Not long ago, it would have been downright impossible to imagine a group of Utah women finding power, voice, friendship, athletic ability and who knows how many other gifts from the resurgence of a sport relegated to the trash heap of athletic history at the end of the 20th century.
That’s roller derby.
Just two years ago, roller derby in Utah was a mere idea that a few women were kicking around. About 18 months ago, the first batch of Salt City Derby Girls showed up at a community roller rink, rented old-style quad skates and held their practices while skating around the kids who were clowning about during free-skate time. A little over a year ago, the derby girls began holding their first public bouts.
Roll up to the summer of 2007, and the Salt City Derby Girls are now drawing 600 to 900 paying fans to their bouts at the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. They have 60 “girls” (they refer to one another as “girls.” One gets the feeling they consider the PC term “women” somehow condescending) skating in a four-team league. The girls are also fielding an All-Star team that takes on out-of-state competition. Utah can even boast a second league, with the recent formation of the Davis Derby Dames in Layton.
It’s a long way from 2005, when Salt City Board President Rebecca Lira, who skates under the persona of “Brew Ha Ha,” heard about a resurgence of roller derby. The movement began in an Austin, Texas, bar in 2001 and was spreading through the country one small league at a time whenever a group of women got together and committed to trying something new. “I was just expecting it to be a bunch of girls skating around every Friday night beating each other up,” Lira says.
As it turns out, Utah roller derby has far surpassed Lira’s rough expectations. The sport has grown out of infancy and is now wheeling into what likely will be its risk-taking adolescence. The quick and surprising success of Utah roller derby raises inevitable questions of how a new team—even better, an actual organization—not only sustains, but also grows a sport.
But then, with roller derby, typical bets are off. It challenges both the traditional business structure of sports leagues and even the very definition of what constitutes a “sport.” While most athletic organizations are founded by a promoter and investors looking to make money, roller derby in Utah—and in more than 200 locally controlled leagues nationwide—is a grass-roots, mostly nonprofit operation. The skaters run the show themselves. As “owners” of their sport and its franchises, the skaters don’t see derby as players and fans see baseball or basketball. Derby cannot be easily defined or squeezed into some traditional sports page category. It’s a unique genre-bending balance of athletics and entertainment.
It’s hard to predict what might come next when nothing like this has come before.
Mini Skirts & Alter Egos
One question the derby girls find themselves answering all the time: “Is it real?”
Although some leagues during roller derby’s heyday in the 1970s offered matches every bit as scripted as professional wrestling, the 21st century version of derby is completely (some would even say painfully) real. The question of authenticity arises because of the theatrical uniforms, over-the-top team names and alter-egos created by the skaters. Have somebody named Nancy Smith line up to skate in sport shorts and a T-shirt and nobody questions if it’s legitimate. But if Nancy Smith decides to put on a short plaid skirt, torn fishnet stockings and change her name to “Skid’n Nancy” while skating for a team called the “Death Dealers,” suddenly everybody’s wondering if the whole thing is fake.
So why bother with it? Because the girls love it, and the drama helps attract crowds.
“They give girls an identity,” Lira says of the personas the skaters create. “They’re the ones in control. They’re the strong ones. They go back home, and they’re wives, mothers, workers—everyone but themselves. When they’re skating, they can turn that part of their lives off.”
“There’s definitely a certain amount of freedom to it,” says Jennifer Philion, who skates as “Lady Shatterly.” There is a tradeoff, however. “Mainstream sports coverage takes us less seriously because of the personas.”
Nevertheless, everyone seems to agree that alter egos should always be part of the sport. “It’s a nod to the classic derby girls,” says Michelle Barrett, who goes by “Sophonda Pain.” “Besides, most of the other girls—I don’t even know their real names.”
Whatever the skaters may think of the alter egos, “It’s a nice hook for getting the fans,” says Salt City skating coach Eric Kraan, who has his own derby moniker, “El Brujo,” or “The Wizard.” (Kraan also happens to be the only ice speed skater to ever represent Mexico in international competition.)
