He created a whole new base of understanding about our strange game.

Had he been a fan of Roller Derby when he wrote it? No, he was fascinated with the concept of “barnstorming”, the one nighters we did across America for 4 months of the year; the people who were in it, behind it, who came to watch and why. And Roller Derby was a working class sport, without the high salaries and ticket prices that folks even then were complaining about. And service charges were not outrageous then, but still higher than the 99 cents that Brown Paper tickets charges on all tickets.

And after I had spent time cautioning the skaters about what they said to Frank (as he put it) “they opened their guts” and he got everything he wanted to write for the article and the book….and one prominent male skater made a pass at him, which he was kind enough not to mention to me until years later…..not a great tolerance by society for gay athletes at that time. And he seemed to have captured a pretty accurate image of me in that era.

Frank wasn’t a skater outside of occasional sojourns to a skating rink. He played basketball in high school and in college until his coach told him he wrote better about the game than playing it. And he developed as a writer and today writes about a lot more than sports, delivers an occasional piece for Sports Illustrated, has a weekly commentary on Wednesdays for NPR radio, and does occasional features on HBO Real Sports…..this time of year he and Carol are in Key West where he is working on his 19th book.

Out of the article came “Five Strides on the Banked Track”, the seminal book on Derby that is in such demand that it disappears from libraries and sells on Amazon for as much as $650. Little Brown did an initial small printing, and the book disappeared (including my copy).

So after all these years after the demise of the original Roller Derby, after Rollerjam came and went, modern Roller Derby is here. And Frank is thrilled. He has watched games on the internet and is amazed that a successful game can be played on a flat track and that, different from the original enterprise, it has become a movement, a therapy, for those engaged.

Shortly after Joan Weston’s tragic death from a debilitating disease, Frank was asked to write her obituary for the New York Times magazine, and he wrote such a beautiful tribute that the genesis for Rollerjam developed for the two producers in Tennessee. That the game ultimately failed was really a fault of the attraction they ultimately presented: a writer-created banked track story of good and evil with cages, helicopters, you name it. But the skaters were wonderful; a number are in Roller Derby, and three of the men were important parts of the World Cup Champion USA team.

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/2010/writers/frank_deford/05/19/roller.derby.revival/Joan_Weston.jpg (Please click link to see Frank’s article on Joan Weston and the return of Modern Roller Derby)

It was just a few years after Rollerjam ended, with the memory of a skating game in people’s minds, that April and her crew brought in modern Roller Derby. I mentioned this connection to Frank and he was very pleased.

“If anything I wrote helped to results in the reincarnation of Roller Derby in the 21st century, then I am happy. I loved meeting and traveling with the Derby skaters of the earlier generation, and there seems to be such a bonding and almost a therapeutic connection in today’s game that most don’t realize.

And for even more of a connection, Timothy Travaglini, an MRDA skater and member, has been instrumental in having this classic book available to today’s Derbyites, followers, and all. He is with Open road media who has just issued on line a kindle (through amazon.com) and e-book version. Please click on the link at the top of the page.

And they asked the Commissioner to write a foreward.

Let’s talk about freshies a long time ago.

Our good friend Louisa Kalimeris was so concerned about Freshies in Derby that she created this marvelous site:


She was hoping if those getting into the game could exchange information and get help that their journey could be easier….and of course she was concerned about the bullying that had happened to her and almost drove her out of the sport.

Well in the old days of the Derby (OK, Commissioner, tell us all about it), getting into Roller Derby was much different. It was professional, the players were paid…not much by today’s standards, except for the “top” skaters. Remember, our ticket prices were $1, $2, and $3……playoffs up to $4, and when we played Madison Square Garden we had a $6 top. Of course the fact that rent and reimburseables at the Garden were $40,000 (in the 60’s) had a lot to do with that.

There was no outdoor roller skating to speak of at the time: no inlines, quads had wooden wheels originally (until 1959 when we started using urethane), and virtually no one who came into the game had any skating background. There were a few that had ice skated, but they all had to be taught how to skate on the banked track.

