Friday, July 5, 2013

An Open Letter to Roller Derby: STOP CHEATING


My wife and I first discovered modern roller derby in 2008, during the inaugural season of our local league, the The Santa Cruz Derby Girls.

The game was fast, exciting, hard-hitting, sexy and hypnotic in its speed and non-stop action.
It was revelatory to see women of all ages being aggressive, working as a team, skating hard, adjusting on the fly, thinking on their feet (skates) and getting sweaty (and bloody!) by blocking for their team.

We were hooked. We saw every remaining bout in that season and every bout in 2009. We bought the Merch. We made signs. We invited friends. We yelled ourselves hoarse. In 2010 Season Tickets were available and we snapped 'em up along with hundreds and hundreds of other fans. Roller Derby in Santa Cruz was HUGE, consistently selling out the largest venue in the city, the 1,200 seat Civic Auditorium.

But in the 2011 season something bad happened. You, the skaters of Derby, forgot something very important. Somewhere in the sense of extreme competitiveness a collective decision was made to cheat by mining the rule book.

Stroller Derby was born.

Stroller Derby was the attempt to get some sort of artificial advantage at the start of each jam. At that time there was 10 yards difference between the jam line and the blocker line, and Stroller Derby had all of these complicated and arcane strategies to get your jammer out in front - eventually. 
I am not a player or a ref and I don't understand all of the rules, but what we saw from the stands was whistles blowing and nobody moving. Players would inch their way away from lines, daring each other to create the mythical 'no-pack' situation that would somehow jumpstart their jammer into a lead.

It was confusing. Worse, it was boring. And it happened on jam after jam. Every bout each team would have new strategies to out-not-skate the other until the whole evening was like cheering on a furniture showroom. Too often nothing happened and nobody moved.
And, when a jam would somehow creak into motion and the skaters got moving there was again all of these intellectual procedures to make the refs declare one group or another the 'official' pack and then give the jammer a free pass through the other group that was suddenly not the pack. Again - confusing, slow and boring.
2008: Standing Room Only! (Photo from author)

We loved our team. We loved the sport. We loved the competitive drive that drove our beautiful, strong skaters. But we did NOT love what Roller Derby was doing to itself.
We quickly found other things to do on Saturday nights.

In 2012 we chose not to purchase Season Tickets. We stopped buying the swag. And the bouts that we did show up for were infuriating snooze-fests. 
I'm not sure how the skaters felt about Stroller Derby, but I helped out the Referees from time to time and I knew exactly how the Zebra crew felt about it: They despised it. Standing around waiting for jams to start and then spending all their time designating what-is-and-what-isn't-a-pack was as annoying for them as it was for us, the fans.
And it was obvious that the fans were also passing judgment on the skaters attempts to cheat the system. No more sell-outs at the Civic. More and more empty seats.

Roller Derby was dying a slow death from self-strangulation.

But in 2013 an amazing thing happened: The WFTDA (Women's Flat Track Derby Association) course-corrected Stroller Derby. New rules! No jam line separate from the blocker line! No minor penalties! One whistle and BLAMMO! We're off and skating! Yay!!
The first two bouts of this season were miraculous. We had a blast. We told our friends. We shared our leagues updates on Facebook. We frequented the businesses that sponsored our league. We bought the calendars and magnets and trading cards. Attendence was at record levels (The SCDG moved into the new Kaiser Permanente Arena which doubled the seating capacity. Bouts routinely topped the 2,000 fan mark). Derby was back, and it was AWESOME.

But not for long. Like an ever-mutating virus it did not take long for the skaters to parse out the new rules and find new ways to cheat the new system. Now the start of each jam is intense and exciting, but the rest of the jam is attempt after attempt to force the refs into designating one group or another as 'the pack'.
The sport is just plain weird now. We routinely have jams where the lead jammers' blockers will form a stationary corridor behind the other teams blockers and just let the jammer fight her way through all four opposing blockers by herself. Over and over again,
as they slooooowly coast around the track - and the crowd goes to buy another churro.

2012: I'm helping out the refs by running an outside
white board. Note the empty seats. Photo by author.
At the last bout my wife and I were sitting halfway up the bleachers and we had Derby virgins above us and below us. They were mystified by what they were seeing. Now granted, derby is a confusing sport for first-timers under the best of conditions, but these were not the best of conditions.

The bout poster showed action, speed, and teamwork. The reality was a bunch of women in tights standing around, ready to line dance, waiting for one of their kind to eventually come around and batter themselves against a wall of also stationary blockers. Neither group of spectators sitting near us was impressed by this, and I doubt that they will be back.

We may not be back either.

Because here's the deal: Roller Derby is a sport of speed, finesse and dynamic team interplay. And as soon as you take any of those qualities away, you are diluting your product. Constantly, instantly, finding ways to circumvent the newest rules and cheat your way to more points is a good strategy for winning the bout. But in doing so you are losing everything else:
  • Whenever Derby slows down, its boring.
  • Whenever the blockers stop, so does our motivation to watch them.
  • Whenever a jammer goes up against the entire opposing team on her own, you have forgotten your sport.
  • Whenever the refs have to stop the action so they and the two coaches can have a long discussion about the nuance of a particular sub-section of a new rule, then you have lost the crowd.

Oh, the crowd. Remember us? Those dwindling masses who pay our hard-earned disposable income to come see a sport of fast movement, agility and teamwork? Do you think you are serving your customers whenever you play Stroller Derby II: Corridors to Bankruptcy?

And here is what I really want to say to all of your skaters and coaches:
DON'T CHEAT.
  • Don't Cheat the Spirit of Roller Derby.

Remember what got you interested in the sport in the first place. It was skating, as in movement, as in the reason why you are wearing WHEELS on your feet. They aint made for standing around on!
  • Don't Cheat the next generation of Roller Girls.

Every time you find some new loophole in the rules to exploit, think about the young girls in the stands watching you. When they see blockers standing in parallel rows, still as statues, waiting for their jammer to eventually roll around to them, do you think these young girls are charmed? Do you think they are captivated? Do you think they are even awake? Do you think they will now want to get a pair of skates and a helmet so they can stand motionless in their bedrooms and imitate their heroines?
  • Don't Cheat the refs.

Standing around calling 'pack, no-pack' all evening is not why these hard-working men and women volunteered for this sport. Piss them off enough and they will find other things to do on Saturday night. And the ranks of Junior Refs will also quickly thin out.
  • Don't cheat your fans.

We came here to see Action, not intellectual nuance. Playing the rulebook is a great way to score points, but is a horrible way to score ticket sales and merch receipts. Get moving, quickly, before your fans do likewise.
  • Don't cheat your sport.
Roller Derby is one of the greatest sports in the world because of what it gives the spectator: Hard hitting action and dynamic teamwork from a group of superbly conditioned women athletes (of all sizes, shapes and ages) who are not afraid to be aggressive. The world needs more outlets like this!

Here's what will happen now: The new WFTDA rules for 2013 re-energized a sport that had run itself over with a stroller. Now the skaters have responded by finding the chinks in the grammar and subtext of the new rules and are bound and determined to maximize the point potential of the jam by stripping Roller Derby of everything that makes it fun to watch.
The league will respond, ladies. Because the WFTDA seems to have a much better view of your fans than you do. And what the fans want is speed, sweat and skating, not static, nuanced, clever cheating.

My earnest prayer to you, the skaters and coaches, is to chuck all of this rulebook scrutinizing. Instead of mining the updates for strategies to get points, just get out there and skate! And hit! And block! And work as a team as you move around and around the track at various speeds. You know, like they do in that great sport of Roller Derby.
You may only score 100 points a bout instead of 200 (or 300). But hey, slams SHOULD be grand, and Unicorns SHOULD be mythical. You may lose a few more bouts in the meantime, as other teams adopt this revolutionary 'hey, let's skate!' strategy. But on the other bottom line you'll have sell-outs, empty merch tables, trash cans bursting with empty churro wrappers and beer cups, and hoards of ravenous, delirious, hoarse fans who will champion you and your sport for decades to come.

The choice is yours, ladies. Roller Derby is a spectator sport. And any anytime you slow, (or stop!) you are losing the spectators. And it is the crowd that keeps your league afloat and supplies the kids who will be your next generation of skaters.
Play the other squad, not the rule book. And SKATE! As a TEAM. Because that's what the WFTDA wants, thats what the fans want, and that is what your great sport is desperately calling out for.

Respectfully Submitted,
Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
@AngusMcMahan

P.S. How big a fan am I? Check out some of my breathless dispatches from the 'glory days' before Stroller Derby and Stopped Derby: Queens-of-the-roller-derbyman-in-dress-women-in-painmy-night-as-a-squeeing-fangirl 

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this Angus. I agree with a lot of what you have said and I really see this sport continuing to grow this off season.I would expect things to change against this off season with more rule changes.

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  2. A phenomenon has swept our shores in recent months and I'm not talking about Zumba. It's time to dust of those skates and grab a hard helmet: Roller Derby looks like it's here to stay.

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    1. Not from what I've seen. The days of packed houses and screaming fans have given way to a sea of empty seats and lackluster enthusiasm. Derby needs to wake up and get back to actual skating, or it will continue its slide into debt and dissolution.

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  3. Why cheating? Sports not place for cheat, Sports is fairplay and dedication

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