This week marks the 81st anniversary of one of America’s coolest inventions: the sport of Roller Derby. Envisioned by film publicist Leo Seltzer in 1932 and with the first game played on August 13th in 1935, the original game of Roller Derby was nothing like it is today. Roller Derby has seen many changes and evolved tremendously in its lifespan, but it is important to look back and remember where it all started. A lot has contributed to Roller Derby over the course of eight decades. Some of the most significant events to have shaped the growth of Derby are outlined in this brief history of the sport.
1935 – 1940: The Beginning
Endurance races on skates in America date back as far as the 1880s, but the sport of Roller Derby did not begin to take shape until the mid 1930’s. As the story goes, Leo Seltzer came up with the idea for a new sport on roller skates after reading an article that claimed more than ninety percent of Americans had roller skated at least once in their lives. Combining the then popular concept of cross-country bicycle races with rollerskating, early versions of the sport involved co-ed relay style endurance races, resulting in a month long skating spectacle dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby. Teams would compete in timed trials for distance, tracking their progress in miles on a map of the United States. This unique event consisted of 25 two-person (one male, one female) teams skating around a wooden oval track. Team members skated 11 and a half hours a day, covering a distance of 3,000 miles (the distance from New York to California). If both members came off the track simultaneously they were disqualified. Nine teams were able to finish Selzter’s first official derby.
After the success of the first derby, the production hit the road and toured the US with a portable track. In the later part of the 1930’s, promoters began to notice that the audience was more engaged and excited when accidental spills and falls occurred on the track, and the decision was made to deliberately incorporate more physical contact into the game. Skaters were encouraged to elbow, push and dramatize falls for crowd entertainment. The length of the races progressively declined, and toward the end of the Great Depression a two-team concept emerged. This evolved into two five-person teams skating together for 15 minute periods, earning points when skaters lapped those from the other team using this scoring process. Roller Derby thus begins its transformation into the sport we now know.
1940’s – Mid 1950’s: The Rise of Roller Derby
You could hear Derby on the radio in 1939, and by 1948 Roller Derby was being broadcast on television. Roller Derby rose to popularity quickly as clever television promoters filmed modest crowds to look more impressive than they were. When the US entered WWII in 1941, the sport had grown wildly, and gained almost four million spectators, but sport growth was sharply interrupted as many athletes enlisted. At the end of the war in 1945, Seltzer successfully picked up the sport where he had left off. Soon, the games that first attracted 700 fans were selling out to crowds of thousands. And in 1949, a five-day appearance by Leo Seltzer’s Roller Derby at Madison Square Garden drew 55,000 spectators. In time, Seltzer would establish the National Roller Derby League (NRDL) made up of six franchised teams. With events reaching record numbers of 77,000 and even 82,000 fans by 1951, the advent of the NRDL ushered in the golden age of Roller Derby.
Late 50’s – Early 1970s: Roller Derby’s Golden Years
he advent of roller derby on television in 1948 was profound for the league. TV roller derby created stars overnight — the famous Ken Monte, Bert Wall and Midge “Toughie” Brashun developed remarkable fan bases. There was a sweet spot in the life of Roller Derby where skaters were paid professional athletes, and families gathered around the TV set every Saturday night to catch a bout. Jerry Seltzer says of this time in his blog RollerDerbyJesus.com, “We were in a wonderful and precarious position at the same time: we owned all the teams and took all the risks.” Legendary Derby star Charlie O’Connell was in charge of the skating and wanted a fast, aggressive game. Skaters and teams played to their fans. If a city expected hard hits and theatrics, they gave it to them. In New York where fans just wanted to see good skating, the teams delivered.
Leo’s son Jerry Seltzer took over the sport in 1958 and began a new era of Roller Derby with an increased focus on more legitimized skating. The 1960’s saw changes to the sport, like mandatory helmets and players being highlighted so viewers could find them easier on TV. Skaters earned salaries and traveled full time with their teams to appear in cities across America.
