Roller derby revival charges into national spotlightby Sanden Totten, Minnesota Public Radio
This weekend a group of Minnesota women will be taking off for Tucson, Arizona to bust some heads. They play the latest and increasingly popular version of roller derby. They're hoping that this roller derby revival will become a national hit.
St. Paul, Minn. — It's Saturday night and the Roy Wilkins Auditorium is rocking. Everyone is here to check out the Minnesota RollerGirls.
This isn't your parents' roller derby. Two teams of athletes, who call themselves RollerGirls, are skating around a flat track sporting helmets and knee pads. But there's more than just a nod to punk sex appeal with fishnets and short skirts. The players have flashy stage names like Knocker Blockoff, and Mitzi Massacre.
Between the rock music soundtrack and explosive light show, fans don't know whether to cheer or start moshing. An audience member says she only recently found out about the sport.
"Honestly I just moved here and I never saw anything like this before. It's a crazy fun sport."
A baseball fan explains that a roller derby bout isn't like other sporting events.
"It's totally different. You can go to the ball park and there's drunks but you can't go crazy. Here you can go crazy and wait for a riot to break out."
A week after the match, the bruises are still healing as the players warm up before practice. During the day, these skaters could be your hair dresser or office manager. None of them is paid to skate.
"This is what I do. I play roller derby and my jobs are to support my life as a RollerGirl."
Meet Marilyn Monrogue. She has real name, but like all the skaters, she leaves her civilian life in the locker room. Marilyn has been with the league since it began.
"It's aggressive, it's about the music, it's about the team," says Marilyn. "I've been friends with guys in bands all my life and now, for me this is my band, this is my show."
Most RollerGirls got their start in other sports, from figure skating to ultimate fighting. The skater known as Desi Cration says she was once hooked on hockey and rugby.
"I love hard contact sports. I love hitting and being hit" says Desi Cration. "By day I'm actually a graduate student. I spend a lot of time in the lab, in the class room and this is a chance to get out, release tension and frustration and have a fantastic time while doing it."
The RollerGirls are practicing for the Dust Devil, the first-ever national flat track tournament being held in Tucson. They'll compete against 20 teams from across the nation.
Melissa Joulwan, aka Melicious, plays for the Texas RollerGirls. She also works with the WFTDA, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association. It's a national organization trying to unite the country's leagues.
"We went from one league to a year and a half later there were eight and then fast-forward another year and a half and there were 40 leagues," explains Joulwan.
With new leagues forming almost every week, Joulwan says her organization is swamped. It's not just trying to standardize the rules of the game. It also wants each member league organized in a fair and democratic way. Joulwan says she thinks by breaking the rules, roller derby is re-defining what it means to be a sport.
"Don't tell us that we have to wear regular uniforms," she insists. "Why can't we wear sexy uniforms and still play really hard? It turns out you can. And don't tell us that it has to be a traditional organization that's top down where one person makes decisions and everyone else carries them out, because we've proven that you can successfully run it the other way, where people do have a voice and they do have a vote."
The WFTDA has high hopes, but David Carter, sports business professor for the USC Marshall School of Business, urges caution. He says that the key to longevity for a sport like roller derby is to build a solid fan base. That's what attracts big money sponsors.
"If roller derby is able to focus on getting the product out there first and then refining it such that it's not too much on the sex appeal side, it's not too much on the sports side, but that there is this balance of sports and entertainment, then I think they'll do fine over time," says Carter. "It takes a while to find that sweet spot and a lot of sports never get around to it."
But that's all in the future. For now the Minnesota RollerGirls are focused on the brawls to come at the Dust Devil in Tucson. Watch out Arizona, here come the RollerGirls.
- Morning Edition, 02/24/2006, 7:50 a.m.