The Aftermath of Setting off a "Derby Explosive"

Sandi Johnson aka Miss Murder 

set off a "derby explosive"??!! 

http:// Those are strong words, and I was shocked. All I did was post my opinions and views in a facebook status. I didn't say anything that had never been mentioned before. But for some reason, it grabbed people's attention. I have no way to estimate how many people viewed it overall. Initially, I had intended to write a few more posts speaking about some of the problems that I had started recognizing in our great sport over the last couple of years. It turned out that I didn't need to. There were so many valid and interesting comments. People covered many of the things that I would have said and stated opinions that I had not thought of before.

"Let's have a starting point. It is a fact that attendance for games is dropping all over. I'm not a mathematician. However, in less than 2 years, our crowd went from averaging 1200 per game to 600. That's 50% of your fans. That is BAD. There is a tremendous amount of money and work that goes into bout production. Why aren't we collectively trying to figure out why our fan base is pretty lame? I've traveled all over. I've sat in arenas for Division I teams and you can see empty seats everywhere. You can hear crickets sometimes. Here in TN, it's common for people to have no clue that Roller Derby even exists in it's present form. It was no different in Las Vegas. I took Jerry Seltzer and Bob Noxious's class on increasing your fan base. It was a good class. However, our league is already advertising and doing most of the stuff discussed. So I feel these are a few reasons we still struggle to gain fans. Roller Derby has evolved into a sport that caters to it's skaters more than the fans. Compare the crowd reaction of skaters watching a game to most non-skating fans. There's a giant difference. I've observed both. As I sat at Rollercon and watched two mash up teams of amazing players hold both jammers for a full lap, I was stunned. It was beautiful. The defense was on fire. Now take that situation out of your skater brain, what that may look like to fans is 4 people standing at a dead stop while another person with a star on their helmet jumps around on her tip toes. I KNOW that it's so much more but your average fan does not.I have watched regular fans reaction to this and it's usually silence. I have worked our social media pages for years now. I have had to explain the evolution of game play over and over. Not just explain it, I've had to SELL it. Because the fans don't like it. Average fans go crazy when a jammer comes flying through a pack and when somebody gets the snot knocked out of them. That's exciting, The game needs to change in a manner that pleases the fans.

Do you play derby for yourself or the fans? Of course, we all play a bit for ourselves but do you play to your fans, too? There are so many missed opportunities to gain new fans. I talked to a lot of people staying at the Riviera not part of Rollercon. Their opinion of the group there was not very flattering. A couple from Canada asked me if they could watch some games. I told them yes just go ask about a spectator pass for the day. They did. They were told $50 each on the last day of Rollercon. That is ridiculous. Why would we shut out people who are interested in this sport we love so much? I apologized to the couple and told them Canada has amazing teams. They should check them out. They said after what they had seen at the hotel that day, they wanted nothing to do with Roller Derby. I felt shame. A Texas couple told me a nearly identical story. There's always a few bad apples in any bunch. I guess when it's a large bunch, there's a lot of bad apples. I watched skaters snub and ignore people who were not involved in Roller Derby. (not everyone) I watched skaters be ugly and bitchy to people's kids who were just trying to swim. I saw one girl walk up to the pool in a ridiculous hooker outfit with thigh high boots. She cracked a cat o 9 tails at the kids and told them it was time for class. I was horrified. Skaters acted so much like drunken sorority girls that parents got gun shy about their kids even splashing you. I had to smile and tell parents repeatedly that I had children myself and they were not bothering me. I did see a great thing where a skater found a lost and frightened child. She looked diligently for a parent. When she found the Mother (who was passed out). She woke her up and politely and sternly told her she needed to take herself and child to the room for the safety of the child. I thanked this skater. Lastly, let's talk about WFTDA rankings. Yes. I know. There's been a ton of bitching but not much action. Rankings support blowouts. Fans hate blowouts. Everyone loses. I've sat in our audience during many games. We're losing but it's only by 100 points. I'm still cheering and so proud. This team we're playing is so much higher ranked. We're holding our own. Guess what. The fans don't care. They're bored. No matter how hard I've tried to explain the logistics of the ranking game to the fans, they smile politely and leave. I had a dream when I started playing this sport. I was excited to help start a revolution. I wanted to see skaters get paid or at least have their travel and expenses paid for. Instead, girls are charged higher dues and equipment gets more expensive all the time. Poor skaters are screwed without a sponsor. (I've been very blessed with an awesome one.) I know really good skaters who can't travel because they just can't afford to. It shouldn't work that way. Pack in the fans. More money will come. That's how it's supposed to work. That's enough for now. More later. Thank you if you took the time to read all of this.