1973: The Death of Derby
Unfortunately, the gas crisis of 1972 and ’73 ultimately shut down Seltzer-era Roller Derby for good. For decades Derby had been a traveling show touring the country and playing games in some of America’s most notable metropolises, performing for sell out crowds in LA, Portland, Chicago and New York. In the Fall of 1973, OPAC declared an oil embargo, causing a world wide oil crisis. American gas prices skyrocketed, with the prices of oil per barrel nearly quadrupling across the globe in only two years. Roller Derby and its skaters, dependent on their ability to travel to fans, were unable survive the economic hit. In Jerry Seltzer’s blog titled “It Broke My Heart” he explains, “I shut [down] Roller Derby in 1973 and people were just left with the image of roller games for the next several years which provided very little skating skill but more like WWE.”
1970’s – 1990s: The Lost Years of Roller Derby
After Seltzer-era Derby died in the early 70’s, all that was left for fans of skating was Roller Games. Roller Games had actually been invented in the 60’s and served as a campier, more theatrical competitor to Seltzer’s more athletic Roller Derby. Roller Games too eventually folded in 1975 however, leaving fans and skaters nostalgic for the golden years of Roller Derby with few options. For years, many revival attempts failed, but the most successful revival was the International Roller Skating League, which held games mostly in California from 1977 to 1987. In 1989 an even more ridiculous version of the sport emerged as a TV show called Rollergames, and featured absurd antics, staged theatrics and even crocodile pits. Rollergames, unsurprisingly was broadcast for only one season. These years are arguably the darkest age of Roller Derby, and the sport stayed stagnant until 1999 when another attempt at reviving the sport took the form of a show produced by Spike TV called Roller Jam. Roller Jam featured inline skaters playing classic roller derby on an oval wooden banked track. This show shed light on the sport and sparked new interest, but despite four seasons and big name backers the show was subsequently cancelled in 2001.
Early 2000’s: Roller Derby’s Revival
A group of ambitious skaters in Texas are largely attributed for the current evolution of Roller Derby. In 2001 they formed the organization Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW), consisting of four teams and holding their first public game in Austin, Texas, in 2002. As is common with modern Roller Derby, BGGW soon split and formed two leagues, now known as The Texas Rollergirls and TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. Women all over America followed suit and leagues quickly began popping up across the country. The sport is revolutionized and reimagined as Flat Track skating becomes more popular than ever before in the history of roller skating competition. In 2004, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was founded, and in 2005 the first ever Roller Derby Convention was held in Las Vegas, Nevada. By 2006, WFTDA consisted of over 135 member leagues.
2010’s and beyond: Modern Day Derby
The sport of Roller Derby continues to grow and gain credibility in the world of sports. In 2011 the first Roller Derby World Cup was held in Canada. In addition, Men’s Roller Derby has become increasingly accepted and legitimized. There are currently over 1,800 active leagues worldwide and growing. Contrary to the Roller Derby of yesterday, skaters are not paid and the modern resurgence is a result of dedicated grassroots efforts for the skaters, by the skaters. Jerry Seltzer says of the modern version of his father’s sport, “[skaters of the 60’s and 70’s], because of their years in the game had a skill and athleticism that has not been approached yet, but they were restricted from showing their real ability. That thought never leaves me. Enjoy today’s Roller Derby for what it is: a real competitive game whose founders and developers never gave up on the idea that it can be the great sport it deserves to be.” Live derby events entertain with athleticism, drama, roughhousing, and familiar characters.
The sport many of us know and love today, underwent many evolutions over the past eight decades and very nearly disappeared. Currently, there are active roller derby players at the top of their sport that will be remembered as being among the greats of roller derby. Whether this Saturday is bout day for you and your team, or you just decide to get out of the house and do some skating around your neighborhood, make sure you do something this week to celebrate 81 years of Roller Derby.