The new roller-derby movement already seems to have solved what is, unfortunately, a very old conundrum. Many people will not come to a women’s sporting event simply to watch females do something athletic. There has to be something more. Of the most popular women’s sports—tennis, figure skating, gymnastics—all rely heavily on the appearance and clothing of the athletes. Roller derby simply acknowledges this, lets the skaters take control of it and then cranks the whole thing up a notch.
Watch roller derby for a short time, and the skill and athleticism required show up almost immediately. A jammer trying to weave her way to the front of the pack needs the same timing, speed, balance and audacity of a basketball point guard in driving the lane. Much like a quarterback in football, the pivot position in derby requires someone who can make split-second decisions based on what she sees the other team doing. Yet, somehow, that isn’t enough in and of itself. So, the alternative is to wrap a woman in a skirt and fishnets, turn her loose to let the fur fly and watch the fans go crazy.
Fine. Whatever works.
“Whenever you tell a male about roller derby, he’s not going to take it seriously at the start,” Kraan says. “All they care about is seeing women fighting. As long as we can get them to come in, somehow, maybe they start understanding.”
Barrett puts it more simply when explaining how derby can expand its fan base. “Come for the fights, stay for the sport.”
Skating a Fine Line
“We walk the line between trying to show people we’re athletes, but we also want to be fun, rough and rowdy,” says Carmen Harris, aka “Battle Bunny.” “It fuses being a real athlete and having fun.”
Sure, athletes in every sport put on their game faces and play to the crowd, but derby girls go beyond that to create an entirely different person who not only considers herself part of the game, but a character in the show. By openly embracing the notion that success will require a mix of show business and real scores, the derby girls are venturing into largely uncharted territory somewhere between sports and entertainment.
“We don’t want to be a regular sport competing with baseball and basketball,” Philion says. “We can’t just be that. We’re trying to sell a product.”
Fans at a recent Salt City bout indicated that entertainment, action and even atmosphere all play a part in getting people to leave their homes, drive to the Kearns Oval and pay $15 to watch roller derby. Some liked the rowdy atmosphere with constant music, a live band and announcers who are always reminding people that beer is available. The Salt City organization goes to great lengths to create a raucous atmosphere because, while saying you skate at an Olympic venue is impressive, holding roller derby at the Oval is a bit like holding the Warped Tour at Abravanel Hall. While a smaller, dirtier, more dingy rink that hasn’t been updated since 1978 might better suit the personality of derby, no such venue that could also hold 1,000 spectators exists in Utah.
The combo of athletics and entertainment may tilt more toward the sports side as roller-derby leagues mature on a national level and rivalries and bragging rights become parts of the equation. Thirty-eight leagues have banded together to form the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which promotes interleague play and, in turn, leads to rankings as well as regional and national championship tournaments. That makes derby start to sound a lot like other sports, which may or may not be a good thing.
“It’s a really thin line to walk, and you have to catch yourself if you stray too far to one side or the other,” says WFTDA board member Jennifer Wilson, who as “Hydra” was part of the Texas Rollergirls that got the whole derby resurgence started. “Younger leagues usually rely more on show, but as they get older and more experienced, the show aspect becomes less important and the sport aspect becomes more important.”
How Does Your Derby Grow?
Where should roller derby in Utah go next? What is the best way to grow the sport? Who gets to decide? And will there still be room for fights? The questions are difficult to answer because, as a business model for a sports league, roller derby is unique.
Professional promoters create most sports leagues. The Utah Jazz, Utah Blaze and Real Salt Lake are all franchises in leagues that were at one time created by a person or group of people who noticed that people liked to watch these sports. They reasoned that fans might be willing to pay to watch a collection of the best players who represent their city. The goal for most franchise owners in these leagues (with some notable exceptions) has been to have ticket sales and sponsorships exceed player salaries and operating expenses. The structure of these leagues is from the top down. The goal of everyone on the ladder—including the athletes—is to make a reasonable (if not ungodly profitable) living off the game.
