Roller derby is an American form of sports entertainment based on formation roller skating around a track. It is a contact sport played at both professional and amateur levels. The sport, while traditionally for both women and men, has developed a predominately female circuit during its current revival.

Trademarks Edit

Several trademarks for the proper noun "Roller Derby" are currently in effect in multiple countries. The first three are owned by Roller Derby Skate Corporation, a manufacturer of wheeled skates, based in Litchfield, Illinois:

  • An entertainment exhibition involving a contest between teams of roller skaters, first used in commerce in 1935.
  • A brand name and logo for roller skates, wheels, and repair parts, first used in commerce in 1935.
  • A brand name and logo for t-shirts, jackets, and trousers, first used in commerce in 1987.

The other current trademark was registered June 6, 2005 and applies to a computer game by Ages Entertainment Software, Inc., a subsidiary of Viacom.

The common noun "roller derby" is often used to refer to the sport in general in all of its professional and amateur forms. It is possible that some uses of this term may infringe upon Roller Derby Skate Corporation's trademark.

The GameEdit

File:Texas Rollergirls.jpg
Roller derby rules vary from league to league, but in general, the sport is played as follows:

Two teams of five skaters, wearing protective gear such as helmets, mouth guards, and pads, take up positions alongside each other in a pack formation. Each team consists of either four blockers and one jammer, or three blockers and two jammers. Helmet colors or designs are typically used to differentiate between player roles.

A signal is given and the jam commences. All skating is performed counter-clockwise on a small, narrow track. Today, very few professional roller derby type games use a banked track, while new leagues, and all leagues that are part of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, use a standard flat skating rink.

Blockers start skating at the first signal; a second signal is given to launch the jammers, who must catch up to the rear of the pack. Leading the pack are special blockers known as pivots, who may not be passed by other blockers; their role is to set the pace and keep the pack relatively tight. Jammers navigate through or around the pack, then lap around the back of the pack. The first jammer to get through the pack is dubbed lead jammer and may call off the jam at any time. In some leagues the lead jammer is decided by which jammer is in the lead and has not stepped off the track; in other words it does not matter who made it through the pack first.

Scoring commences when the jammers lap around the back of the pack and go through for a second time. One point is scored for each member of the opposing team passed by an inbound jammer. Blockers try to stop the opposing jammer from passing them, while defending their own jammer, who they can assist by pushing or pulling (whipping) in an attempt to advance them through the pack. The jam concludes after a fixed period of time or when the lead jammer calls off the jam.

Calling off the jam early is a strategic move to prevent the other team from having the opportunity to score. For example, it can be helpful if the lead jammer's team is at an unexpected disadvantage (due to good defense by the other team, or falling or penalized players on the jammer's team), or it can be used to solidify a lead when the jammer's team is doing exceptionally well.

Physical contact between players is frequent and sometimes violent. Body blocking is allowed, and elbowing is allowed in some leagues, but participants are not allowed to trip or intentionally punch other players. Violence may leave the track and may include striking opponents with available objects; however, a certain degree of showmanship ensures that most fights are staged. Roller derby participants generally adopt stage names and gimmicks, evoking comparisons to professional wrestling.

Penalties are given to skaters who block illegally, fight or behave in an unsportsmanlike manner. Penalties can be given after each jam or at the end of a period. Some penalties may result in additional points being scored; for example, in some leagues, a jammer may score a point if a blocker commits a foul against the jammer. Some leagues require penalized players to temporarily stop playing and/or participate in a post-jam challenge that may result in more points being scored.


In 1935, during the worst times of the Depression era, a sports promoter named Leo Seltzer invented a spectacle he called Roller Derby staged at the Chicago Coliseum. Originally intended to compete with then-popular dance marathons, the derby was a simulation of a cross-country roller skating race in which participants circled a track thousands of times to simulate covering the distance between Los Angeles, California and New York, New York. Occasionally, massive collisions and crashes occurred as skaters tried to lap those who were ahead of them. Seltzer realized this was the most exciting part, and tweaked his game to maximize the carnage.

First waveEdit

Roller Derby achieved its first wave of televised popularity in the 1950s centering on the New York Chiefs with nationwide appearances on CBS and ABC. In 1958, Leo Seltzer's son Jerry moved the operation to the San Francisco Bay Area and established the most fabled team in the entire history of the sport, the longtime champion San Francisco Bay Bombers. A more theatrical imitation, called Roller Games, began with retired Derby skaters in 1961 in Los Angeles.

In 1973, high overhead costs and other factors led to the demise of Roller Derby. Star skaters continued to skate in the rival Roller Games, but within two years that company's circus-like approach doomed the attraction and fans deserted the arenas. Several attempts were made in the late 1970s and 1980s to revive the sport, including an effort in cooperation with ESPN, without much success.

