Roller Derby is one of those sports that most people have heard about but don’t really know much about it. They know that the game involves roller skating and people getting knocked down, but beyond that they are clueless. Where did the sport come from? When did it originate? How do you play?
In the beginning
It all began back in the 1880s as roller skating became more and more popular. Endurance races became common in the mid-1880s with competitions being held on flat tracks as well as banked ones. Much like auto racing, people loved the speed that many racers achieved and the crashes.
In the mid-1930s, the Transcontinental Roller Derby—a competition between teams of two professional skaters– was formed. The rules of the sport were altered to increase contact. It became quite popular as it toured around the country.
The sport saw a boost in popularity when the National Roller Derby League was formed in 1949. The playoffs for the six-team league were held at Madison Square Garden which sold out for the week. By the 1960s, however, the sport’s popularity began to decline despite seeing coverage on several networks.
A more theatrical version of the sport was developed for television in 1989 (RollerGames; think WWE), but it didn’t last long. TNN (now Spike TV) tried again in 1999 with RollerJam, but it only lasted a couple of seasons.
The current revival
In the early years of the 21st century, roller derby began to see a surge in popularity across the country as an all-female, amateur sport. Gone were the scripted plays and storylines as well as predetermined outcomes. It was now all about playing the game and letting the best team win.
The revival began with a league forming in Austin, Texas. But by August 2006 there were over 135 leagues across the country, and it had started to grow in popularity in other nations. There are now over 2000 leagues around the world in countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, France, Sweden, Israel, and Egypt.
The International Olympic Committee recognized the Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports as the sports international governing body when it considered roller derby for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Games.
Nanjing, China, will be the site of the first World Roller Derby Games in September 2017.
How To Play
The game is played by teams with no more than 14 players, but only five are on the track at a time. One player is designated as the ‘jammer.’ It is the jammer who can score points for the team by lapping players from the opposing team.
The other four players are ‘blockers, ’ but one is also designated as the ‘pivot.’ It is the job of the blockers to do what they can to help their jammer advance and keep the opposing team’s jammer from doing so. The pivot is allowed to become the jammer during play.
Games are broken up into two 30-minute periods with play broken down further into two-minute ‘jams.’ Play begins with both team’s blockers lined up between the pivot line and the jammer line (which is 30 feet behind the pivot line). The jammers both line up behind the jammer line.
The blockers are required to maintain what is called ‘the pack’ which is the largest single group of blockers on the track. They are allowed to skate within 20 feet in front or behind that group in what is referred to as the ‘engagement zone.’
When play begins, the jammers, with the help of their blockers, will work to see who can exit the pack first. This person will become the ‘lead jammer.’ This person can end a jam early by placing both hands on their hips. If the lead jammer does, teams have 30 seconds to prepare for the next jam. If that does not happen, play continues for two minutes before resetting.
Points cannot be scored until the jammer makes the initial pass through the pack.
It is a contact sport, but there are rules to how that contact is applied. Breaking them results in a player being penalized (sent to the penalty box). For instance, players are not allowed to use their heads, elbows, feet, or hands to initiate contact. It is also illegal to hit someone above the shoulders and below the middle of the thigh. No hitting from behind either; just from the sides and front.
Players foul out of a game after receiving their seventh penalty.
The game is traditionally played with players using four-wheeled skates. Inline skates are illegal but are utilized by some referees. Players also wear protective equipment to minimize the risk of injury including a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouth guards. Padded, knee length pants are also common.