DNN Interview: Inside the Chicago Invitational

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DNN talked to Catalyst partner James “Bitchy Kitten” Jones and tournament head ref Gia De Los Muertos for a little background on the Chicago Invitational’s unique setup. For background on the teams participating, see the event preview.

DNN: Who exactly is putting up the prize money for this tournament? Is it an individual or a company?

James “Bitchy Kitten” Jones: Catalyst, our production company, was first conceived on Sept 25 2011. The roles of the four partners overlap with great flexibility. We are two derby people and two non derby people. To outline us quickly, I’m Bitchy Kitten from Kitten Traxx. My role is skater logistics and track issues. Lady Lawless is from Arizona Derby Dames and is our legal, sponsor and vendor head. Jim Arnold was part of a group that brought paintball to TV back in 2003 on WGN. He is the glue that assembled us. And Bruce Crane is events logistics, and has many years experience in organizing large scale events. The Greater Chicago Jewish Festival is one example of his talents.

Our question to ourselves is: “Can a private non league do this without the huge volunteer army it takes to put these on, and do it at a top tier level in skaters and production?” That said, many people from my personal derby family are working to help out as much as possible. We are paying where we budgeted and are working to get people who want to make derby their paid livelihood in the future.

DNN: Is the ref crew 100% refs with previous banked track ruleset experience?

Gia De Los Muertos: The Enforcers have been working on strengthening our relationship with WFTDA refs for years. Spearheaded initially by Hannah Grenade, we’ve taken a lot of initiative to grow with our league.  as the LA Derby Dolls invite more flat track teams to the bank, we’ve historically invited flat track referees as well.  Conan the Vegetarian (ACDG) has reffed with us for Team Legit games as well as BotBIV, Collin DeShotz (Wasatch) refereed BotBIII, and Tootie Tinwhistle joined us at BotBIV. We were lucky enough to work closely with Dr. Vroom (WCR) and Rev. Riot (Mad Rollin Dolls) last year for the Red Bull Banked Jam in Chicago. Considering that, we’re lucky to be inviting only one new WFTDA official to the banked this time, and I’m very excited to finally get to work with Sugar Daddy (GGRD) on our turf.

What I’ve discovered over the past few years is that inviting top level WFTDA refs to our game is comparable to inviting top level WFTDA teams. Excellent referees are excellent referees, regardless of what surface they regularly officiate.  As someone who has taken the WFTDA ref certification test following banked rules as an experiment, the rulesets are not fundamentally very different.  There are a few major differences, but most of the basics are there.

DNN: All three of the WFTDA teams have played LADD within the last year. Has the banked ruleset changed at all since the first of these games (Windy / LADD in December 2010)?

Gia: Yes. The ruleset has changed.  As I imagine happens with WFTDA, our teams and referees find loopholes as the season and the year progresses.  I’m of the personal opinion that the rules should be revisited and revised annually.  Unfortunately, WORD did not issue a new banked ruleset for 2011 until mid-year, in time for BotBIV.  Many leagues, including LADD, have home seasons that start in January, and were looking to have the found loopholes from WORD 1.3 (the ruleset WCR played LADD by in the Banked Track Jam) in time for the season.

LADD developed “Banked Track 2011″ rules under the leadership of Charlie Frown, and many leagues adopted that for their home rule set. It was based on WORD 1.3, and WORD 2.1 was based on BT2011.  It was a stopgap measure at the time that ended up having longevity and impact. All three of the teams who have played banked track in 2011 have played by this ruleset.  GGRD vs LADD in February, and RMRG vs LADD in March were officiated under the same ruleset. Windy’s the only team who has not yet played by this ruleset, and that only indicates to me that we need to invite Windy out to the banked track more often!

I chose BT2011 primarily because it’s the only ruleset being consistently and currently used at this stage in the season. With $10,000 on the line, I want our officiating staff to be as prepared as possible.  Using a ruleset that none of the competing teams and none of the officials currently use isn’t reasonable.

DNN: Are there any volunteers involved in the production of this event, or is all the labor hired?

