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.

KISS And Derby

No, I do not mean the group Gene Simmons heads.

KISS is a great acronym used for so many different projects: Keep it simple stupid.

There is an easy explanation of why soccer is really the universal game on our planet……and even becoming widely accepted in the USA, contrary to early beliefs.

It is easy to play on any field and is easy to follow and understand.

Yes, there are a lot of rules, but they do not interfere with the flow of the game. And with the 22 players on the field, rushing from one end to another, there is just one referee, with linesmen on the sidelines. Penalties are clear cut and understandable.

Roller Derby became a pack game where the players would engage using technique and strategy to aid their players and stop opposing players. Again, I am writing my opinions as a promoter and as a fan of the game.

When neither the fan nor the player understands why up to 100 penalties a game are called (or even what they are for), and the game seems to be a series of one team power jams with no engagement in the pack, it does not make fans (or even skaters) very excited.

Let’s make no mistake: if it weren’t for WFTDA organizing, Roller Derby would not be where it is today. But actually MADE and TXRD are closer to leaving the skaters skate. And USARS is trying, although still too many penalties and other areas that are confusing. And using WFTDA as a basis, I love what the LA Derby Dolls have done to the game, which assures a great evening of Derby regardless of the score.

There are great teams in action at the Championships. I know some will take advantage of the loopholes in the rules, and others will just compete as hard as they can.

But I think I speak for many when I say: please just let them skate the game!

Keep it simple stupid.

Will the real Roller Derby please stand up?

I have seen every version of Roller Derby except for the very first, as I was too young to have seen it before Leo and Damon clarified the rules as a five on five game (men and women competing).

Well, I haven’t seen MADE, but can I assume it is much like OSDA?

So what’s the point; the game has evolved in different ways (Leo was a generous god; his game was not written in stone never to be questioned by anyone or changed; otherwise there would be courses in nocreateaderby in schools today.)

In fact, he wasn’t thrilled with my version.  But that is another story.

Much of the original game during its marathon phase was based upon the rules of the six-day bike race:  bikers rode on a steeply banked track until one of them felt the time was right and sprinted out of the pack to gain a lap on the others.  The chases and the pack moving is what made it exciting.  When the rider caught the back rider on the original group, he gained the lap.

It was called a jam; there was not time limit.

And there was no time limit when the original marathon Roller Derby skaters jammed; they either caught the pack or fell back.

The game as put forth in the 1937 rules change lasted about 20 years.  5 skaters on a side, a jam would occur when any skater broke out ahead, and he (or she) had 2 minutes catch the pack and for each member passed, gained a point (some fluctuation in that rule).  Anyone could jam, anyone could block.

In our game, we added helmets to designate positions:  solid black pivot, who could jam or block; 2 team color helmeted blockers, who could help their jams break out, stop oncoming opposing jammers, could only perform within 20 feet of the pack (front or back); and the two striped-helmeted jammers, who could score, but also block when required.  and the jam time was eventually gut to 60 seconds because the speedy jammers could catch the pack too quickly  (go to, check out Roller Derby Rules 1970, an excellent play by play call, about 2 minutes).

. And although there were frequent jams, scores were low because there was always the availability of jamming skaters from both teams.  And some of the most exciting jams were when there was no scores.

Today’s WFTDA version has led to different strategies:  jammer out, catches pack in 20 seconds or less, and if no other jammer, can lap the field continuously within the 2 minute time limit.

Defensive strategies are different with different leagues: engagement, passive offense, picket line, (stroller derby?), whatever.  BAD girls vs Montreal, both teams used engagement which I feel made for an exciting and fan-friendly (damn fans) game; as did Wasatch vs Sacred City, Victorian vs Terminal City, and others I watched.  So obviously I am not a huge fan of the passive game, although many of the games I have seen have great pack play!  (blockers, please never stop what you should be doing during the jam!).

USARS has developed a game closer to the original, but still with aspects of the modern game.  TXRD pretty much skates the original banked track game, but has added some fun and crazy things…..the fans love it and keep coming back.