Roller derby has taken conventional wisdom and turned it upside down. The leagues are operated by and for the players, who, in turn, do their own promoting, and the players feel adamant about keeping it that way. This system allows the skaters to maintain control of their sport, but it also requires everyone have an unpaid, part-time job helping to organize or promote derby outside of the uncompensated hours they spend practicing (10 hours a week for many players), skating in bouts and traveling. Those who serve on the Salt City board of directors often spend 20 hours a week or more keeping things organized.
Add that to the hours the women spend working at their “real” jobs, and the crush is evident. It’s clear they love their sport, but taking it to the next level—as a business—is the challenge. Sometimes, the pressure shows.
“It’s not necessarily the perfect business model for everyone,” Wilson notes. “People do get burned out.”
“You definitely have to love the sport,” says Harris, who sets up bouts for Salt City. “I might retire at the end of the season, give up my board duties and just skate.”
Echoes Barrett, who serves on the Salt City board as art director: “It’s a full-time job keeping the league going. I’m about ready for someone else to do the work. We all need to take our turn.”
And that may be the most practical solution, says Kristin Hendrick, a WFTDA board member who skates as “Mercy Less” for Baltimore’s Charm City Roller Girls. “The solution for burnout is you keep recruiting fresh meat. You keep infusing new blood so you can give the veterans a break.”
Lira believes that some challenges will ease up as the league gains experience. “Just like any business structure, right now, we’re creating the road ourselves. Once we get that road smoothed out, all we have to do is follow that road. It should get easier.”
The Salt City Derby Girls seem to feel that growth will come through getting more skaters to join up and enticing a new crowd to the Oval while keeping its regular fans as a solid base. They hope to increase their presence nationally, too, through membership in the WFTDA (Salt City is in the midst of the application process) and skating against other teams from outside Utah.
Can the skaters retain control of their sport? Hendrick reports that the WFTDA has already received offers from television networks, but those offers have been turned down because the networks either want to sanitize the sport or turn derby into a drama-filled reality show rather than simply televising bouts.
History suggests that once a grass-roots movement, be it sports or entertainment, reaches a certain level of growth, someone from the outside smells the money. Regardless of organizers’ best intentions, someone will find a way to homogenize the product and make it fit for mass consumption while still retaining a sense of “edginess.” Today’s underground movement is tomorrow’s pop culture.
Should roller derby continue to grow at its rapid rate, one could see a group of investors trying to create a cleaner (or would it be raunchier?) version of the sport with teams in eight major cities and a television contract. And, if that same group were to offer a derby girl decent cash to do nothing but skate instead of having to do 20 hours a week of unpaid labor just to keep her league going, who could blame her for signing up?
It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. Surfers were the original group who weren’t going to dance for The Man. Then they figured out that corporate sponsorships and prize money meant no more toiling away at work in the real world. Extreme athletes once billed themselves as outlaws but are now happy to shill for everything from credit cards to soft drinks.
If the same phenomenon were to eclipse roller derby, some valued components of the sport would almost certainly be lost in the process: local control and power over the product, personal expression, friendships, even a sense of accomplishment. Roller derby would become, in many ways, just another minor sport vying for the public’s leisure-time dollars. Whatever the future of roller derby in Utah, there is no denying how far it’s come in a very short time. Along the way, the skaters have discovered abilities they never knew they had.
“When we started, it was just a bunch of girls trying to remember how to skate,” Barrett recalls. “We’re all kind of shocked at what’s happened. We used to rent skates and dodge around the kids at practice. Now we’ve become different athletes. Instead of just bashing into each other we’re using strategy and skill.
“It’s very rewarding. Nothing beats derby.”