Roller derby originated in Chicago in the 1930s, when Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon added physical contact and teamwork to marathon roller skating races.
In the late 1930s, Leo Seltzer’s touring competition, Transcontinental Roller Derby, began to evolve from this marathon-style skate race on a raised track to a more physical competition with skater collisions and falls. This became the foundation of the team sport that still exists today: two teams of five skaters who score points by passing members of the opposing team. Both men and women competed in roller derby from its inception.
Seltzer’s events drew larger and larger crowds before eventually being televised. In the early 1960s, after Leo Seltzer transferred his business to his son, Jerry (who is still active in roller derby circles). It was around this time that competing roller derby franchises emerged, some of which emphasised theatrics more than sport. Jerry Seltzer shut down his organisation in 1973.
Some people may remember the short-lived attempts to bring roller derby back in the 1980s and 90s. Television shows where skaters played up a “goodies vs baddies” style of event that mimicked pro-wrestling. One particular incarnation of the game was RollerGames, which featured a figure-8 shaped banked track and stunts like alligator pits.
Then, in the early 2000s, modern women’s roller derby got its start in Austin, Texas. The TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls was the first new league formed by skaters and run by the people who played the game. Texas’ banked track derby soon spread to the flat track, given the difficulty required to build and create a banked track compared to retro roller rinks and warehouse floors, which were in larger abundance. The flat track version of roller derby has spread over the last decade, and now hundreds of roller derby leagues and thousands of teams compete around the world.
Flat track roller derby has remained relatively underground over this time, but has been brought into mainstream consciousness regularly through leagues gaining local media coverage on the web, in print, on radio and on television. Modern roller derby hit the big time in 2009 in the Drew Barrymore-directed film Whip It.
Now roller derby faces yet another transformation as the sport moves away from the theatrics it was previously known for and towards a highly strategic, highly physical and highly athletic game. Top level skaters are expected to train for derby and cross-train for fitness regularly; WFTDA championship play is 100% focused on game play and 0% focused on sex appeal.
Where roller derby goes from here is into the unknown, but one thing is for sure – it will be exciting, it will be athletic and it will be driven by the skaters, officials and staff that bring the game together.