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Roller derby is an American-invented contact sport—and historically, a form of sports entertainment—based on formation roller skating around an oval track. In past decades, roller derby had been primarily a professional or paid sport for both women and men. Contemporary roller derby is international, predominantly female, typically operates on an amateur (or unpaid) circuit, and has a strong do it yourself ethic which often features both athleticism and a satirical punk third-wave feminism aesthetic.


For more information: see history of roller derby

The term roller derby dates at least as far back as 1922, when the Chicago Tribune used it to describe multi-day, flat-track roller skating races, similar to banked-track marathons reported on by the New York Times in 1885 (a six-day race) and 1914 (a 24-hour championship), among others.

Promoter Leo Seltzer and sportswriter Damon Runyon are credited with modifying the endurance competitions of the 1930s by emphasizing the physical contact—and thus the more spectacular aspects of the sport. Seltzer trademarked the name Roller Derby, reserving it for use by his traveling troupe of professional skaters. Roller Derby took root as an icon of popular culture as matches were held in numerous cities throughout the U.S. and sometimes broadcast on radio.

Rival organizations such as Roller Games came and went as the sport/spectacle endured several boom-and-bust cycles throughout the second half of the 20th century. The initial business model of roller derby finally collapsed in the mid-1970s, but the sport underwent several professional, on-and-off TV revivals which were spearheaded by veteran skaters, including a continuation of Roller Games under new management, a 10-year International Roller Skating League (IRSL), and the short-lived, TV-only spectacles RollerGames and RollerJam.

Contemporary roller derbyEdit

While a small number of for-profit organizations, consisting largely of veterans from earlier revivals, continued to organize one-off matches in California into the early '00s using paid skaters, an international grassroots do it yourself revival occurred that was organized by young women unaffiliated with previous incarnations of the sport. The contemporary revival restored a focus on athleticism, albeit with modern-day campy accouterments. The emphasis on camp and athleticism - which are not necessarily mutually exclusive - varies from league to league.

roller derby has since spread beyond its American roots, with leagues extant in Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

All-female, grassroots leaguesEdit

Nearly all contemporary roller derby leagues are self-organized, and were formed in an independent circuit, do it yourself spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts. These leagues deploy traditional quad roller skates, and punk aesthetic and/or ethic is often prominent. Many, if not most, are legally incorporated as limited liability companies, and a few are non-profit organizations. Most compete on flat tracks.

Each league typically features two or more local teams which compete in public matches, called bouts, for a diverse fan base. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and formulate a plan together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts. Moreover, as the business and infrastructure of the sport matures, successful local leagues form travel teams to compete with the roller derby leagues of other cities and regions.

Most players in these leagues skate under aliases, many of which are creative examples of word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture. Examples include Sandra Day O'Clobber (Sandra Day O'Connor), Skid'n Nancy (Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), Goldie Knoxx (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), Anna Mosity (animosity). Some players claim their names represent alter egos which they adopt whilst skating. By late 2008, however, a small number of players on at least two leagues had dropped their aliases.

The names of the bouts themselves are typically as sardonic and convoluted — for example, Night of the Rolling Dead (Night of the Living Dead); Spanksgiving (Thanksgiving), Grandma Got Run Over By a Rollergirl (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer), Skate & Destroy Her, Cupids Quarrel, Shamrock and Roll, Pushin' Daisies, Cinco de May-hem (Cinco de Mayo), and War of the Wheels (War of the Worlds).

The camp can extend to players' uniforms as well. Costumes are often inspired by or comparable with rockabilly or burlesque fashions, and tattoos and tutus are commonly in evidence. In some roller derby leagues, showy on-track behavior, half-time entertainment and randomly selected "penalty games" emphasize the "entertainment" in sports entertainment. The extent to which such non-athletic stylizations are embraced varies from league to league, and continues to be a source of some contention.

Inasmuch as roller derby is a contact sport, the risk of injury is non-trivial. As is the case with many sporting events and other large public gatherings, many modern roller derby games are required to be played with emergency medical technician on hand.


