Roller derby is a full-contact team sport played on roller skates. There’s no ball, no puck, no stick: just roller skates, protective gear and a kick-ass attitude.
Matches are played on a flat, oval-shaped track. There are two thirty-minute halves, and each half is divided into “jams” that last up to two minutes.
Two teams compete against each other to score the most points. Each team has five players on the track. Four of them are blockers, and the fifth is a jammer. These jammers wear a big star on their helmets to make them stand out, because they’re the ones who score points.
The jammers score points for their team by passing members of the opposite team. However, the first time the jammers make their way past the blockers, they don’t score any points. Instead, the jammer who gets through first is awarded the lead-jammer status. This grants her or him the right to end the jam before the two minutes are up, something a jammer does before the other jammer has a chance to score many points.
The blockers have two objectives: first, they want to stop the opposing jammer from passing them, but they also want to help their own jammer pass through the pack. They do this both by blocking and hitting the other team within the legal zone, which is between the shoulders and knees but does not include the back. Blockers can use their hips and shoulders but not their arms, legs or head.
The team with the most points at the end of the match wins the game!
We play by the rules set out by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). You can read the rules on the WFTDA website.
In the late 19th century, roller skating became hugely popular in the United States, and people began organizing endurance races that lasted so long that some competitors actually died. In 1922, the term “roller derby” was coined to describe these roller skating races.
In the 1930s, a former film publicist named Leo Seltzer saw an opportunity to draw in crowds looking for cheap entertainment during the Great Depression. He had previously had great success organizing dance marathons, which he called walkathons because they could last up to forty days so the contestants usually ended up shuffling around to preserve their energy. However, the novelty of those walkathons had begun to wear off by 1935, so the ever-enterprising Leo started a competition called Transcontinental Roller Derby. An average of 10,000 people came to each competition, paying between ten and twenty-five cents each. Leo wanted to keep the sport legitimate, but when he realized how much the crowds loved seeing skaters crash and fall, he was convinced to tweak the game to maximize collisions.
The sport featured women and men skaters, and it grew in popularity until the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1941. Then many skaters—and their fans—joined the war effort. After the war, the sport’s popularity grew again, and matches even were shown on television starting in 1948, but the revival was short-lived. In the 1950s, crowds dropped off.
There were several attempts to bring roller derby back over the decades, but contemporary roller derby really got its re-start thanks to a group of kick-ass women in Austin, Texas, in 2000. By August 2006, there were more than 135 all-female leagues. The Men’s Roller Derby Association (MRDA) was founded in 2007 as more men got in on the action.
Today roller derby is a modern sport that emphasizes athleticism and inclusivity over phony showmanship, but many teams pay homage to the sport’s history by embracing some of the kitschy features that have set it apart for over 80 years, such as player nicknames and retro uniform styles.