Looking back at my posts on roller derby over the years there is a progression: “Wow, these girls are also teachers and librarians”; “It’s not all just make-up, tattoos and fishnets, there’s skill too”; “This sport you’ve never heard of is doing quite well”. Funny thing is, everyone who writes about derby follows this path (though thankfully I never called it “The Sisterhood of the Skates”). Expect another evolution of the storyline soon.
Roller derby is changing in New Zealand, and it’s a change that could potentially divide the sport.
A couple of years back, skaters in Richter City (Wellington’s league) eschewed the more flamboyant costuming for racer tops, shorts and regular tights (maybe with fishnets over the top). The flashy entrances with gimmicky skate-outs were ditched in favour of a team roll-call approach and even (quelle horreur) the MC intro time was shortened. The sport itself was becoming the attraction rather than the spectacle.
As much as this disappointed some “devoted” fans who felt derby lost something by being more of a sport than a sideshow, the skaters themselves have taken to the new idea with heart. At the forefront of this is the new Auckland Roller Derby League (ARDL).
ARDL split off from the Pirate City Rollers league late last year with the idea of forming a league that was solely about the sport. ARDL would skate only inter-league bouts and offer coaching boot camps to other teams that wanted to get better. They skate under their own names (rather than pun-intended pseudonyms) and wear simple uniforms in navy and white; Auckland colours.
ARDL's spokesperson is Hannah Jennings-Voykovich; she used to skate under the name Scheisse Minnelli and would get grumpy if introduced as "Hannah". Naturally she sees the changes as positive.
"You can't have a name like 'Cunty McTaintStain' and expect people to take you seriously". This is not the point in the evolution of roller derby where everyone understands that it takes skill and fitness to be a player; that happened after the first few bouts. This is where roller derby goes legit.
Legitimacy for a sport is hard for a lot of sports. Watch the strength and skill of a rhythmic gymnastics routine then think about all the times you've heard people say that it's not a sport. A sport like derby should have no trouble crossing from "entertainment" to "sport" in people's minds: a full contact team sport, with strange rules but clear points-scoring situations, something easy to follow and cheer for. That is, it would be easy if derby hadn't started as it did with costume and crazy names.
"I think our audience has changed" says Hannah (who drops Voykovich when skating because "no MC is going to say that during a game"). "They're smarter and they know the rules." The cheering is no longer at random times; fans know what is happening on the track.
"I talked to [Richter City skater and World Cup team member] Tuff Bikkies about this, and we agreed that we used to love playing sport with just our Mums yelling at us from the sideline." Don't get her wrong, the huge crowds keep them going, both financially and emotionally; but the idea that going from the flashy but amateurish to professional but sometimes dull (for an example see Super Rugby) might lose them supporters doesn't phase ARDL.
That's what legitimacy means: you get the accolade of being a sport, but you are just another sport.
"We're not getting rid of everything. We still have the live MC, we still play music during the game, we still serve beer. There are some things you want to keep around and some things that make derby derby."
Personally, as derby is a very American sport, I cannot help but compare it to American football. Athleticism and strategy with moments of flashy entertainment. Solid work followed by showboating. Part of derby's allure will always be the hits and the falls, the speed and agility. But really, no one is going to mind showing off at the end. As long as you spend the hours practising drills as much as you do learning to make that fancy whip move.
This weekend ARDL take their new brand of derby to the track in Auckland against Christchurch's Dead End Derby. Hannah is cautiously optimistic.
"They've got a lot of good skaters who were at the world championships last year and so we're not taking this casually. It should be a great game." She didn't go so far as to expect an ARDL loss though, and modestly didn't point out the talent that ARDL packs.
Legitimacy doesn't just affect one league at a time. The proliferation of derby around the country has been amazing. From Whangarei to Invercargill almost every city in the country has a league. All of the new leagues starting up have benefited from the growing legitimacy of the sport.
This weekend there are five bouts around the country. The Swamp City Roller Rats are playing the Taranaki Roller Corps in an afternoon bout in Palmerston North.
In the Hawkes Bay there's a triple-header bout: Bay City Rollers (Napier) vs K-town Derby Dolls (Kawerau) vs Bin City Brutalion (Gisbourne). And in Tauranga there's a double-header as the local Mount Militia take on the Northland Nightmares and Whanganui's River City Rollers.
There's even more next week when Pirate City's regular season starts up and more inter-league bouting between Nelson and Blenheim and other leagues in action. It's non-stop.
Whether too much of the product along with the more "sporty" entertainment sees a drop in attendance is still to be seen, but this is exciting nonetheless. Where derby is going is could make it one of the most popular women's sports in the country. In fact, expect that headline soon.