RollerGames revivalEdit

In 1989, Emmy award winning television producers David Sams (who helped launch "Wheel of Fortune," "Jeopardy," and "Oprah" while head of global marketing and creative affairs at King World) and Mike Miller (who went on to produce shows like "When Animals Attack") teamed with Roller Games owner Bill Griffiths Sr. to create a modern version of the sport called RollerGames. Instead of a banked oval track, a figure eight track was used where one side heavily banked, and included obstacles such as the "Wall of Death" (which was located on the heavily banked side) and the "Jet Jump". As a tiebreaker, two skaters would skate around a pit full of alligators. The first skater to skate around the pit five times or to throw his opponent into the alligator pit was declared the winner.

The show also included "halftime entertainment" by musical performers like Lita Ford, Warrant, Exposé and commentary by Wally George. Main commentators for the show were former Ohio State football and basketball announcer Chuck Underwood and David Sams himself. Former Phoenix, Arizona news reporter Shelley Jamison (who also appeared nude in Playboy) served as sideline reporter. RollerGames premiered in 95% of the country, and, though generally panned by critics, was well-received among teenagers and college students.

The world famous Los Angeles T-Birds were one of the teams used for the show. Other teams were The Rockers, Hot Flash, The Violators, Bad Attitude, and The Maniacs. Many of the athletes that skated for Griffiths in the past were used for RollerGames. Some of the most visible skaters included the T-Bird Twins (two blonde waitresses that Sams recruited while dining at a trendy LA area eatery), "The IceBox" Robert Smith, "Mr. Mean" Harold Jackson, "Electric" Randi Whitman (who got her nickname because of her hair), "Stars and Stripes" Matt Beckham, Dar The Star, Patsy Delgato, and the late Ralphie Valladares (His daughter, Gina, skated on Hot Flash).

Former ABC Monday Night Football director Chet Forte was recruited to direct the show. Many of the graphics and camera techniques were unique for the day (like the cameras on the skaters). Some of the storylines were off-the-wall (The main storyline was a controversy involving the T-Bird Twins being drafted as one person, rather than two), but tame by today's standards. Hair-pulling and catfights were crowd favorites.

The show only lasted one season before getting cancelled because the distributor went bankrupt (not as a result of Roller Games). Ironically, the ratings were quite good, even beating out the popular "American Gladiators". In many cities "Roller Games" aired against Saturday Night Live, while in others it aired mid-day on Saturdays.

RollerJam revivalEdit

Between June 1998 and June 2000, Knoxville, Tennessee television impresarios Ross K. Bagwell Sr. and Stephen Land staged another revival known as RollerJam. Bagwell and Land recruited numerous stars from the Roller Derby of yesteryear, as well as newer stars from various athletic backgrounds, to skate in the six-team World Skating League (WSL). Jerry Seltzer, the son of the game's creator Leo Seltzer, was named RollerJam "commissioner". Games were televised out of "RollerJam Arena," situated on the grounds of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Despite strong funding and a television deal with The Nashville Network (TNN, now known as Spike TV), this venture failed, probably due to a lack of consistency with respect to how to present the product. The production standards were poor. The hype was less than that of Roller Games, but the action was as good. Two notable veterans from Roller Games, Rockin' Ray Robles and Patsy Delgato, were featured in the second season of RollerJam. When RollerJam was cancelled, many of the skaters found smaller leagues to skate in.

Today's roller derbyEdit

File:Hell Marys.jpg
In the early 21st century, after two decades in relative obscurity, the sport began to experience a grassroots revival, particularly among women, with amateur leagues forming in urban centers across North America. At the end of 2005 there were over 50 such leagues, and by mid-February 2006 the number had grown to more than 80. The sudden growth in 2006 is partially attributed to the exposure the sport achieved via the Rollergirls reality television show that began broadcasting in January.

These contemporary leagues are thus far all-female and are self-organized, formed in an indie spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts. They all use traditional quad roller skates, not inline skates. Many are non-profit organizations, and most leagues compete on flat, not banked, tracks. Each league typically features two or more local teams that compete in public matches, called bouts, for a rapidly growing fanbase. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts.

Since mid-2004, 30 such all-female leagues have banded together to form the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which coordinates and sets the rules that govern inter-league competition among its members. The WFTDA member leagues create "travel" teams who play against each other in regional matches, although some leagues that are not WFTDA members have independently arranged their own travel teams and inter-league bouts. WFTDA is not currently accepting new members, and its current membership requirements prevent some leagues from being eligible[1], but the organization does plan to begin inducting more leagues in mid-2006.

There are also a few mixed-gender, professional, centrally-organized leagues that originated in the RollerGames era and continue to compete today. One is the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), which presently consists of teams that train and compete on banked tracks in the coastal cities of Southern California only. One of the NRDL teams, the L.A. Stars, is sometimes billed as the L.A. T'Birds, which may be an attempt to capitalize on the legacy of the L.A. T-Birds from RollerGames. Another of these leagues is American Skating Roller Derby (ASRD), consisting of the (San Jose) Bay Bombers, Chicago Pioneers, New York Chiefs, and Brooklyn Red Devils. A third league, the American Roller Derby League (ARDL), owned by Tim Patten, focuses on promoting the (San Francisco) Bay City Bombers, along with the New York Demons and two all-female teams in the San Francisco Bay area. The ARDL is sometimes promoted as the American Inline Roller Derby League when competing on inline skates.

