Saturday, 15 June 2013

The topsy-turvy world of roller derby

In a previous life I was a skater, committee dogsbody and coach for an established roller derby league. I was privileged to be a part of an exciting, positive sport for women that seemed a world away from the perceived image of more "conventional" sport. Injury, both mine and those of others, eventually caused me to quit skating but I have stayed on the fringes, attending games and recently MCing bouts. In the last three years I've come to know and talk to a lot of players and, alarmingly, a LOT of former skaters and people who got started but quit for one reason or another. One of the most common complaints or reasons for leaving is that of time. Of not having enough to make skating attendance requirements, let alone the various off-skate meetings, fundraising events, organising and running bouts, the list goes on. Add in coaching and an experienced skater could be on skates for up to twelve hours a week, not including off-skates commitments. Even an "average" skater, skating in a home team, could be expected to skate for six hours every week.

That's a lot of your waking moments.

Then there's the bouts. Big events requiring liquor licenses, catering, organising venues with seating for a thousand (in some places in Aotearoa up to four times that many!), ticketing, flyering, afterparties (a whole other event!), half time entertainment, and all on a Saturday night when they're in competition with all the other gigs and entertainment that happen in a big city at that time. It all has to be organised while all that skating is going on. And these huge entertainment evenings are held every month, sometimes even more regularly. For a group of women and men with jobs, partners, kids and a sport to play, it's a huge commitment.

"I just couldn't commit" is one of the most common reasons why people quit. Not because they didn't like playing, not because they found the sport too hard. Because they couldn't commit.

Roller derby, to me, is being run upside down.

Who wouldn't want to play a sport where you got to wear these?

Let's compare. Take ice hockey, a skills-heavy, similarly dangerous sport so I think it's a reasonable basis for rough comparison. Ice hockey is a triangle. At the bottom, you have a huge base of casual players. The Tuesday night social leagues. The kids playing after school. the work teams. No stress, just pay your weekly subs and turn up to a rec centre to play. No glitz, no aspirations to play in the Maple Leafs (mostly). Then you have the more serious players, who'll train more regularly, hit the gym to play better, will spend time watching matches for strategy ideas, but for whom it's a serious hobby to go along with their real lives. Some big games might have a small audience. At the peak of the triangle, you have your Ice Blacks, your NFL, your Olympic hopefuls. Those at the bottom go to games to support the players at the top, they admire them and learn from them. The game is accessible to all and there is the possibility of progression up the triangle, but it's not expected. 

Roller derby? Roller derby inverts the triangle. Every aspiring skater is told from the word go that they are making a huge commitment. Every skater in a league is expected to train as hard as they can, to go further. Every bout is a big event. Every skater is told that if they try really hard they can be the next Bonnie Thunders (the LeBron James of roller derby according to ESPN), and skaters who say that they "just want to play derby" are seen as anomalies, of letting others down, of not pulling their weight.

I've done it myself. On the nights where I'd be replying to emails at 2am I'd shake a fist at the skaters who turned up, skated, packed up and just left again. I made the passive-aggressive comments about the ones who didn't make the meetings. At the time, I thought I was annoyed at their "laziness" or lack of "commitment". Now I realise I was just a bit jealous. A lot of skaters like me are unable to strike the balance between skating and life, and quit. The skaters who stay will invariably have legitimate complaints about their work rate, exhaustion, and stress. It's not a good way to be.

From experience, the main issues that cause player attrition and burnout are attendance requirements, bouts, and fundraising pressures.

Attendance: How often is the league asking skaters to attend, and how is this time justified? Let's go back to ice hockey. Mackenzie ice hockey have their player code of conduct on their website. All players are expected to "Be on time and properly equipped for all practices and games." Sound familiar? Then you see how often teams  have practice: Once a week. For an hour. I've no doubt that there will be other practices, skate sessions, and the like, but an hour a week sounds a lot more reasonable than four, or six, or ten. Doesn't it? How often is reasonable for those who really just want to skate? Which brings me on to....

Bouts: Who are they for, really? They're fun, sure. Good entertainment, usually. But surely asking thirty or so women, most of whom work full-time or in further education and have family commitments, to stage a huge Saturday-night event every month on top of their skating commitments is a bit masochistic? Roller derby has her roots in sports entertainment but if it is to be seen as a sport in 2013, why spend the hours and the tears on the entertainment as well? Here's a challenge. Imagine your league with no home fixtures for an entire year. No bout committee. Your intra-league competition is a once-a-month special scrimmage, with winners announced at the end of the year. Competitive? Sure, just like your Saturday hockey games. Nothing to stop your other half and the kids coming to cheer support, but no tickets, no flyering, no panic over where the chip fryer is for the hot food stand. Maybe you have one or two big bouts a year, an exhibition bout or the final or an inter-league. It's a big deal. It's stressful, but not rushed. Everyone's got the energy, as it's your big celebration. People will go as it's an event, not a regular fixture battling for attention on a crowded weekend. It would pay for itself, which leads me onto.....