Obviously I love what LA Derby Dolls and the banked track league are skating:  Elements of all, including the sixty-second jam, great pack play and understanding, controlled (I hope) official times out, immediate substitution at end of jams.  The game flows well, and even though the one I saw in LA was one-sided, all fans (and not just home town) stayed till the end, because the jams and pack play were so well executed, and really, that is what this game is all about.

Now I have seen some of the other cities playing this game and not doing so well.  But obviously this is a contest of skill and execution, and I know that other leagues can compete; look at Gotham Girls, a flat track league, success against LA.

Now don’t get your dander up (wow, that is an old one), my blog, my preferences.  The basic flat track game continues to spread like wildfire around the world, and the players, nso’s and fans like it, or it wouldn’t succeed.

Let’s see what the future brings, and I don’t care what it is, as long as it is Derby.

Below is photo by Roller Derby historian and photographer Andrew J. Epstein….check out his facebook page.  Joan Weston of the Pioneers and boy promoter, 1971.

You don’t always get what you want – perception of Roller Derby

I have been in awe of the LA Derby Dolls since I first heard about them.  The way they have followed a plan:  get a building on a long-term basis, created your own “arena” within it, and have a great product and other things affiliated from merchandise to promotion to being successful….others could learn so much from them

I can’t believe that in the years I have been somewhat affiliated with modern Derby that I haven’t actually seen this premier banked track league, also co-joined with the San Diego Dolls.  I hope to rectify that within the next month.

And because of where they are and the talent outside of Derby they have in their organization they are being utilized more and more for movies, TV and ads.  The Bones and Bachelor shows, the Dr Pepper ads during football, to name a few.  And the videos they create for their in-house presentations are amazing.  I know the series is gone, but watch their “Entourage” video on you tube sometime.

Image by mzacha from

Image by mzacha from

So it was interesting so see a whole episode of “Bones” basically built around the Dolls and the Dollhouse.  But I had uneasiness about the story, which the Dolls have no control over.

We know a whole different thing about Derby and those within the world.  I was reminded again this past week when “sisters” (and brothers) from around the world added their support to the CaiRollers in Egypt who are doing such a daring thing trying to establish the game there in spite of the danger from that society.  Among the supporters?  the league from Tel Aviv in Israel.

And each day I receive invitations to auctions, benefits, fundraisers etc from the leagues doing their most to help their teammates, friends, the community and more. and we know this is part of your culture and what you do.

And I personally know how much money and support you gave to Lori Milkers after her life-threatening beating and the thousands that are on the sites Blockers not bullies, Derby against domestic violence and more.

And then there are the incidents, one this past week, where a player from northern Michigan was stranded in Canada when her car broke down, and the local league took care of her, worked with her to get her car repaired and she got back home safely……And when Pandora was stranded in Colorado, what the various leagues did for her was amazing.   And of course when the London Roller girls were stranded in New York because of the lava eruption that stopped air travel, they were housed, fed and entertained for the week it took them to get back to the UK.  And I know there are dozens more of these stories out there of help and sharing and love between all the leagues everywhere.

So I like so many of you get upset when the references to Derby are not as we want them, but oddly, it usually helps more than it hurts showing how mainstream the game is becoming and even more people will be attracted to it.  And sometimes we go overboard, as when the amazing article on modern Derby appeared this week in the Wall Street Journal, the headline “Roller Derby elbows its way into the mainstream” I received a complaint of why did they use elbow?

I know that a number of you are involved in publications, from excellent magazines to on line to podcasts to the great online paper of Derby all over the world that attractive Nuisance (on twitter) is publishing. I steal from it, and so should you.  I am asking all of you who can publicize who they Derby people are, what they are doing, and what a great asset they are to our society and each other, well beyond the empowerment, please do so.  This is not a company with PR going out daily…….someone has to tell the world what you really are.

Oh, and I will be working with the American Red Cross in Northern California on a program to get the Derby leagues involved in promoting blood drives in this time of so many recent tragedies.  Hope you will work with us if you can.