I had hoped to generate a productive discussion. Man, did I get my wish. The comments started and just kept coming. I had expected backlash and some criticism. A bit of that happened. However, the majority of the conversation was not only productive and interesting but mostly very civil and intelligent. I think that speaks volumes for the good people who are a part of the Roller Derby community. 

I had a difficult time choosing comments to include in this recap of sorts. If you have time and are interested to read all of the comments, the original post is still public on my facebook page. 

I chose these comments for the differing points of view and also similarities. 

Laura Retro Bruizin Bartlett · 
"there is an easy answer..the novelty has worn off. We had an audience when we first started because it was new and people wanted to see the latest fad. Bad skaters falling in their short skirts and fishnets was a hoot!! Now we actually have what could be close to a real sport and people are losing interest because it is a sport that involves ATHLETIC WOMEN. You don't think all women's sports (basketball, softball, etc) have this same problem? Maybe roller derby was never meant to be a professional sport, maybe it was just meant to be a hobby sport played by people who just love to play it. As for rollercon, no one told me I was there to be an ambassador of the sport, I thought I was there to visit with other derby friends, skate, watch/play some fantastic derby and be able to dress/act a fool/have a good time while doing it."

El Toupée "My experience over the last five years has been that Leagues either turn fans into players/officials/volunteers or they turn them off the sport. And here's the rub: if you're going to charge people to watch then you have to supply them with a product that they're willing to pay for.

To put it another way: if you go to see your favourite band play live you expect to hear your favourite songs being played alongside a handful of newer songs or more obscure material. And if the band sucks live, you're not going to pay to see them again - or even buy their records in the future.

But that's just not derby, is it?

The highest ranked WFTDA League outside of North America isn't even ranked by their home country's 'governing' body because their charter team hasn't played against any other charter teams since... well, long enough to go unranked ( And why? Because - allegedly - of their desire not to drop any places in the WFTDA rankings.

So many players and their Leagues have Olympic aspirations, but they seem to forget that the Olympics - aside from being of questionable ethics - are run as a commercial enterprise, thus repeated bums on seats is what's going to sell them on the sport.

(at this point, I apologise if I appear to be hijacking this thread)

What happens on-track - or doesn't, as the case may be - is only part of the problem.

* give us (back the) regions (in every derby-playing nation);
* give us divisions within each geographical region;
* give us proper divisional interleague play within each region - everyone in R1D1 plays everyone else in R1D1 <insert Star Wars joke here> - and a set season;
* you play WFTDA derby but aren't a WFTDA League? No problem, play the season anyway - because derby is inclusive - but be aware you're not eligible for the WFTDA's end of season playoffs and championships;
* stop giving the highest ranked teams byes in play-offs and championships.

(For the record, whilst I volunteer my time as an announcer and an official, I rarely watch derby unless good friends are playing because, by and large, the sport in its current form bores me to tears.)"

Megan Carmody "Here's the deal... Roller derby in it's current state is a non sustainable business model. Period. The "sport" is stuck between entertainment for entertainment's sake and entertainment for the individual's sake. This has to be looked at from the perspective of the fan if you want to make money and from the perspective of the athlete if you want it to be a "sport". I think part of the problem is that too many of the people (girls) involved in this sport did not come from an athletic background. If you were one of the people that played competitive sports all your life, you would realize that no one ever came to watch you play except your parents or those others that were involved in the sport. No offense to feminists, but sex sells. There are very few sports that make money selling tickets. FIFA, MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, College Football. The WNBA is not among those, but the people who play these sports on a local level don't try to sell tickets. They play for their own enjoyment. They pay dues, join a league, play games, drink beer and walk away. Roller Derby is something so much more encompassing. It wants to be both. It is indeed unfortunate that female sports do not generate the fanbase that male sports do but it is in fact reality. People were drawn to roller derby because of the pageantry, the sex, the alteregos, the beer. Bring that back and you will get the fans back. Well that and the fast pace, big hits and exciting action. Roller derby is a great sport to play and at one time fun to watch. The business model needs to change. Figure out if you want to make money or you just want to play roller derby. As it stands today, you can't do both."

Liz Tiller "If you want money you need fans, if you want fans you need to cater to them. If you want to just skate you don't need fans and need to foot the bill yourself like every other amateur sports league. Derby folks always compare themselves to the NFL or FIFA but want to maintain the DIY bit. There's loads of sports that adults play that are DIY, but they don't depend on fans and their money. This is the issue. You can't have it both ways, as in be like the NFL but still be by the skaters and for the skaters. People need to decide what they want and act accordingly. You'll never have skaters being paid to skate and still be DIY. Someone has to be in charge."