A number of all-female leagues (60, as of September 2008) are members of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA, formed in 2004), which coordinates and sets the rules that govern inter-league competition among its members. The WFTDA member leagues create "travel" teams who play against each other in regional matches, although some leagues that are not WFTDA members have independently arranged their own travel teams and inter-league bouts.

WFTDA also publishes rankings and organizes annual championship tournaments for its members in good standing.

While not directly affiliated, many independent leagues around the world have adopted the WFTDA rules and standards either completely or as a foundation for their own rules.

Other evolutions of roller derbyEdit

Although the 2000s revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams, and co-ed games.

In May 2007, a handful of leagues formed the Old School Derby Association (OSDA), which promotes, for inter-league play among its members, a set of rules inspired by earlier, banked-track incarnations of the sport. OSDA combines aspects of both old and modern rule sets to create a fast-moving, ultra-defensive game. The organization membership is open to all; men, women, co-ed, flat track and banked track.

Mixed-gender, for-profit leaguesEdit

A handful of leagues, mostly mixed-gender, have origins in earlier incarnations of the sport and heavily promote themselves as professional due to their history, management, membership, style of play and marketing considerations. As of the mid-2000s, most of these leagues do not compete in regular seasons, but rather schedule infrequent special-event games, drawing from a relatively small pool of skaters to form the roster of two teams put together just for the event, or on one team that plays against a similar club from another league. Team names typically pay homage to memorable Roller Derby and Roller Games teams of the past.

Such leagues include Roller Game (Japan), National Roller Derby League (California), American Roller Derby League (California), American Roller Skating Derby (California), and Roller Games International (California).

Defining amateur and professionalEdit

In the United States, under the provisions of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the definition of an amateur athlete is up to the national governing body for each sport. The U.S. national governing body for all amateur roller skating sports is USA Roller Sports (USARS), which defines an "amateur competitive roller skater" very broadly as anyone who is a good sport when competing in USARS events and who does not misrepresent their previous competitive experience; USARS does not formally exclude anyone on the basis of occupational status or, apparently, any other criteria. USARS also does not yet acknowledge roller derby by name in its bylaws; it only acknowledges "artistic, speed, and hockey", although its membership application for individuals has additional categories "noncompetitive", "recreation" and "aggressive"—roller derby was listed under the latter in 2005, and is its own category in 2006. However, USARS might accept not-for-profit (as shown by statements of funds disbursement) amateur roller derby leagues as members, at the discretion of the USARS Board of Directors.

The only other governing body for roller derby in the U.S. is WFTDA, but defining amateur and professional are not within the scope of its charter; it exists primarily to facilitate competition and goodwill among its member leagues, and has no authority.

Currently, the delineation between "professional" and "amateur" levels of competition in roller derby is essentially a matter of self-identification by those leagues claiming both that they are professional and the others are amateur. However, organizations that want to bill themselves as one or the other are free to do so without consequence. Most contemporary leagues don't use such terms at all.

As of 2006, there are, however, notable differences between the organizations that heavily promote themselves as professional and those that do not. While these differences do not necessarily define what is "professional" and what is "amateur," observable trends include:

  • Professional leagues tend to favor mixed-gender teams. As of mid-2007, the majority of the current wave of other leagues are all-female. Although the majority are all-female, there are several all-male amateur teams and leagues, linked in some cases to female DIY leagues: the Hell City Hooligans all-male league in New Jersey, for example, are associated with the Penn Jersey She-Devils. There is also Baltimore, Maryland's Harm City Homicide, the New York Shock Exchange, and Pioneer Valley's Dirty Dozen from Western Massachusetts.
  • Professional leagues tend to have teams that represent and train in different cities, whereas other leagues tend to train within and identify with a single metropolitan area.
  • Professional leagues tend to be owned by individual promoters, investors, sponsors, and/or external corporations. In cases of "skater-owned" (owned by individuals who have a skating background) professional leagues, primary management of the league is not in the hands of the organization's members. Other leagues have a variety of business structures, ranging from for-profit LLCs under outside management to fully non-profit, all-skater-managed organizations.
  • Today's professional leagues tend to have roots in earlier Roller Derby revivals like Roller Games, and are composed partly of athletes and promoters who were active in those eras of the sport. Non-professional leagues tend to have no connection to any historical leagues, a distinction that is often deliberate.
  • Historically, skaters in professional leagues were full-time employees of the league, and received financial compensation for their service. Skaters in other leagues are generally not compensated.
  • Professional leagues tend to be vocal proponents of banked-track competition. Most other leagues tend to favor flat-track competition, although some do favor banked tracks and some use both. Different track types lead to different styles of play, which are in turn sometimes associated with professionalism or amateurism. The merits and drawbacks of flat vs. banked tracks are sources of heated debates and strong opinions throughout the sport.