Jones: It is a mix. From the derby world we are paying announcers, refs, and a huge travel stipend to the teams that are flying. Our travel stipend is very generous, larger in total then the total prize dollars. It won’t cover everything for everyone as plane tickets are different from city to city, but we feel this is a move in the right direction for the growth of this sport. In other sports sponsors pay for the travel and the athlete chooses the events based on the level of the purse. We will work towards this is a model for the “professionalizing” of derby.

Labor for tech stuff like lights and sound and box office is all part of the deal with the venue. But I have had some amazing help and gracious invoicing from people like Snap Shock for the use of the photos that created our poster art, Penny and Leggz for their likenesses, Brazil Nut for making the poster art sing, Busta helping with a press release, and others who are giving so much to see this happen.

DNN: If it’s all hired labor, it seems like that + the amount of money that’s going into prize money, plus flying the teams out to the event, is a pretty massive expenditure for the company. What’s your rough target for ticket sales to make this an endeavor that you can repeat in 2012? 

Jones: Our prices are $25 for general seating, $40 for preferred seating and $75 for skybox.  We may have cheaper standing room but for now that is only just in case. Last I knew we were tossing around a seat cap. of 1500 plus or minus 200, as well as configuring rented bleachers for sight lines and how much per seat they cost to rent. We know we have some amazing talent and we’re doing something groundbreaking, so we know people will want to see this. We want an intimate space so that the energy of the event is overwhelming. We are not doing a weekend pass, sorry to say, as we can’t discount this anymore than we already have — you gotta admit to see Rocky vs Gotham and Windy vs LADD in one night $25 isn’t a lot to ask. We also see the value in being the first to do this. Only one group gets to be first in this arena and we are excited to venture out into this.

I know not all want to see this go pro – we all have different goals for this sport. But for those who do, it is an amazing opportunity for this to happen.

DNN: In the last ten years, WFTDA’s flat track version of the sport has consistently put a greater emphasis on the skater-run, skater-owned dynamic than banked track leagues have. Did you personally find any hesitance with Windy, Gotham and Rocky about signing on for an event where they were essentially strictly hired talent, or did they seem eager to be involved from the start?

Jones: I guess that is how you frame it. Other pro sports have contests that have prize games and it doesn’t cheapen the sport at all. I also dont know a single BT league that isnt skater owned and run, and I know them all. My favorite answer to this question is Bonnie Thunders’: to paraphrase, “We are showing up to win 1st” and what this will mean to Gotham’s travel team budget. I love that attitude of “I’m here to win, that’s it.”

I understand someone looking at what I’m working towards and saying “This isn’t what I want derby to be” but this sport is already a lot of different things to everyone. Mainly it is an amazing family of people crazy about derby. That’s the tent I’m in. I think that how we work with the skaters will dictate people’s opinion of us. If we do good people will like us; if we do poorly, people will not want to work with us again. We are very aware that the proof will be in the pudding. I like chocolate.

For me derby has been an 8 year journey. My heart is in this as deep as anyone’s. I have followed my dreams before and had a great 1st part to my life and now I have a second passion in derby and can carve out a way to make my 2nd half just as amazing. So I’m going for it.

DNN: Elsewhere you’ve said that this isn’t intended as a one-off event, and you’ve also said that “next year we are doing 4 or 5 events in different cities.” What cities are you looking at for 2012? Have you been in contact with any other WFTDA leagues about doing banked track events? 

Jones: Yes on the contact issue. We are looking at leagues who are 1st or 2nd tier in both banked and flat track. In the banked world, this is a very limited number. The group quadruples once you start to look at flat-track leagues, but … it is obvious that there is a gap in the flat track world’s 1st and 2nd tier, just as in banked.

I am gonna decline what cities as of yet, and I won’t specifically say what leagues I’m talking to — not be secretive but because it isn’t my place to talk about them if I haven’t asked, and we still have to pull the first one off to see if this works. But we wouldn’t be doing this if we thought we were gonna fail.

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