Laura Croteau "I am known for being a superfan of TXRD, and I hung on every word you said. From a fan perspective, the way derby has been evolving is not the direction that captivates fans. As a derby sponsor, of COURSE I want to see an INCREASE, not a decrease, in attendance. And yes, skaters MUST be playing to the fans- without a crowd, skaters lose that rock star feeling they get on the track. Personally, I was always proud of TXRDs rebellious spirit in allowing the kind of rough play that the crowd ADORES. The current trend towards calling penalties at every turn is just pooping the party."

Some of my favorite moments in Roller Derby involved interaction with our young fans.
Photo Credit Ron Ruble

Another topic that became relevant in reading posts spawned from my first status was one I had not considered. Basically, it was "my rule set is better than yours." Supporters of MADE, USARS, WFTDA and more had strong feelings of why one rules set is more fan friendly or exciting to play. I've only skated under the WFTDA rule set. So, I can only make this observation from reading the rules of each. There's pros and cons to each. American Football had similar issues in it's youth. They eventually united to become the NFL that brought millions of fans to the game over time. Perhaps it would be advantageous for Roller Derby to consider a similar attitude. "Fight as one or die as many" has become a personal motto of mine over the years. I'm not sure from where I stole it, but it just speaks to me. If you read some of the comments under Jerry Seltzer's post mentioned above, you can see that this particular topic became rather heated. An important perspective to mention is that depending on where you are located, playing rules sets other than WFTDA may not be lucrative for your team at this time. 

Powerhouse Skates (owned and operated by Wild Cherri and Death Skull) and the Atlanta Roller Girls used my post to reach out to their fans and ask how they felt about the observations I had made. I believe other leagues did the same. I found this to be a wonderful way to find out how the fans see the game in it's present form. I couldn't follow every share of my post due to facebook privacy issues. But, it seemed that many of the fans also desired a faster paced, less complicated game.

There seems to be a few common themes after the explosion. We've blown open the door. What's next? 

Do we have a clear vision of what we want Roller Derby to be? Roller Derby is a competitive sport that's run like a business that operates as a social club where you pay to play. That's just darn confusing. Would it be crazy to work toward having Pro, Semi-pro, amateur, and recreational leagues? To have professional Roller Derby where the best get paid to skate, outside parties will have to take an interest. That requires money. The grassroots concept just won't work here. In my opinion, skaters such as Bonnie Thunders, Demanda Riot, Smarty Pants and Stefanie Mainey (among many others) deserve to be paid, professional skaters if that's what they desire. You may have someone on your own team that could make that cut. Is it fair to those outstanding athletes to not work toward that goal? They have a gift that should be shared with the world. 

Can Roller Derby become a respected sport and keep the rebellious spirit that brought so many of us to love this game? I think it's totally possible and would be ground - breaking. Roller Derby is such a very unique sport. I am not a fan of conforming to anything. I do feel with the correct balance of flair and professionalism the possibilities are endless. I would love to see a coalition rally together to answer some of these questions. Again, I think outside parties would need to be involved to advise with the marketing aspect. I'd also like to see if it is possible to unite some of the great minds involved in Roller Derby with those of some other professional sports for advice on progressing the sport and retaining fans.

It's been stated many times that Roller Derby is the fastest growing sport in the world. I believe this to be true. My question is - "Is it the fastest growing sport due to the amount of participants or fans enjoying this amazing sport?" In order for the sport to be successful overall, we must see the fans grow. The WFTDA motto is "By the skater. For the skater." Perhaps that motto needs an update. 

Bench Coaching our Brawlers with Chaz Ross ( on the right) Skated in the following game with our Allstars
Photo Credit - Rusty Riot

I love this sport with all my heart. It was hard to leave my beloved Hard Knox Rollergirls. I left for personal reasons that have nothing to do with the ladies that I've shared nearly a decade of my life with. But, I also left because I wanted to speak openly and freely about subjects that I did not want to harm my team. At this time, I feel I may be able to continue an open discussion that could bring about some positive change. I'm not a professional writer or Roller Derby expert. I'm just a skater/ coach ( free agent - I suppose)  who cares deeply for this sport and the people who make it happen. Let us unite and turn the current sports world upside down. Thank you for your interest and time.  