Fundraising: So, you drop your attendance requirements. Maybe your league has one skills night a week, and one scrimmage. If you don't make skills you sit out the scrimmage. Your subs decrease as you have fewer venue fees. You host one or two big bouts a year, they're big-ticket events and a fixture on the calendar. So what is left to fundraise for? I'll answer before you do:


Your best players. They represent you at WFTDA bouts, who are further up the triangle. They work hard for their jersey and let's face it, travel costs, right? Shouldn't we be fundraising for them? 

The high end- WFTDA

Let's try another way. The All-Stars run in parallel to the regular league. They pay extra for their training venues, they run their own trainings. They're higher up the triangle. Before a major away fixture, skaters on the All-Stars agree to a funding contract, to raise x amount towards the cost of travel and expenses. They can either pay it directly, or they can fundraise, find some sponsorship, or a mixture of all three. Many schools and groups run on this system for overseas trips worth thousands. It becomes the responsibility of the player to raise their funds in the best way they can. Players could work together on initiatives, other skaters could help with time or donations or whatever, but their assistance would not be mandatory. Working together to fundraise would help foster team spirit. The skaters who "just want to skate" aren't asked to commit time to raise money for others to travel the country/the world, and if your place on the squad depends on your ability to fundraise you're going to make the effort, aren't you? The first fifteen of your local high school go on week-long trips to Australia because they work hard to raise the money for themselves and their team, and you can bet your ass their training commitments are huge. 

This way, we flip the triangle. The wedge at the bottom are the twice-a-week players who rock the sports court and get a yearly shot at an audience. The better players form almost a sister league, training hard and playing harder. Progression if you want it, a fun sport to play if you don't. And hell, maybe we get our own Bonnie Thunders at the top. 

I know this doesn't address all the problems and issues around the sport, and I know that some people might be reading this and wondering how easy it'll be to cut my brake lines, but I love the sport, the women who play it and the women who want to play it and think that maybe, just maybe, there could be a place for all of us on the track. But I know there isn't space for all of us on the point of a triangle.


  1. Love this interesting perspective!

  2. The recreational level derby you are describing is exactly what Toronto LOCO is all about.
    We started out a year ago as a very small group of girls who share your exact ideas, and wanted that super recreational level of derby. Our mantra is kind of "I just want to have fun and skate with my friends." We've since grown to a full roster and we have a super laid back attitude about commitment levels. Some people come once a month, and some come to our practice every single week. (2 hours, once a week)

    One of things that our members love about our group is that they can have their non-derby life and fit us in when they can.

    We don't have a venue in Toronto where we can host bouts, or even big enough for a scrimmage with a visiting team, but we've been fortunate enough to be invited by a couple other LOCO teams to play against them. The main reason for our existence though is our Friday night practice where we can get together, work on skate drills, scrimmage a little, and pretty much just enjoy a couple hours on skates with some friends. There are LOCO chapters across southern Ontario who get together for one big tournament in November to celebrate our love of the game. It's all for fun. LOCO is low-contact, low-cost, and low-commitment. If you want to hear more about it, I'm an admin on the FB link I posted at the top of this message, so get in touch :)

    1. Sorry, I should clarify the statement about venues - we don't have a venue in Toronto which is big enough, willing to rent to us, and is within the budget of our group.

    2. I think I am in love with your league! Your model looks brilliant, definitely one that deserves a wider audience. What ruleset do you use?

    3. We use the WFTDA ruleset with a low-contact supplement. It basically says no excessive force, so if you already are making contact with another player, you can push them off you but you can't initiate contact with momentum behind it. We've found that low-contact is really popular with the casual nature of our group and we seem to be attracting the interest of players from other leagues who are returning from injury.

  3. I like your thinking. I'm one of the ones who quit because of time, but I can honestly say my time in derby was worth it and very life transforming. Just wish I could continue to enjoy weekly skating with a group of gals on a banked track. That was heaven.

    1. I'd have loved to try banked track back in the day. I absolutely loved (and still love!) roller derby, one of the best things that ever happened to me!