Some do not consider any form of roller derby to be "professional" since the sport is not covered by major sports media outlets and because its historical promotional style has been more akin to "professional wrestling" than a sport such as professional hockey.

The relative lack of reliable, published, and Internet-accessible information about the activities of both historic and modern "professional" roller derby leagues makes it difficult to make qualitative assessments of other possible differences, such as types of training facilities, competition venues, rules and regulations, and training schedules.


Most current roller derby leagues use rules developed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). A summary of the WFTDA rules follows:

Roller derby takes place on a circuit track. The two teams playing send five players each onto the track — three blockers (defense), one pivot (last line of defense) and one jammer (scorer). Helmet covers are used to display the players' positions: a striped cover is used for pivots, a cover with two stars is used for jammers, and no cover is used for blockers.

Pivots and blockers from both teams start the game by forming a single pack. In a pack, all players face counterclockwise. The pivots line up next to each other, followed by a layer of four blockers, followed by a layer of two blockers. The two jammers, who are not considered to be part of the pack, are positioned 20 feet behind the pack. At this point, no differentiation need be made between the two teams; as long as the pack formation is as described above, it does not matter if the team members are interspersed randomly in the pack.

The referee signals the start of jam formation by blowing a whistle. During jam formation, the entire pack moves counterclockwise, during which time players can change position. All pivots/blockers must remain in the pack (i.e., no more than 20 feet in front of or behind the largest group containing blockers from both teams ). Jammers remain stationary during jam formation. When the last person in the pack has passed where the front of the pack was initially lined up, the referee blows the whistle twice, signaling the jammers to take off, and play begins in earnest with a jam.

A jam is a 2-minute countdown period during which both teams attempt to score points. Points can only be scored by the jammers, who, moving counter-clockwise, attempt to pass the pack and lap around as many times as possible. After passing the pack the first time, jammers earn one point each time they legally pass an opposing blocker/pivot. During a jam, all pivots/blockers must remain in the pack. If a pivot/blocker falls or otherwise becomes separated from the pack, she is out of play (i.e., cannot block or assist the jammers) until she catches up to the pack.

The first jammer to pass all pivots and blockers once the jam begins wins the status of lead jammer for the remainder of the jam. The lead jammer can decide to end the jam at any time before the 2 minutes are up. She does this by placing her hands on her hips repeatedly, which signals the referee to officially call off the jam.

After a lead jammer has been established, both jammers have the option of passing their positions to their teams' respective pivots (passing the star). This is done by removing the 2-star helmet cover and handing it to the pivot. The pivot then becomes the jammer, and the jammer becomes the pivot for the remainder of the jam. If the original jammer was the lead jammer, the position of lead jammer is not passed on; the position is forfeited for the remainder of the jam.

To impede the progress of the opposing team's jammer, players may block using body parts above the mid-thigh, excluding forearms, hands, and head. Elbows may not be used in blocking, and cannot be swung at other players or used to hook an opponent's or teammate's arm.

Each game consists of two 30-minute or three 20-minute periods. At the end of each jam, players re-form the pack and continue play.

Penalties are given to skaters who block illegally, fight or behave in an unsporting manner, or otherwise break the rules. Possible penalties include sending players to a penalty box (during which time opposing jammers can score points by passing the penalty box) and expulsion of players.


As of 2008, several trademarks for "Roller Derby" are registered with the USPTO. Three were registered by Roller Derby Skate Corporation, a manufacturer of wheeled skates, based in Litchfield, Illinois:

  • An entertainment exhibition involving a contest between teams of roller skaters, first used in commerce in 1935.
  • A brand name and logo for roller skates, wheels, and repair parts, first used in commerce in 1935.
  • A brand name and logo for t-shirts, jackets, and trousers, first used in commerce in 1987.