Roller derby in film and televisionEdit

  • In 1949, Roller Derby Girl, a 10-minute short film produced and directed by Justin Herman was released as part of Paramount's Pacemaker series. It was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award in 1950.
  • In 1950, Twentieth Century Fox released The Fireball, a fictional film starring Mickey Rooney as a boy who runs away to join the Roller Derby--called the Roller Speedway-- and falls in love. This is one of Marilyn Monroe's first films.
  • In 1971, the documentary film Derby (titled Roller Derby in the United Kingdom) was released. It focused on an American man who joined the Roller Derby. Though not a box office hit, it remains on the list of many critics' favorite documentaries of all time.
  • In 1972, Raquel Welch starred in Kansas City Bomber, a fictional film about a female roller derby player who learns to take control of her life both on and off the track.
  • An exploitation film entitled Unholy Rollers: The Leader of the Pack was also released in 1972. Written and directed by Vernon Zimmerman, the movie stars Claudia Jennings as a factory worker who quits her job to join the roller derby.
  • In September 1973, "Bailey's Comets", an animated series from DePatie/Freling Studios debuted on CBS. It was about the Comets, a 6 member (3 male, 3 female) roller derby team involved in an international race against other, rather bizarre teams for a $1 million cash prize.
  • In December 1973, NBC aired "The Roller Derby Story", the fourteenth episode of the Hanna-Barbera-produced TV cartoon The Addams Family. In the episode, the family becomes embroiled in a feud between two roller derby teams, The Angels and The Demons, and end up playing for The Angels. The episode was released in North America on videocasette (NTSC VHS) in 1992.
  • In 1975, Rollerball was released. The fictional film, set in a dystopian future, is loosely based on the Roller Derby concept, and concentrates on social and political issues. Several skaters from the original Roller Derby have cameo/stunt scenes in the film. It was remade in 2002.
  • In 1976, ABC aired "Angels on Wheels," the twelfth episode of the series Charlie's Angels, in which the Angels investigate the murder of a roller games queen.
  • In 1978, NBC produced a short-lived TV sitcom called The Roller Girls which featured the exploits of an all-female roller games team.
  • In 1986, the 57-minute documentary Roller Derby Mania was released direct to video (NTSC VHS) in North America. It features the L.A. T-Birds roller games team, as well as classic Roller Derby footage. A Region 1 DVD edition was released in 2003.
  • In 1989, producers David Sams and Mike Miller brought Roller Games to television via syndication. The show debuted to a 5 rating, which was better than American Gladiators and many wrestling shows. At a cost of $250,000 per show, 13 episodes were produced. 13 revised episodes were released the following year, but the show was cancelled because the distributor went bankrupt for reasons unrelated to Roller Games.
  • In 1991, the 30-minute documentary Roller Derby Wars was released direct to video (NTSC VHS) in North America. It was released on video in the U.K. in 1993 (PAL VHS).
  • In 2001, Demon Of The Derby, a biographical documentary about aging roller derby star Ann Calvello, was released.
  • In 2002, Rollerball, a remake of the 1975 film, was released. It is much more action-based than its predecessor.
  • In March 2005, Fox Broadcasting Company aired "Arlen City Bomber", the 181st episode of the animated series King of the Hill. The episode, in which Luanne and Peggy join a roller skating team, features a banked track league.
  • On November 30, 2005, CBS aired "Jamalot", an episode of the fictional, dramatic TV series CSI: NY. In the episode, the death of a roller derby jammer is investigated. Frita Fondle, Dita Slayworth, Molly Hatchett, Redjenn, and Tara Armov of the LA Derby Dolls appear in the episode.
  • On January 2, 2006, the A&E Network premiered Rollergirls, a reality television show consisting of 13 one-hour episodes featuring the Lonestar Rollergirls, a banked track league.
  • Hell On Wheels, a documentary about the current amateur, all-female leagues in Texas, is currently in post-production.
  • Jam, a film about the lives of derby skaters and promoters, will premier in March 2006.

Books about roller derbyEdit

  • 1971. Deford, Frank. Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby. Little Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316179-20-5.
  • 1999. Coppage, Keith. Roller Derby to Rollerjam: The Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport. Santa Rosa, California: Squarebooks. ISBN 0-916290-80-8.
  • 2005. Fitzpatrick, Jim. Roller Derby Classics... and more!. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 1-4120-6678-6.
  • 2006. Bordner, D. M. Roller Babes: The Story of the Roller Derby Queen. iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 0-5956-7544-1.

Roller derby in musicEdit

  • The Jim Croce album "Photographs and Memories" contains the humorous song "Roller Derby Queen", in which the narrator explains how he fell in love with a female roller derby star he saw on a barroom television screen.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

  • General interest
Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.