  4. Interesting post, thanks. It's true, derby takes up a heap of time and commitment. Sports are a bit like religions (and derby is definitely some people's religion!), and it's not easy to start up your own and keep it growing. I found this an interesting comparison since I played ice hockey for 11 years in the US (I've been playing derby in Australia for a year). Although I agree with your point that not everyone can (or even wants to) be the next Bonnie Thunders and that there should be a 'derby for everyone', I think there are a few flaws in the analogy between derby and hockey that I'd like to point out:

    1) Yes, 'senior rec[reational]' (eg adults playing for fun) ice hockey teams might have an hour or two of practice and one game per week, but those are *run by the rink*, which puts together the leagues, the scheduling, organises officials, offers coaching support, etc. So all of that organisation that derby leagues have to do themselves is actually taken care of, top-down, from the venue – making it super-easy for skaters to just show up 1-2x per week to their practices and games. If there were roller rinks that actually organised senior rec derby leagues and people could just organise a team of 14 other skaters to pay some money and get a three-month season of weekly games plus finals already sorted for them, you could very easily have a "I just want to skate with my friends" team to play once a week (and then hit the pub for a big meal and beer afterwards :-).

    2) All of the people playing in those leagues *already know how to play the sport*. In fact, many of them grew up playing it – so that 1-2 hours of practice per week isn't spent learning the game, just learning how to play together. Those who didn't play from childhood (like myself) had to put in *a lot* of extra time at extra classes (I even went to week-long hockey camps) to learn how to skate, puck-handling, gameplay, etc – just like the current generation of adult skaters, who didn't grow up playing derby, have to do, week in and week out. In another ten years or so, after a decade of junior roller derby, there'll be a new generation of players who can do the weekly recreational thing because it won't all be about training that hard to learn how to skate and make minimum skills. (Plus maybe there'll even be pro leagues, school leagues, etc., starting up.)

    3) If you're a hockey fan in the US or Canada, you can watch professional hockey in person or on TV *all the time*, which means you're learning the game and digesting strategy much more often than just when you're on skates yourselves. Derby fans can watch bouts online, of course, and in person a couple of times per month (if you have time after all of your own skating), but there's just not as much out there to watch at the highest levels as there are in hockey, so you have to work a lot more at learning the game than hockey fans do.

    I'm actually pretty beat after, guess what, derby training tonight, so I'll leave off there, but those were just the first three big points that occurred to me after reading the piece.

    -- This American Strife, Northside Rollers

    1. Thanks so much for the considered and in-depth response. I was a big hockey fan as a kid (as far as you can be in a small Scottish town!) and it helps to have this expert input. I think your points dovetail with mine quite neatly though. Do you think this is part of the growing pains of the sport and that, like hockey, we'll have a top-down organisation that will cater for the broader base?

      Again, thank you for taking the time to write this.

    2. My pleasure, it's an interesting topic to talk about.

      I love the grassroots, bottom-up (:snicker:) aspect of derby, and I think that's mainly what has helped spread so far and grow so fast, but I think the derby that we'll see in a decade or two will be very different. Once there are a couple of 'generations' of girls (and boys!) playing it from childhood, we might start having semi-pro or even professional leagues – if there are people with the money and the desire to get that going, of course – and then at that point I think we could start to see more levels separating out, since the elite players will have a pro league to aspire to, and the rec players can stick with the more casual outlets.

      There's a roller rink here in Melbourne that's owned by a derby player (I KNOW RIGHT?! YOUR OWN RINK!), and they have a weekly casual derby class, where people can just show up and try it, and rent all the gear just for the night. I wonder if she started casual leagues whether there'd be enough interest from all those skaters who have had to quit their leagues just because of the time commitment – though then you also get into the sticky wicket of how do you know people have passed minimum skills before letting them out there (for safety's sake)? Another difference between adult rec hockey and derby is that the hockey is usually (except for the top, all-male leagues) 'no checking' – still full-contact, but you have to both be going for the puck, and you can't just lay people out. In derby, the jammer essentially *is* the puck, and the big hits are aimed squarely at each other. So if you have people who aren't trained properly showing up to play, they could be a danger to themselves and others.

      Considering it was rebooted, what?, 12 years ago?, derby has grown at an amazing rate. But yeah, it will need a serious injection of top-down organisation and money to boost it out of amateur status. Unless you have a multimillionaire derby player who makes it their mission to start up a pro league, it will need to have the status of an institutionalised sport – eg school and university leagues that can feed elite players up to the pro levels – plus a big enough fan base for the sports honchos to want to spend money to start up a pro league. That could be coming down the line someday, but not for quite a while I think. We need several 'generations' of players who grow up doing this first, I think.