In July 2008, Gotham Girls Roller Derby filed a petition to cancel the registration of the mark "Roller Derby" for entertainment exhibitions. The petition to cancel alleges that "roller derby" is merely descriptive of the services it intends to identify and therefore is not eligible for trademark protection. In addition, the petition alleges abandonment of the trademark by Roller Derby Skate Corp.

Other USPTO-registered trademarks still in effect that contain the phrase "Roller Derby" include the following:

  • "American Roller Derby League" an organizer of sporting events, namely, roller derby competitions, first used in commerce in 1998.
  • "Gotham Girls Roller Derby", first used in commerce in 2005.
  • "Texas Rollergirls Rock n Roller Derby", an entertainment exhibition involving a contest between teams of roller skaters, first used in commerce in 2003.

From 1950 to 1980, "Roller Derby" was a trademark registered in Canada by Leo & Jerry Seltzer's companies for printed matter, skates, merchandise, and ratings systems relating to roller skating races.

The common noun "roller derby" is often used to refer to the sport in all of its forms.

Nonfiction literatureEdit

  • Michelson, Herb. A Very Simple Game: the Story of Roller Derby. 1971.
  • Deford, Frank. Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby. Little, Brown and Company, 1971. ISBN 0-316-17920-5.
  • Coppage, Keith. Roller Derby to Rollerjam: The Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport. Santa Rosa, California: Squarebooks, 1999. ISBN 0-916290-80-8.
  • Fitzpatrick, Jim. Roller Derby Classics… and more!. Foreword by Ann Calvello. Trafford Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4120-6678-6.
  • Joulwan, Melissa. Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track. Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), February 2007. ISBN 978-0743297158.
  • Mabe, Catherine. Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels. Speck Press, 2007. ISBN 1-933108-11-8.

Documentary film and televisionEdit

  • In 1949, Roller Derby Girl, a 10-minute short film produced and directed by Justin Herman was released as part of Paramount Picture's Pacemaker series. It was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award in 1950.
  • In 1971, the documentary film Derby (titled Roller Derby in the United Kingdom) was released. Directed by Robert Kaylor and produced by Jerry Seltzer's own company, the film follows skater Mike Snell as he becomes immersed in the world of 1970s professional Roller Derby, and provides competition footage as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of several Roller Derby pros.
  • In 1986, the 57-minute documentary Roller Derby Mania was released direct to video (NTSC VHS) in North America. It features the L.A. T-Birds roller games team, as well as classic Roller Derby footage. A Region 1 DVD edition was released in 2003.
  • In 1991, the 30-minute documentary Roller Derby Wars was released direct to video (NTSC VHS) in North America. It was released on video in the UK in 1993 (PAL VHS).
  • In 2001, Demon Of The Derby, a biographical documentary about aging roller derby star Ann Calvello, was released.
  • In 2004, the 32nd episode of the sports documentary series "Woodie's World" aired on ESPN and contained a segment on a 1971 roller derby revival.
  • In 2005, the 9th episode of the sports documentary series "Timeless" aired on ESPN and spotlighted the LA Derby Dolls.
  • Jam, a film about the lives of derby skaters and promoters, premiered in 2006. The film won best documentary at the South by Southwest film festival. A Jam trailer was made available on the Film Threat web site.
  • Hell On Wheels, a documentary about the creation of the all-female roller derby league in Austin, Texas in 2001 that sparked the modern derby revival premiered in March 2007 at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
  • In 2007 and 2008, several league-specific documentaries premiered (or were scheduled to), including Talk Derby To Me and The Dames: The Story of the Boston Roller Derby League.
  • In 2008, ESPN SportsCenter aired and published on the Internet Roller Derby Revival, a short feature about the current roller derby revival.
  • In 2008, a Psych episode (season 3, episode 7) named "Talk Derby to Me" to me.
  • In 2008, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired Roller Derby Dolls, a short documentary about the recent revival of Roller Derby in Australia.

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit