Q: I used to love watching roller derby on TV! Is it like that?
Yes and no. The fast-paced action, body checks, and whip assists are all still very much part of the game. However, flat track roller derby rules and the different physics of skating on a flat surface, versus a banked track, make the strategies and game play very different. Also, in its later years, televised roller derby was staged, like WWE-style wrestling. Flat track roller derby is a legitimate sport, and the hits, spills, and competition are all 100% real.
Q: I thought roller derby was played on a banked track. Where’d it go?
If you’ve just seen your first roller derby bout, or watched videos of modern roller derby online, you may have been surprised to see the sport played on a flat floor surface, rather than the traditional banked track of classic roller derby. While a handful of local leagues use banked tracks (as portrayed in the film Whip It), over 98% of the 400+ leagues playing modern roller derby around the world skate on flat surfaces.
The viability of roller derby without a banked track was discovered almost by accident, during the reinvention of the sport in Austin in 2001-2003. To raise funds and stir interest, the first skaters organized exhibition bouts in a skating rink, with an oval track taped out onto the floor.
Much to everyone’s surprise, they discovered that roller derby actually works just fine on a flat track. While the speeds are lower, the hard hits remain, and the lack of an outer rail means a solid hip check to the outside can send a skater sliding all the way to the edge of the audience. Not even basketball provides quite this level of audience proximity to a spectator sport.
Modern derby’s grass-roots, DIY approach imposed practical considerations as well. A banked track costs $30-40,000 to construct. Once built, it needs a permanent space to live, which can mean a warehouse rental at anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 per month. Even if a suitable warehouse can be secured to set the track up for practice and training, the space almost certainly won’t meet fire code to house an audience. In this case, for every bout the track must be disassembled, transported to the bout venue, reassembled, and then struck and returned home.
Contrast a flat track, which can be set up with a tape measure and about a hundred bucks of nylon rope and tape. Practice time in a skating rink might cost $50-200 per hour, substantially less than warehouse rental. As more people in more locations set out to start playing derby, these practical matters led many to forego the traditional banked track in favor of flat track’s flexibility.
Despite the challenges, a few modern leagues have made a go of it on banked tracks, including the Derby Dolls in Los Angeles and San Diego, Red Dirt Rebellion in Oklahoma City, and the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls in Austin.
Q: Is roller derby dangerous?
Like any contact sport, participants in modern roller derby may experience physical injury. Bumps, bruises, and scrapes are fairly universal, and many derby girls look on them as badges of honor. More serious injuries can include broken limbs and tailbones, separated shoulders, and ligament tears, particularly in the knees.
To minimize these risks, skaters practice injury-avoidance techniques like falling correctly, and work on strength and conditioning to ensure they’re in good enough shape to take the beating. A typical roller derby practice session consists of less than 50% scrimmage activity, and focuses more on basic skills, strength, endurance, and safety.
Derby skaters also wear a protective equipment to prevent serious injury. Modern derby rulesets (and insurance providers) require skaters to wear helmets, mouth guards, elbow pads, wrist guards, and knee pads. Some skaters elect to wear additional protection, such as tailbone protectors or padded shorts.
For a little perspective, it’s worth pointing out that cheerleading remains the most dangerous sport girls commonly engage in today.
Q: Why is it called a “bout”?
A “bout” by definition is a short period of intense activity of a specified kind.
Q: I bet you throw a lot of elbows, right?
Not unless a skater wants to spend some quality time in the penalty box!
There are plenty of legal ways to send an opponent flying into the third row but, to keep the game play safe and competitive, there are rules governing how and when players can make contact with each other. Throwing elbows, pushing or tripping opposing skaters, and “clothes-lining” opponents by linking arms with your teammate are among the prohibited actions that can earn skaters a minute in the penalty box. Like other sports, more serious offenses like fighting or intentional tripping can get a skater kicked out of the game.
Q: What are “suicide seats”?
Suicide seats are located on the floor just 10 feet from the roller derby track. These are the best seats for up-close derby action and, if you’re lucky, you might end up with a roller derby girl in your lap! For safety reasons, most leagues have a minimum age requirement to sit here. You are sitting on the hard floor, so consider that before claiming your spot. Also, keep your drinks away from the track, any wetness on the track can cause serious problems for the skaters!