Roller Derby

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Roller Derby

Roller Derby is a team sport of fast, furious, and often violent action that first appeared in the mid-1930s. The games take place on a banked oval track, where two squads of five men or five women—the sexes do not usually compete against each other—skate around the track, with each team sending out "jammers" in front of the pack. Points are scored when jammers lap an opponent. Like rugby or football, other players act as "blockers" clearing the way for the jammer.

Long-distance bicycle races and marathon dances inspired the original game, invented in 1935 by Leo Seltzer. The objective was to make 57,000 laps around the track, a distance of 4,000 miles. While at that time it was a true athletic contest, it was also quite boring for the spectators because matches would last for hours on end. Similar to the development of professional wrestling, it was when Roller Derby introduced violent contact and shorter matches, and began developing personality players, that its popularity boomed. Legend has it that writer Damon Runyon, after witnessing a fight between two women skaters, suggested that Seltzer turn Roller Derby into something akin to pro wrestling on skates. Like pro wrestling, it is not an authentic competitive sport since the games, fights, and all action are "worked." The participants are heroes and villains, acting out feuds and grudges that pro wrestling fans might find familiar. The most popular skaters were not necessarily the best athletes, but rather the most charismatic characters, dramatic performers, and captivating interview subjects. The mix of speed and mayhem, coupled with cheap production costs, was perfect for early television, and Roller Derby was the most popular show on ABC during the network's infancy.

The popularity of the sport was such that in 1949 the playoffs of the National Roller Derby League sold out New York's Madison Square Garden for a week. A large part of the Roller Derby audience has always been women, in part because the Roller Derby was almost the only sports activity prior to the 1970s where female athletes could be seen on television. In addition, the Roller Derby integrated very early and many of the skaters were black or Hispanic, among them Ronnie Robinson, son of boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson.

In 1950, Leo Seltzer's son Jerry took over the Roller Derby and moved the base of operations to southern California, then to northern California in 1958. The home team Bay Area Bombers achieved the most success. With stars like Charlie O'Connell, Ann Calvello, and "The Blonde Bomber" Joanie Weston, the Bombers dominated the sport and Weston was the star of the show. She was, according to sports writer Frank Deford, "not only the best skater, but she clearly looks the part as well. With her bleached blonde pigtails flowing out from beneath her shiny black pivot helmet, Joanie appeared like a brave Viking queen in full battle regalia." With huge local shows, which often outdrew those of the expanding Oakland Raiders football team in the early 1960s, the popularity of Roller Derby remained strong. The sport spread to more cities and to other countries, and had ten full-time teams at its peak of popularity. Yet, in 1973, only two years after drawing a record 35,000 people to the Oakland Coliseum, Jerry Seltzer folded the league, selling out to a rival organization based out of Los Angeles called Rollergames. Rollergames was even more outlandish than Roller Derby and featured more professional wrestling gimmicks such as death matches. The Rollergame league's Los Angeles T-Birds, which once featured a huge woman skater with the number 747, was the most dominant team until Rollergames folded in 1975.

Like its cousin, professional wrestling, Roller Derby is considered a trash sport. But fewer people have admitted to watching it than actually do. Eventually, the popularity of Roller Derby found its way into mainstream popular culture. The film Kansas City Bomber (1972) featured Raquel Welch as a Roller Derby queen; Rollerball (1975) starred James Caan and was a futuristic parable set in a society where an ultra-violent Roller Derby-like sport is used to give antisocial feelings an emotional outlet, thus becoming the most popular mass pastime. In 1978, the TV show Roller Girls, centered on the fictional Pittsburgh Pitts Roller Derby team, lasted for less than ten episodes. Numerous attempts at comebacks have been equally unsuccessful. The International Roller Derby League was formed in 1979, but appeared only in the Bay Area and, in 1986, a souped-up version of Rollergames that included "a wall of death" appeared on ESPN. It lasted less than a season.

The most recent revival took place in 1998 and looked to have a chance at success with Jerry Seltzer, as President of the World Skating League, again at the helm. The WSL put together six teams to produce Roller Jams for the Nashville Network. While the concept remained the same, the packaging was much different. Rather than roller skates, skaters in the new league donned roller-blades and tight-fitting latex uniforms, and special effects and rock music were introduced to accompany the event. The late 1990s sport was faster and sexier than ever before, and Seltzer expressed the belief that the resurgence of pro wrestling in the 1990s, coupled with the wide attraction of roller-blading, would put Roller Derby back on top for the twenty-first century.

The other inspiration for the new look Roller Derby was Joanie Weston. Even after the Roller Derby folded, Weston kept skating, training new talent, and holding exhibitions in the Bay Area in an attempt to revive the sport. When she died suddenly in 1997, Roller Derby was thrust back into the news. After reading Weston's obituary, TV executive Stephen Land was "inspired to get together with TNN and make Weston's dream come true." Weston has lived on through ESPN's Classic Sports Network show, Roller Super Stars, which features old tapes of the golden years of the "blonde bomber" and her teammates.

—Patrick Jones

Further Reading:

Deford, Frank. Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby. Boston, Little Brown, 1971.

Werts, Diane. "What Goes around Comes Around—Like Roller Derby." Los Angeles Times. January 8, 1999.