      -- Strife

    3. Also, if you're interested in seeing more perspectives, there's a lot more discussion going on over on Reddit's roller derby board (where I found this post):

  5. This is so perfectly timed for me and my league. They just voted to raise dues and up the practice schedule by 1 on skates (now 3) and 1 off skates (now 2) per week. This means that we're going from an average 4 hours, to 8 hours or practice a week and we just had an under-attended (by the league) fundraiser that everyone is up in arms about. Thanks for writing this. It makes me believe that there is hope for us all someday!

    1. Sorry to hear that! Eight hours is a lot of time. Is the league big enough to cater for the skaters wanting to go all-out in addition to those with other commitments?

  6. I love everything about this. All I really want at this stage of my derby career is a recreation league. I want to show up, hang out with friends, have a good time, and then grab a beer. I'm pretty sure this is similar to how Rose City is set up:

    1. Preach! That sounds almost perfect, and when I hear about my friends playing softball, netball etc. under those conditions I get quite jealous...

  7. In Milwaukee there is a recreational league that is associate with the big local team, the Brewcity Bruisers. The skaters pay dues and show up to practice 1 or 2 times a week for 2 hours each time. Requirements for skills are tested for only to assure people are safe on skates for hitting drills or scrimmaging.

    1. Sounds great- what's the relationship like between the two leagues?

  8. Amen Sister. Seven years in one league. For the first 5 I gave it every piece of myself. Made every practice, sat on committees, was elected to league secretary, fundraised, preached the gospel, recruited, talked crap about the people who just showed up and skated. I realize now it was me who was misguided. My league requires 3-4 practices a week at 2-3 hours a piece. If you're on the travel team (as, of course, I am) you must make 75% of all practices and have a least 4 volunteer hours a month or pay $10 for every hour you're short. After 7 years I find I'm burnt out, bitter and have lost most of the joy I found in skating. If we had employed your model I think I would still be in love with roller derby instead of contemplating retirement.

  9. I loved this piece! I have been wanting to see more leagues do something like this lately. Would you be interested in republishing this on (with credit and a link back to your blog, of course!) You can drop me a line at

  10. I loved this blogpost. Agree with almost all of it (the training comments made re: hockey and already knowing how to play, I took that point from the poster who commented on it) but yes, I related to so much of this. I moved to a rec league this year after 3.5 yrs on and off w/a competitive league where I was on committee for 21 months, skated (not often, more b-team or mixed bout level as I had a long commute and I work shifts), and helped with WFTDA paperwork to get full membership. I needed my time back but still love the sport and have thought for ages about what actually is already happening in Canada w/LOCO. I've tried more local sports teams cos I do just need a very local sport with basic commitment but have yet to find something that is as interesting as derby (where I still have an hour's commute, albeit on public transport, vs car).

    Please follow me on Twitter if you want: @mary_sweeney - always love to make new friends in the derby community : )

  11. Here's my view from a country where hardly anyone knows about derby (Germany, in my case).
    For us, there's added complications. Without the bouts, no one would know about derby at all. So we can't just drop it. Even with bouts and the added promotion and pictures and press coverage involved, we're struggling very much to find fresh meat.

    Also, we need the money raised in bouts to travel. Not just for our WFTDA-Allstar-Team but also for our B-Team. Derby's on the rise in Germany, but with plenty of teams only about to get bout ready, finding teams on the same level to play against requires at least longer trips within Germany, often across Europe.

    Plus, there are very few skating rinks in Germany, meaning we mostly train in sports halls and the few willing to risk their precious floor make us pay through our nose for the training time.

    And yes, we've had people drop out because they couldn't/wouldn't commit to so much training and committee work and such.
    But then, we're trying the no-attendance requirement approach for our B-Team/rec team and we hardly get to see any more than 5 skaters at a time at any given practice. So that won't cut it either.

    I wish it was so easy. Currently I'm in the allstar team and in plenty of committees. And helping out as a coach and, and, and... There will be a point in time when I won't be able to do so much. Or will just want to not do so much anymore. And of course, it would be great to just be able to come and skate then. But right now, I just don't see how this will happen.

    Also: I don't know what it's like in other countries. But in Germany, in any established sport, coaches get paid. Not much, but at least a little. There are resources in regards to how trainings should be built, experienced coaches able to pass their knowledge on to younger ones etc.
    All of this still needs to be built in derby. I don't see how that can happen without a huge commitment from everybody right now.