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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pushing the Envelope: Part 1

Roller Derby was cutting edge from the start. The sport was always integrated, paying blacks equally and accepting single mothers, homosexuals and other unconventional lifestyles long before society would. It has always been an exciting ruckus. Roller Derby people are supposed to push the envelope. We’re supposed to be antagonists.

What happened?

It’s nice that many flat track roller derby leagues of today are focusing on community service by requiring or encouraging their skaters to volunteer within their communities, but let’s be real: the underlying motive for doing this should be to develop a positive rapport, gain publicity and grow a fan base. I have yet to see a league accomplish this successfully. I feel it just turns into an intimidation and guilt tactic when the skaters are already frustrated from spending their own money on dues, skates and gear and pressuring their own family, friends and co-workers into supporting their league by buying tickets to games and fundraisers. Too much is already being required of skaters. Asking them to also participate in community service, which does not greatly benefit the league or bring revenue is absurd. Until a league can demonstrate actual positive results from this practice I say eliminate the bullshit farce of saying flat track women’s roller derby leagues are “nonprofits” and exist to enrich communities. Roller Derby exists to entertain, period.

One person who certainly understood this was Jerry Seltzer, son of roller derby’s creator Leo Seltzer, and operator and manager of the sport from 1958-1973.  From Jerry Seltzer’s blog When is PR not really PR? : “I learned early with Roller Derby that you had to reach a target audience for whatever it is that you are doing.  And what you are sending out had better be of interest to that audience.”  

Leagues of today do not spend time developing marketing tactics and analyzing ticket sales. Skaters are in it for themselves only. The attitude is “fuck ‘em” if the audience does not find it interesting. That is fine if you are cool with paying all the league’s overhead, dues, game and rink costs, as well as for your own gear and medical insurance and/or bills. But I’m not down with that. I dream of something better. The “fuck ‘em” attitude of today does not come from a place of fiery rebellion but rather one of apathy. It’s a lot easier to just pay expenses out of pocket, accept mediocrity, and not care whether the audience shows up or not. The “fuck ‘em” attitude of derby’s heyday however was born of defiance, nonconformity and lawlessness!

Jerry Seltzer explains one such act of rebellion in his blog The Funny Days of Roller Derby :  “…for the upcoming Holidays all decorations were subject to approval ‘for taste’…Herb [Michelson] and I looked at each other and he wrote the perfect letter, stating that a majority of our staff was Jewish (they were not) and we had an oversize 6- foot high Menorah with huge candles and felt this was an infringement on our religious freedom…shortly thereafter we had a request for a meeting that afternoon.   In came about a dozen people.  It was explained to us that of course they would allow us to do it, but they would have security on hand, members of the fire department to stand by...We were chagrined and told them we would just use electric candles.” 

If you ask me, the early promoters of roller derby were revolutionaries! They did what they wanted and they didn’t take shit from anybody! It would serve us well to study what made roller derby such a success. It wasn’t skating talent alone, it took progressive thinking, innovation, and perseverance. Roller derby was founded on the idea of pleasing fans. Leo Seltzer saw early on that roller derby needed to grow and adapt as audiences’ needs changed, and he evolved the sport from a cross-country race into what it is today. It’s time for a new wave of roller derby to emerge yet again. And it’s not devaluing the integrity of the sport, it is giving the fans what they want- just as Leo Seltzer would have had it. So I say dream big and push that envelope, for derby’s sake!

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