Saturday, May 21, 2016

Roller Derby, Revisited

The packs, each not skating as they try to corral the opposing
Jammer. Note the bored refs just standing there, the swath of
empty seats to the left, and the lopsided score. 
Lets check in on Roller Derby again, shall we?

Our story, so far, is that we fell in love with the sport and our local team, the Santa Cruz Derby Girls, in 2008. 

By 2010 we were season-ticket holders and marked our calendars in heavy ink for each raucous, sold-out bout. We even gave up watching a playoff Giants game to see a derby double-header.

By 2012 though the Santa Cruz Derby Girls had moved to the Kaiser Permanente Tent at the other end of downtown, and sadly that was the most the team was going to move, ever.

The sport had morphed between 2010 and 2012 from a speedy, flashy, team sport into a static, technical slug fest. The jammers were still skating fast, but the other 8 blockers weren't moving at all. It was all about creating a pack/no-pack situation that would spring your jammer into free points. This resulted in mega lop-sided wins, and that was good for the National rankings and playoff situation, but there was this side-effect of rendering the sport totally not fun to watch.
Fans drifted away and the empty seats in the Kaiser Arena soon outnumbered the remaining fans. 

All of this, with decent photos is documented HERE.

The team took steps to help their franchise: They moved back to the Civic Auditorium, which was better for the spectators (cooler than the aluminum box of the Kaiser tent, more comfortable seats, and you can actually hear and understand the announcers at the Civic). New home teams were created and inter-league battles became the major offering each season. 

This resulted in closer games, score-wise. All of these were great improvements. Except, they forgot to fix the sport that they had broken.

But when some old friends proposed a dinner/derby evening, we said yes, partly to re-examine this sport that we had loved so fiercely and then found so terminally boring.

Alas, the necessary lesson has still not been learned.

The pack/no-pack nonsense has been lessened, but the teams are still stubbornly playing the rulebook instead of the other team. 

Just imagine what roller derby - a sport on wheels! - would look like if 8 of the 10 women weren't skating, but instead were just standing. Sounds mighty dull, right? And it is. There lots of action going on, but without the speed, none of these hits were especially interesting. They don't even admonish spectators in the first two rows to watch out for flying rollergirls anymore. With no speed to the jams there is no danger of anybody losing control. Or showing off their skating skills. Or holding the interest of their dwindling fan base. 

4 Blockers take on the opposing jammer, while the other 4 blockers corral the other jammer. Without moving. Without blocking for their own team member. Each jammer just rolls up and annihilates themselves on these static walls of blockers. Slowly, eventually, one jammer breaks free and pops out to skate around the track. Meanwhile her team members ignore her and continue to stand and pummel the other jammer.

Points are scored, and yet nothing happens.

 (This video from 2008, aside from being my favorite hit of all time, shows the speed, athleticism and team play that made Derby so much fun back then. Note that before 'The Ride' the skaters make 3 whole loops of the track in 45 seconds, and the jam did not end at that point. At tonights bout there was only one jam where the packs staggered around the track twice. And it took 'em the full two minutes to do so. Which Roller Derby would YOU rather watch?)

(Note: I did not take any video of tonights bout, but you can scroll back up to the picture at the top and just stare at it for awhile. Thats what a video would have looked like.)

And there is another loop-hole that is being exploited to the detriment of the spectators: The panty-pass. This used to be an extremely rare occurrence, where a jammer would be hemmed in and attempt to pass their duties off to a blocker or pivot, via a hand-off of their helmet covering. 

It was a zany, last-ditch, desperation kind of move, usually late in the bout when things got pretty crazy.

Now-a-days the panty-pass happens on almost 50 percent of the jams, but there is no hurry or incentive to actually put the panty on. Jammers just hold it in their hand as they pound against the inevitable wall of irritated humanity. What this means to the fans though - remember us, the fans? - is that in the mass of dull confusion that is the static pack, the jammer seems to DISAPPEAR, because her only identifying mark is gone. To casual fans this is totally bewildering. And more seats empty.

Tonight’s bout (May 21st, 2016) had only half of the seats filled, and a good percentage of those people left after half-time, after a local youth dance troupe did their routines. Obviously friends and family of the dancers.

What did the remaining fans see? Well let's check the numbers. There were 44 jams in the bout, and I counted only 14 times that the pack of blockers actually completed a circuit of the track before the whistles blew. So in less than one third of the jams did the skaters finish a single lap. No Dynamics, no momentum, very little cheering from the remainder of the crowd. Our friends apologized to us for having the idea of seeing a Roller Derby bout.

We were lucky enough to be seated at turn 2, so we could see the 'action' as the dueling walls of blockers slooooowly rolled past, most often to stop dead before they ever got to the first straightaway. The poor fans seated above turns 3 and 4 hardly saw anything: In only 1/3 of the jams did the glacier of girls ever creep around to their section of the building. 

That's not entertaining. 
That's not skating. 
That's not Roller Derby.

The sport I loved continues to shoot itself in the skate and we will not be back.

Angus McMahan

P.S. Skirt Vonna-Gut, a respected jammer has responded to this post on Facebook. I have taken the liberty of reproducing her remarks here, with my thoughts on each point interspersed: 

I'm happy to report that your Boardwalk Bombshells have been representing our community proudly and powerfully across the country this season, kicking global ass and bringing home astonishing wins against teams ranked near or higher than us. 

Well, thats all well and good, but you are forgetting one thing in all of this laser focus on scoring: The fans. Derby, as it is being played these last few years, is a broken sport - an empty shell of the fast-paced team spectacle that it used to be.

As a jammer at this level of play, I can assure you, the big hits are DEFINITELY still there! But, since we've been skating for several years now, we no longer fall at the slightest touch. 

Nope. Sorry. The hitting may be happening, but we, the fans, cannot see it. Each jam just lurches along like a glacier, 1 jammer against 4 blockers, the other jammer against the other 4 blockers. The whole, tedious process is SO SLOW now, and each lonely jammer so corralled, that we cannot see the hits. And because everyone is barely rolling the effect of the hits is completely erased. In short, no dynamics.

We evade or we hit back. 

Nope. Sorry. There is no evading going on that we can see. Not when each lonely jammer has to go up against 3 or 4 blockers all with linked arms, forming a chain across the track. The jammers are certainly hitting, but they are woefully outnumbered, because there is very little help for them from their own blockers.

We love our fans and hope you come back to us, Angus and friends, and appreciate the new skills and strategies that are bringing this sport to a higher degree of athleticism than ever before. 

Nope. Sorry. These new skills and strategies are directly responsible for the declining fan base, revenue and coverage of the sport that I used to love. I will reiterate the stats I reported above: In 2/3 of the jams the pack(s) did not even complete ONE LAP around the track. Strategies that have lead to that kind of immobility have also lead the sport into empty-seated irrelevance. 

I am glad that the Bombshells are doing well in the rarefied air of the tourneys and playoffs. But if you want your sport to be viable again, to be entertaining, to be profitable, SCDG (and every other team) would stop these toe-stop slugfests, drop this ‘pack, no-pack’ nonsense - and start SKATING. Then, and only then, will your fans return.


  1. Right on. I was there, and was more like rugby on roller skates than the roller derby I remember. Still very much a contact sport, and I'm sure the bumps and bruises are very real, but a lot of the speed and grace is gone.

  2. If they've lost you they really need to reevaluate what they are doing. You were so passionate about it.

  3. with more rules being added, Roller derby is danger of becoming a boring game of no skating and not really full contact. you have to wait until the true great action pack sport of roller derby to make a fully successful return and start giving the ultra contact skating game everyone been missing and wanting to see.