Believe it or not the fast sport of Roller Derby can be traced as far back as 1884, and for those who have never heard of Roller Derby it is basically a roller skating endurance race. During almost the entire Twentieth Century roller skating swept across America, and large events at places like Chicago’s Broadway Armory and Madison Square Garden were common place.
Transcontinental Roller Derby
The 1930’s was the era for the newly established Transcontinental Roller Derby, it was a sort of Dakar Rally but on roller skates. Competitors in teams raced to skate between New York and Los Angles on a three thousand mile endurance race, which took over a month to complete. The Transcontinental Roller Derby was not just a success with the competitors, it also became a great spectator sports as the cavalcade of skaters passed through local towns and villages along the way. The crowd became particularly energetic when two skated crashed, and after 1940 contact between competitors was actually encouraged. Teams were born that competed against each other over much shorter distances, and this was the foundation of Roller Derby.
The first Roller Derby events went hand in hand with the development of radio in America, and in the early 1940’s Roller Derby events were commonly broadcasted live. And of course with the development of television it was a natural progression to see Roller Derby on TV. Roller Derby reached its pinnacle in the early 70’s, many towns and cities had their own teams competing against each other. Heroes of Roller Derby became household names such as Ann Cavello and Joanie Weston, and whole families knew these skaters as they saw them at home on TV.
The popular Bay Area Bombers actually pulled in 28,000 fans to the Oakland Coliseum to watch them take on the North East Braves, Roller Derby had hit the big time. But there was only one way to go and at the end of the 70’s and for the next two decades Roller Derby started to decline in popularity. Trying to save their sport and bring fans back, unscrupulous promoters encouraged competitors to use OTT type tactics. The hard work and skill of the skaters was replaced by almost WWF wrestling action on the track, and this had a negative response from audiences all over the United States.
Modern Roller Derby
Less than a couple of decades ago, a group of women got together with the intention of reviving Roller Derby. And the Texas Roller Girls were formed in 2001 to be the first all-women’s flat track Roller Derby team. They proved to be a big hit, and the events they staged were once again bringing spectators back.
Like wildfire, leagues formed of women’s teams were popping up all over America in a sort of a do-it-yourself manner, and a homespun industry was born. These leagues still exist today and are still basically non-profit organizations with the management of the teams and leagues being handled by players and their family. In part two we continue to look at the history of Roller Derby and the importance of women in it today.