Freight Train of Texas Rollergirls at the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association Championships in 2018. Picture by Marko Niemelä

Why the Whole World Plays Roller Derby

Modern roller derby was invented 14 years ago. Now it has nearly 2000 leagues in 53 countries. The sport’s rapid growth says a lot about our fast-changing world.

Roller derby has roots in the 1900s, but it is a twenty-first century sport in every way that matters. The first “roller derby” was held in Chicago in 1935 — a weeks long endurance race, where skaters lapped a banked, oval track. The event gradually transformed into full-contact, semi-scripted televised sports entertainment, where teams of men and women fought to lap one another for points. Through the 1970s and 80s, roller derby became ever more preposterous — in one incarnation, the track made a figure 8 around alligator pits — until its popularity faded.

They gave themselves risqué, punk rock-inspired skater names, and drew large crowds to underground roller derby bouts.

Then, in 2001, a group of women in Austin, Texas reinvented roller derby. They kept the retro kitsch and the outright rebellion of women playing a full-contact team sport, repurposed skateboarding safety gear, threw out scripts and remade roller derby as a competitive sport. They gave themselves aggressive, risqué, punk rock-inspired skater names, and drew large crowds to underground roller derby bouts. They eventually formed two leagues, the Lonestar Rollergirls, which played on a banked track, and the Texas Rollergirls, which played on a flat track.

A poster for one of the first modern roller derby bouts: a double header played in Austin, Texas on August 4, 2002.

They used the newly popular Internet to help spread the word about roller derby, and soon other women started leagues of their own, most with flat tracks, some with banked tracks. As leagues multiplied, skaters formed associations to promote the sport, develop new leagues, organize competitions, and standardize rules. In 2009, Whip It, a movie about roller derby directed by Drew Barrymore, helped accelerate the sport’s growth.

Drew Barrymore, Ellen Page, and Kristen Wiig in the 2009 movie “Whip It,” set in the world of roller derby and written by former roller derby skater Shauna Cross. © Flower Films / Lionsgate

Today, fewer than 15 years after roller derby’s reinvention, there are nearly 2000 roller derby leagues, spread across 53 countries, and 100,000 women play the sport regularly, as do many men.

One reason for roller derby’s rapid expansion is that, while older sports and the powerful corporate-style organizations that run them have been getting into trouble — members of the International Olympic Committee stand accused of corruption, officials from soccer’s governing body FIFA have been arrested and charged with accepting bribes, and America’s National Football League faces controversies about player safety, cheating, and its disciplinary procedures, for example — roller derby remains a player-owned and operated grassroots movement. Roller derby’s athletes don’t just play their sport; they run it too.

Roller derby’s athletes don’t just play their sport; they run it too.

Then there’s the fact that roller derby is a women’s sport first. Sport, like society, has always been patriarchal and patronizing towards women. There’s soccer and women’s soccer; tennis and women’s tennis; basketball and women’s basketball; but there’s roller derby and men’s roller derby. When used without a modifier, the term “roller derby” means a sport played by women. Roller derby is unique in this regard, as is the fact that it is a full contact team sport, every bit as hard-hitting as rugby or American football, yet played by women.

Roller derby’s hard hits. Top two from; bottom from a 2015 Texas Roller Derby bout.

The equality does not stop there. Most sports invented in previous centuries only accepted black players a few decades ago (and some, such as soccer and baseball, still have problems with racism), women even more recently, gay players in the last few years, if at all, and still struggle to include players with physical differences, even if they don’t affect performance. But the twenty-first century sport of roller derby, like the twenty-first century itself, is more welcoming of humanity’s diversity. Roller derby has always embraced players from the full spectrum of human sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, and body type. Some skaters are big, some are small, some are transgender or genderqueer, a significant number are deaf or hard of hearing. This culture of acceptance extends to roller derby’s junior leagues, which, for example, welcome children who are transgender and have few competitive outlets for their athleticism because they are barred from school and junior sports.

Crystal, a 10-year-old transgender girl who plays roller derby and is featured in a documentary movie about LGBT roller derby called “In The Turn.”

The map of roller derby’s diffusion is about more than roller derby, because roller derby is about more than roller derby. It shows seeds of freedom and equality being sown around the world; a network of women reaching out to discover themselves and one another; the transmission of a sport that does not defy gender stereotypes but rather exposes them as lies.

Frogmouth’s World Map of Roller Derby Leagues 2015. The map is available as a poster here; a high resolution version can be viewed here.

Everywhere there is a roller derby league, there is a safe place for women to become who they really are — a diverse group of limitless, powerful people united by their sense of self worth — and an arena where everyone else, and perhaps most importantly young girls, can see everything women can be. At most roller derby bouts, young girls shyly pose for pictures with skaters, and it is clear that their understanding of femininity is being transformed. Roller derby athletes are role models for a new generation of women.

Young girls taking pictures with roller derby athletes. Pictures on white backdrop © TXRD / Michelle Hale; picture far right © Thomas Bressie.

It can be surprising to see all the places this big idea is taking hold. The United States, where roller derby started, has the most roller derby leagues; its biggest roller derby state is Wyoming, with an incredible 24 leagues per million people, followed by Alaska (20.3 leagues per million people), North Dakota (10.8 leagues per million people), and Vermont (9.6 leagues per million people). Texas, where the modern sport originated, and California, which was one of the first states to import it, come twenty-ninth and thirtieth, with 2.5 and 2.3 leagues per million people respectively.

Roller derby is more popular in New Zealand than in any other nation in the world.

But the United States is not where roller derby is most popular. The U.S. has 848 leagues for its population of 322 million, or 2.6 leagues per million people. But New Zealand has 29 roller derby leagues for its population of fewer than 5 million— 6.3 leagues for every million people. By this measure, roller derby is more popular in New Zealand than in any other nation in the world, followed by Australia (4.9 leagues per million people), and Canada (4.6 leagues per million people.)

New Zealand’s national roller derby team performs a haka, the traditional war dance of New Zealand’s Māori people, before its game against Team USA at the Roller Derby World Cup, on December 1, 2011. Video by James Litvak.

The U.S. comes seventh behind Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. And many other countries play too. For example, France has 116 leagues, Argentina has 65, Spain has 33, and roller derby is also played in non-western nations including Latvia, Lebanon, South Africa, and Japan. This is remarkable, not only because roller derby is such a young sport, but also because the United States has had so little success exporting its other sports around the world. America’s two most popular sports, American football and baseball, are played in very few countries, with only basketball having any real international presence. This is yet another way in which roller derby is exceptional.

The secret of this success suggests there is more to come: roller derby is growing quickly because it is the sport of a new and better age, and it is helping to make a new and better world — a world that is more communal, more inclusive, and more empowering, especially for women.

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