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Derby History

The History of Roller Derby

Leo A. Seltzer, a struggling promoter looking to drum up business for the Chicago Coliseum, created Roller Derby in 1935. Inspired by the six-day bike races of the Depression, Seltzer originally fashioned roller derby as a spectacle of endurance, in which teams would race to skate the distance of the Atlantic. The 25 teams, each comprised of one male and one female teammate, had to complete 57,000 laps around a banked rink during daily twelve-hour sessions. At all times, one member from each couple had to be skating or the team was subject to disqualification. Contestants slept in cots at the stadium and ate food rationed by Seltzer. Over the month-long derby, many skaters suffered injury and exhaustion. Some skaters collapsed and others required serious medical treatment. The Transcontinental Roller Derby was a smash.

With the Transcontinental drawing over 20,000 spectators, the promise of roller derby was undeniable, so Seltzer took his show on the road, changing the sport’s objectives and allure. By the early 1940s, the game had adopted new rules and a point system; it used jammers, blockers, and shorter sessions, becoming more of a traditional sport. With the greater potential for injury and the rougher rules, derby teams competed in front of audiences of up to 50,000 in sold-out stadiums in over 50 major cities.

After Seltzer and his son moved derby to Northern California in 1958, other derby organizations emerged, including Roller Games, which bought Seltzer’s operation in the ‘70s. By the later 70’s, many different derby companies such as RollerJam and Rollermaina had sprouted and were featuring televised derby. To compete for viewer-ship, companies attempted to trump competition by boosting the sport’s camp and glitz, but none were to be outdone by Roller Games. Featuring an ‘alligator pit’, campy actors and an over-produced set, Roller Games popularity plummeted in the late 80’s and with its decline, roller derby faded from the mainstream. In the past couple years, dozens of new, rock ‘n’ roll infused, all-female derby teams have surfaced in cities throughout the nation. Embracing all the feistiness, sass and genuine spectacle of early derby, new leagues are receiving the same enthusiastic attention from new fans.

Roller Derby Today

In 2000, Daniel Eduardo "Devil Dan" Policarpo, then an Austin, Texas musician, recruited women to skate in what he envisioned would be a raucous, rockabilly, circus-like roller derby spectacle. After an organizational meeting and a disputed fundraiser, Policarpo and the women parted ways. The women then self-organized as Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) in 2001, creating a new generation of roller derby, open to women only. Founders formed four teams, and staged their first public match in Austin in mid-2002. Shortly after, the league split over business plans: The Texas Rollergirls embraced flat-track play, while the BGGW league (also known as the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls or Texas Roller Derby) went on to skate banked-track roller derby. 

The revival then began in earnest, with over 50 similar all-female leagues in existence by late 2005, more than 80 by February 2006, and more than 135 by mid-August 2006. The sport's sudden growth in 2006 is attributed to its exposure via the Rollergirls reality television show, which depicted portions of the lives of real skaters from the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. The show began broadcasting in January 2006, but was not picked up for a second season due to unsatisfactory ratings.

Leagues outside the U.S. began forming in 2006, and international competition soon followed. The first all-female Canadian league of fifty members, the Terminal City Rollergirls, was formed in January 2006 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The league appeared before an audience of 4500 on March 4, 2006 to participate in a game of "Last Woman Standing" ("Blood and Thunder") against The Rat City Rollergirls at the Everett Events Centre in Everett, Washington. The first full, international bout in women's flat-track derby occurred in December 2006, when the Oil City Derby Girls (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) hosted the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls (Denver, Colorado, USA). By mid-2009, there were 425 amateur leagues, including 79 in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium and Sweden combined.

Although this revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams. Junior roller derby leagues associated with this revival also emerged and played under modified adult derby rules.

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