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What a breath taking post!  You've cut through common observations, that many of us avoid in order to conform to some of our fellow sister's downfalls.  Attitude plays a humongous role in roller derby.  Many of it's newest skaters, enter the "roller derby family" so to speak to gain friendship, validation, and a bit of sex appeal.  The sport of it, the need to make it a "fun" attraction to the audience is becoming more and more silent.  Perhaps the readers need to be reminded to wake up, snub off and remember what it felt like to watch our first ever bouts, before we landed on the roster.  Why did we continue returning for more, and why did we join?  These are just a few questions that may help us, while taking a step back and revisioning what roller derby life should be like for all to experience.  It's not about the "I" in team, we know it, but the globalness to keep it alive, for a long time.  

Thank you for your post, it was enlightening and awakening.  


I think that as an amateur, by the skaters for the skaters sport, we could still make it as an olympic event. Yes, you will get more attention as a sport that will pack the stands, but there are plenty of sports that do not! (think curling prior to 2010, rowing, sailing, polo, water polo, cross-country skiing or running, triathalon, the nordic events... the list goes on...)

Being an amateur sport would actually help our case as a potential olympic event. Up until a few years ago, when they started allowing professional hockey players to join the olympic teams, professional athletes were actually barred from playing in the olympics. It was an event only for amateur athletes.

So,  yes, the politics may be difficult to break through, but being amateur athletes will not stop teams from around the world from breaking into the olympics.

Becoming a viable professional sporting event isn't possible with the rules as they are. People think that the sport is boring as hell to watch, so unless something more interesting starts happening, it will never become a big-time money-making venture. Sorry, I love playing the sport, I love the women involved, and I love watching it because I play it... but it's not going to happen the way that it is currently played.


I've been tempted to do a "Year of Derby" post. I'm a great big giant fan boy. I went to my first bout a year almost to the day (31st of August last year).

And I've been writing about it and it's been awesome!

But... well... it has its problems.

While most leagues I've met and have written about and engaged with have been really engaging, it's those bad apples that I find put me off. But, the main problem from my perspective is retention. You can get the fans. They'll come along to a game and they may even get into it for a time.... but....

One of the things that I think we tend to be dismissive of in derby is that fans aren't necessarily new people. There's a really good chance, if you've managed to maintain your fans for any length of time, there are going to be a few arm chair refs/coaches out there. They're going to flap their arms when they can see that a jammer should really call it. They're going to yell and get in amongst it. How do leagues engage with these people? From the whole business perspective, it's cheaper to keep your old customers than to attract new ones. There's even a chance that they've read the rulebook and recite passages...

Those fans shouldn't have to become NSO's or skaters. They should be able to engage with the league as a fan. They should be able to come to every home game and cheer on their league and still feel engaged with the sport even if it is just the occasional weekend thing for them.

And this is where a few bad apples really turned me off. One of the games I went to this year took a bit of travel, a favour from a friend to organize accommodation and then when I told them that I write for a blog on all the games I see I got a very confrontational "Well I know more about derby than you do!" attitude. This turned into a much more fuller "Unless you're on skates, you can't possibly understand" reaction. Now every time I see a post from them on Facebook I find myself grunting - it's annoying because they post about EVERYONE's derby activities in NZ which in turn has me associating their bad behaviour with derby in New Zealand in general...

Some friendlier leagues have had this same thing. One such league's one and only game I went to this year played, what a friend of mine referred to as, "stroller derby". That is, their blockers were standing still unless actively blocking/assisting, forcing the pack to a standstill. I understand, it's a strategy. To me, as a fan boy, it's not a good one. It has 2 main problems. 1. If you're putting on events for your fans, it's a TERRIBLE game to be watching. 2. It exposes a great big weakness in that the reason to do it is to conserve energy (so if your opponents are on to it, they'll exploit that by forcing the opposing jammers to expend as much energy as possible in the first half). I got a great big "it's strategic play" comment to it. It wasn't engaging at all.

Something else I've encountered. The "We're real sports people!". Yes... Yes you are. But here's the thing.... when I watch... anything else, no one is beating that drum. Ever. They're not demanding it. When I went to a bout, it wasn't a player's fishnet stockings I was noticing. I mean, it's cool that players feel they can wear whatever the hell they want to wear, but that's not what, as a fan, I was noticing. It was the game. It was my first bout in which case, it was the grace with which the jammer seemed to make it through the pack. Nowadays it's the lateral movement of the blockers and their ability to communicate and work together, the use of passing the star, I'm often noticing team zebra etc.

I think your fans, individually, will decide how they see the sport. I think if they're encouraged to keep engaging long term, they're more likely to see it in much the same terms as you do. Right now though, how do you keep those fans coming?