The endurance races began to transform into the contemporary form of the sport in the mid 1930’s, when promoter Leo Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a month-long simulation of a road race between two-person teams of professional skaters. The spectacle became a popular touring exhibition.
In the late 1930s, sportswriter Damon Runyon persuaded Seltzer to change the roller derby rules to increase skater contact. By 1939, after experimenting with different team and scoring arrangements, Seltzer’s created a touring company of four pairs of teams, with two five-person teams on the track at once, scoring points when its members lapped opponents.
In 1948, roller derby debuted on New York television – broadcasting well before television viewership was widespread. The broadcasts increased spectator turnout for live matches. Skater salaries, negotiated by an informal players’ union, were around €200 a week, with €28 and €45 bonuses for captains and player-coaches.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport was broadcast on several networks, but attendance declined. Jerry Seltzer (Leo’s son) hoped to use television to expand the live spectator base. He adapted the sport for television by developing scripted story lines, and rules designed to improve television appeal; derby’s popularity declined in spite of this.
The players wanted to skate “phony” during this time period, but Seltzer believed the public would soon tire of exaggerated hits and falls, so he embarked on a campaign to legitimize the sport. Jerry Seltzer also changed some of the rules. For the first time, skaters were required to wear helmets, and he made the game more TV-friendly by making jammers’ helmets easier to spot.
Players later pointed to injuries and low-scoring games as evidence of legitimacy, as well, but even into the 1970’s, roller derby players engaged in a degree of showmanship and staged theatrics for dramatic and comic effect.
During the 1973 oil crisis, fans were unable to support the sponsors that had been keeping the sport on television. Many roller derby skaters quit and fans deserted the arenas. High overhead and and gas shortage (teams could not travel) led Jerry Seltzer to elect to shut down roller derby.
In 1989, a new television show called RollerGames was aired. It was a U.S. television show that presented a theatrical version of the sport of roller derby for a national audience. It featured a steeply banked figure-eight track and an alligator pit. The show only lasted thirteen weeks despite garnering over a 5 national rating during its prime-time debut, and was in the top 25 of all syndicated shows for the season.
Between January 1999 and January 2001, there was created another televised revival known as RollerJam. The teams each consisted of seven men and seven women. Despite strong funding, the venture never became a live attraction. Fabricated storylines and uncharismatic characters were being featured more than actual competitive skating. This did not go over well with many skaters or die-hard roller derby fans.
MODERN ROLLER DERBY
Roller derby began its modern revival in the early 2000’s as an all-female, woman-organized amateur sport. In 2000, Daniel Eduardo “Devil Dan” Policarpo, an 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 took the name TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls and went on to skate banked-track roller derby.
Leagues outside the U.S. also began forming in 2006, and international competition soon followed. By September 2011, it was recorded that over 1000 amateur leagues are actively skating in the name of roller derby, in which 10 of them are in Belgium.
Since its revival, roller derby has become a women-organised DIY sport, that ensures a balance between the camaraderie and competitive spirits that characterizes roller derby. In many leagues a punk aesthetic and/or third-wave feminist ethic is prominent. Although the revival of this sport was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams. Junior roller derby leagues associated with this revival also emerged and play under modified adult derby rules.
A large number of contemporary roller derby leagues are amateur, self-organized and all-female and were formed in a DIY spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts. Most compete on flat tracks, though several leagues skate on banked tracks, with more in the planning stages.
The face of roller derby is composed of skaters from different background (mothers, employees, etc…) and is also known for its typically sardonic convoluted bout and derby names.
As flat track roller derby rapidly grew across the USA and the pond, a governing body Women’s Flat Track Derby Association was established, thus officially putting skills tests and strict rules to ensure the safety of everyone on the track which will be abided by the leagues. The Gent Go-Go Roller Girls were the first Belgian league to be accepted in their apprentice program.
At the 123rd International Olympic Committee session in South Africa in February 2012, it was announced that roller derby was one of the eight sports under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.