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.

My son (by a different mother and father) Cliff Butler

It was the wonderful people of Roller Derby that made it so successful over the years….hardly a profound statement, but true.

Of course there were Charlie O’Connell, Joan Weston, Ann Calvello, Bert Wall, Ken Monte, Margie Laszlo, and dozens more, but the one I always considered my personal protege was Cliff.

Cliff was born a natural athlete.  He first came around Derby when he was just 15, and although he grabbed the game almost immediately, we couldn’t have him start skating professionally until he was 16.  And we couldn’t use his real last name Avery because of complications, so he used his other family name Butler.

He first skated on the Hawaiian team, then moved over to Ken Monte’s team, the Cardinals. And under Ken, who skated a rough powerful game, he was able to develop his own style.  What was amazing was his body control; I don’t think anyone could use a jump block, utilizing his hip, as Cliff did.

He eventually moved over to the San Francisco Bay Bombers and became the super star that were the results of his natural ability.  And stars are what drew people to our game.  And eventually he received an offer to become coach (at 21 plus+) for the Ohio Jolters, with Ann Calvello as woman captain, and his legend continued to grow.

Cliff Butler

Cliff Butler

When Derby shut down in 1973 Cliff finished his college education and was employed at the GM/Toyota plant in Fremont California.  He then was hired by US Air and moved to Santa Barbara and just this past year retired from work.

Cliff does not stand still.  He was, and is, a great trainer of skaters and creator of game strategy, and he  started hopping to Colorado, Oregon, Arizona,  to utilize his unique talents, and his latest stop was in Killeen Texas, where he trained  the brand new league,  helped Jerra Bullock and the league promote and sell out their first game ever just a week ago (using Brown Paper Tickets of course), and they won against a far more experienced team with a fast and furious style of skating..

So now Cliff is being overwhelmed with requests for boot camps; he next will work with Mark Quad Damage on training the juniors in Tucson then on to other locations.

And I am here to “pimp” my son; contact him on Facebook and arrange a boot camp.  It will be different from anyone else, and you will learn techniques that have come down for 50 years and are so relevant today.  And those who have been trained love him:  ask Jerra Bullock or any of the others.  And those who can’t book him, don’t forget about John Hall, another veteran of Roller Derby who has given his knowledge and expertise to the San Diego team.

And Cliff knows how to build the traditional official Roller Derby Banked track, suspended on Dexy steel (not pipe) which can be set up by 8 people in less than three hours, and dismantled by the same crew in 1 and 1/2 hours.  And honestly, skating the banked track is a whole different experience.

So go to his facebook page, just tell him Dad sent you, and it will make your Derby days so much better!

And of course Cliff believes strongly in the empowerment of Derby participants.  You will never regret it.

filling out the rosters

Unknown newspaper clipping of male skaters.

When many people think of Roller Derby of the 60’s and 70’s, the names of stars come to mind:  Charlie O, Joan Weston, Ken Monte, Ann Calvello, Ronnie Robinson, Margie Laszlo, Bob Woodberry, Cliff Butler, Bob Hein, Buddy Jr, Bert Wall, Bobbie Mateer,  and more.  (Where’s Loretta?  She wasn’t skating Roller Derby when I took the helm.)

Actually it was the secondary players that made the game what it was.  It is not really fair to call them secondary players, but since we were concerned with who would draw the fans in, we knew the teams would have to be led by one or more of the skaters above to be meaningful to the box office.  And it was a very different game:  a maximum of 8 players of each sex on a team.  The rules were different:  the pivot skater could be a scorer if necessary;  there were two blockers and two jammers, and they could change positions between jams.  The players were penalized, not the helmets, and a maximum of two could be in the penalty box at one time.

Here are some names you may have heard:  Mike Gammon, Judy McGuire, Pete Mangone, May Mangone, Nick Scopas, Jan Vallow, Frank Macedo, Eddie Krebs, Lydia Clay, Cathy Read, Sandy Dunn, Carol Meyer, Delores Tucker, Lou Donovan, Judy Sowinski, Larry Smith, Francine Cochu, Jerry Cattell, Judy Arnold, Rosetta Saunders, Sam (Lia) Tiapula, Dewitt Quarles, Joe Foster, Gil Orozco, Ann Bauer, Pete Boyd, Bobby Seever  and don’t get mad if I didn’t list you;  just remind me.

You could only have so many  “stars” on a team or the game wouldn’t work.  I always thought our worst games were the annual All Star matches between the top stars of the East and the West, because all the roles of the game weren’t properly executed.

The secondary list probably would have become the superstars of the future, but our time ran out.  The real game was in the pack:  helping your players get out on a jam, stopping the opposing team from doing so; chasing down the jammers that had gotten out, and of course helping your players get points and stopping the opposition.

Roller Derby was and is a game of the pack.  If you control the pack, it makes no difference how great the opposing jammers are, you will have control of the game.  And the above skaters made the game exciting so that the stars looked good.  Of course there was a reason they were stars;  almost always defined so by the fans, but their skills depended on the team, even in the exhibition style of skating.

I loved watching Bill Groll in the pack; Roman and Gammon jamming, the physicality of Sandy Dunn, Lydia Clay who had greater skills than anyone realized.

Today’s Roller Derby is a complete team game.  The skill level will  only get better and better and right now most don’t have to worry about pleasing the audience, only themselves.  The future has not been defined yet, but it will.  Today there are 14 more leagues than there were just two weeks ago (approaching 800).  It is well on its way to becoming the major sport it should, and you all must work toward increasing your local audience.  Your game will bring them in… just have to let your community be aware of what you’re doing.