So training schools were established in several areas, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and viewers on telecasts were told if they wanted to join the Roller Derby, come down to a training school with a pair of skates with no toe stops. And they did by the hundreds, from all walks of life. And they usually had a former skater training them; they paid $1 for a one and a half hour session until they (only a few) reached the point where they were assigned to a “minor league” team which would keep training (with all the others) and occasionally playing before the professional game.

And getting women to try out was so difficult, that in many situations men were told they couldn’t start training unless the brought a woman to learn also.

Obviously no bullying or harassing at the training school….you were trying to qualify for a job, a career, becoming a super hero, a television star

Training was rigorous, 5 days a week…longer sessions if you showed promise….you learned how to fall (on your butt), how to “take” a rail to not be injured, how not to hurt another skater (the trainer without warning would through a chair in the middle of the moving pack; you either reacted quickly and jumped or fell); and you learned the five stride, the most effective way to skate the track (like the diamond on the flat track), and mainly you learned endurance.

The pack would do a fast pace in training starting at 5 minutes (so many would drop it) eventually going up to an hour….you could not even be considered to go the professional game unless you could do an hour pace, regardless of your other skills.

So you got called up…..now each team had just 7 or 8 men and 7 or 8 women. The pack never stopped (no sissy starting line except at the start of the game), and the top skaters rarely left the track….usually only jammers were substituted….so you waited until someone was injured or sick….and here is how the game was played…notice the differences:

So if you got to play you had better show your skills fast; the new kids were not shown a lot of kindness, and there was some hazing.

But if you made it, you were in Roller Derby, not making a lot (average new skater $25 per game, plus uniforms, skates,medical for skating, per diem on the road, housing on the road, skating 5 or 6 games per week) unlike the top skaters (in 60’s dollars) making $40 K to $60 K but earning every cent of it.

But if you talk to any of the skaters today, they will tell you it was the best time of their life.

what if your father had invented a game and you just watched the World championship

I will keep it short.

Yes there are 1628 Leagues in the world.

And yes the growth has been phenomenal over the past 10 years.

But the impact never really hit me until I saw players and fans from 15 nations during the phenomenal coverage of the Men’s World Cup from Birmingham,England. And my friend and cohort at Brown Paper Tickets Bob “Noxious” (Randy Hughes) announced the final game.

The other sports should enjoy such love and sportsmanship. Skaters patting opponents while on a jam. Amazing moments you will never forget:

Japan and Argentina being adopted as home teams by the entire crowd; Japan brand new to this type of game (My good friend Hiroshi Koizumi is the father of Roller Derby in Japan); Argentina with just 8 players and astonishing everyone with their play; maybe the loudest cheer of the tourney when Scotland got 10 points against the US powerhouse in the final jams.

And on and on: the Argentinian player proposes to his girl friend and the crowd cheering and tearing (I did).

And the winning US team, coached by my Derby wife, the incomparable Val Capone; tell her Roller Derby needs her anywhere in the world and she is there. And so many of my “friends” on the squad, from three members of Rollerjam (which could have been so good if not so phony) to Tony Muse who represents the Roller Derby Skate Company Elite skates, finally getting back to the game that meant so much to them; and my father started that company!

And my father, Leo Seltzer, who died in 1978 believing his beloved game which he fully intended to bring back as a legitimate contest was gone forever.

And me, the almost unwilling heir to the family business, whose videos from the 70s inspired April Ritzenhaler and others to bring it back to life in 2003.

I am so sorry I didn’t make it to Birmingham; but nobody will keep me from the women’s World Cup in Dallas this December. After all I write a column for Blood and Thunder magazine who is sponsoring this event, and I know Robin will put me on the credential list; and even if she wouldn’t, I will be at the Fair Park Arena where we used to skate.

My god, this is a worldwide sensation…..just how would you feel?