Can Roller Derby ever become a major spectator attraction again?

Before you jump down my throat about your love for the game, I am not talking about anything except attracting more fans on a meaningful basis.

And ironically after writing this I found out that one of Derby’s greatest stars, Charlie O’Connell has died, and he was one reason that fans came to the games.

Yes, some leagues are doing well, especially the ones that have their own teams that play each other (can we start differentiating between teams and leagues?).  Obviously Gotham, Bay Area, Toronto, Texas, LA Derby Dolls, TXRD,  etc come to mind, but each of their teams has its own following and the fans can see their progress during the season, ending in a championship.

But many of the 2000 teams/leagues throughout the world depend almost soley of the local “family” support to continue, and many do not even think that admissions and merch can bring them sufficient revenue.

During the recent World Cup – the amazing event created by Robin Graves and her staff, there was a real feeling of what the game could mean to a paying public…….but when you got down to it, only a few of the countries could really manage the complexity of the game as it should be played, and they dominated the competition.  And the final, exciting matches had an enthusiastic crowd, but virtually all were “family” and not enough civilians.

A good friend of mine named Bill was in attendance on Friday, and liked what he saw so much that he returned for Sunday’s finals with his wife, who yelled herself hoarse.

Bill is a powerful player within the sports industry, and we had a very interesting discussion after the Cup ended.  Some of which I will relate.

He loved the possibilities of the sport, but found the game too complex and hard to follow for the larger audience necessary, and remarked on the excessive penalties (justified or not) that seemed to keep teams from being at full strength.  I explained the make up of teams/leagues throughout the world, the play for rankings and not for a regional league, the excessive amount of leagues in any area, etc.

He still wondered about the possibility of modifying and making a more spectator friendly game.

(Those who think I shouldn’t be talking this way or am criticizing the game you and thousands throughout the world love, please give it a rest for now……the game works for those who play it).

So looking back on what made Roller Derby successful there were many elements, albeit a very different animal… are thinking we don’t want the showmanship, the fights, etc.  And I agree….no need in today’s competitive sport.  But what if in a specific example you could present to the public an exhibition that combined the best of the rulesets (original, WFTDA, USARS, MADE), that allowed for the speed by the players and pack, really having offense and defense on the same play, having officiating more in tune with hockey that is no harm no foul (but obviously protect the players), and allowing stars to shine, and players to project them selves honestly, as in hockey and basketball.

Today you have the best roller skaters in the world in Derby.  You have participants who skated the old Roller Derby in a more recent form (Quadzilla, Mark Weber, etc) and former skaters like John Hall, Cliff Butler, Debbie Rice, Judy Arnold, Frank Macedo who would love to be a coaching participant in a different form of Derby.

Do I want to own Roller Derby again?  No, I did that, and it was wonderful…to sell out Madison Square Garden and every major arena and fill stadiums with crowds ranging from 27,000 to 50,000…for whatever you think of the past, the game always was about the skating to the fans…..nothing excited them more than skaters flying around the track, chasing each other, and one or two points on a jam.   A bit about Roller Derby in the 70s.

Of course I will continue to support the wonderful people and players I know in Derby.

But I would love to see what I described, promoted and featured, in just one weekend in a major city to see what the response would be.

You know I will always be a promoter at heart.

6 comments on “Can Roller Derby ever become a major spectator attraction again?

  1. Jerry, Love this post. I agree with you. I love watching your videos. The fast part is very attractive to me and I believe, an audience. Also, the rules are too complex for me but then I’m pretty much a curmudgeon anyway!

  2. You nailed it when you said “family viewers”. I never knew Derby until I met someone in it. People have the ‘old’ perception of Derby, and not enough current info to intrigue them. Honestly most people I talk to align it with ‘WWE” fake drama. Clearly they haven’t been to a bout in a decade or more. Additionally, the recruitment of new members could help expand the audience. Not just ‘skating kids” leagues, but a hub where NEW people can come learn, learn if its for them, what its about. It should include grade school and even college level in addition to adults. Something I’ve noticed as well: The promotions/marketing for the current bouts at least in this area aren’t that far reaching, and there is little ‘engagement’ with potential spectators. Honestly, it’s easy as a non skater to feel ‘out of place’ at times because of the closeness of the Derby Family, which is awesome for the current teams, but could harm future recruits and spectators outside the ‘friend fam’ circle. I think if there were more options for rec training, kid recruiting, public speaking/events outside of the game (yes it can be confusing) and overall more engagement/marketing with the ‘watchers’ you could let everyone know about the New (not so new) Derby. My mind has been painted by Derby: a canvas of colorful personalities, relationships, fun, seriousness, strangeness and exciting bouts that I never would have known about until I met a Derby Player. This is merely a comment from a non-skating outsider giving you a novice perspective. You are one of the best kept secrets; Stop it!

  3. Great article! The Milwaukee Blitzdkrieg is trying a modified rule-set for its home season this year. The goals align with what you just described — encouragement of a faster-pack game, reduced penalties to keep packs at full strength and to give the fans a chance at better understanding what’s going on. They won’t have huge crowds, but if you get a chance to check it out, it should be an interesting experience, if nothing more.

    On a related note, I strongly feel that engaging and pivoting off of the fans from the 60’s & 70’s incarnation of the sport is the fastest track to making the modern incarnation, that I love, everything it should be. Sometimes I imagine a double-header with a modern game and a “throwback” bout. I’d love to participate in both.

  4. In some cities, there’s a very palpable “anti-professional” attitude. And how many people go to watch amateur sports, if they don’t have a friend or family member involved? Not too many.

    In any case, though, there’s so much that can be done — adjusting rules slowly over time is one of them. Major overhauls of rulesets are probably not a good thing, unless you can find entire teams that are willing to playtest them over long periods of time. But any time changes are done, you need to run focus groups of spectators, give them some basics, and let them see if they can figure out wtf is going on. When an average person can figure out what’s going on without having to have an explanation in the program, or a friend with them to tell them, then you’ll have achieved something major.

    But, there’s not just rule changes. Teams need to be able to get out there and market themselves, they need to get attention from people, they need to get out and sell their merchandise, and, in my opinion, players need to be able to be sponsored, and i’ve seen so many utter failures of marketing at the mid-levels, that it just boggles my mind that some of the cities i’ve been to can even afford to keep their teams going ..

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