WFTDA Playoffs 2013 Observation

Comparing Pink Apples and Fruit Salad

October 01, 2013 in Advice

In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be picked to announce for two Division 1 playoff tournaments! The Playoffs in Richmond, VA and Asheville, NC were truly life-changing.

You see, over these six days I actually got a peek behind the curtain of the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association!) I saw first hand the gears that turn the machine that generates the sport I love and the tightly knit group of volunteers and employees that hold it together. To call it impressive would do it a disservice. I would call it beautiful.

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I’ll go ahead and disappoint you. I’m not going to reveal any of the things I spotted while behind the Curtain with the WFTDA of OZ.

What I DO want to share with you are some of the realizations that hit me regarding the difference between a WFTDA Tournament and Local Roller Derby (LRD) play and production. I write this from the point of view of a veteran of the Local Roller Derby scene that has helped create and mature a league, having served on the Board of Directors, as well as hustled my fair share of fundraisers in local bars.

What I am going to tell you isn’t going to be shocking or a great revelation, but I hope it will inspire a lot of folks to re-evaluate their view of “modern” roller derby marketing.

The Pink Apple

Let’s compare two different types of roller derby events.

WFTDA have bout production down. I mean, they were the one’s that wrote the book! Tournaments are designed to be no-frills exhibitions of top-ranked roller derby teams competing at the highest level. THAT is their draw. They are the Pink Apple, beautiful, delicious, and unique.

These tournaments are often hosted by leagues that may or may not participate in the games and, even though they are promoted to the home leagues fans, they are primarily attended by the roller derby community. For instance, in the case of Playoffs, how do you convince your fans to come to an event that is 3 days long that YOUR LEAGUE IS NOT PARTICIPATING IN? They are not meant for the general public, not really. Although you can find a few other items, who generally set up and run merchant booths at tournaments? That’s right, DERBY VENDORS. More power to them! It’s a successful model that has served WFTDA well for years!

The audience for a WFTDA tournament, generally, are WFTDA members. They are sort of action-packed trade shows! With bouts often going from 10am until 10pm, it’s only the most hard-core non-derby player/participant that will attend all day, and, honestly, those people will often times end up getting involved and BECOMING a derby person.

There is a simplicity to a tournament. For roller derby, tournaments are trade shows. A chance for people in the “industry” to come swap ideas and learn from other people’s technique while having a good time and making or improving social contacts.

Fruit Salad

In comparison to tournaments, Local Roller Derby is a fruit salad! No two recipes are quite alike, each using different regional ingredients, and spices to make a unique concoction that, although is recognizable as the eponymous “fruit salad,” can appear, at a glance radically different.

The lifeblood of most teams is selling seats to bouts. Whether tickets or just stamping hands at the door, teams make their money, generally from bouting and skaters paying dues. This means that Local Roller Derby has to appeal to a TOTALLY different demographic than WFTDA tournaments. In fact, each team will have a TOTALLY DIFFERENT demographic simply based on the appeal of roller derby as a Do-It-Yourself LOCAL sport. Each team SHOULD tailor itself to it’s community.

A few years ago, as derby was still trying to find it’s voice, it was equal parts spectacle and athleticism. The outfits, the attitudes, the rock and roll of it was a big draw for fans who probably hadn’t been born when the original roller derby was dissolved in 1972, but they knew it was an edgy dangerous sport. Artistic posters, good music, and big personalities attracted people who were not even interested in sports.

Then, maybe around 2011 or so, Local Roller Derby started seeing the top teams in the country compete on the internet. For these teams, there was no glamor, the big personalities were subdued and dedicated to superior teamwork. We could watch and learn live online and we saw that the free wheeling spectacle was a distraction to consummate high level game play and lots of teams started following suit, dialing in the spectacle, reducing halftime entertainment, making local bouts more like WFTDA tournaments.

Teams felt connected as they graduated from Apprentice programs and became part of the WFTDA. Uniforms for teams, posters restricted to simple shots of gameplay and the words “ROLLER DERBY,” became the vogue as teams focused on the only thing that mattered: playing the game.

The fruit salad was becoming a Pink Apple salad. Apples and oranges were co-existing and teams were happy, but what about the FANS?

Fans Want Bananas.

I can only offer anecdotal evidence, but it seems to me that derby attendance is down over the last couple years. I know that’s true at our home bouts.

Teams blame the economy, the timing, the finicky nature of local audiences. I know I did!

The last couple weeks, though, have made me realize that we may have pushed our fans away in a misguided attempt to educate them on the very sport that we love.

We want fans to love the game in the depth and sophistication that we love it. We want to take the professionalism and uniformity that makes a great, talented, top 20 team look like total bad asses and deliver it to our home crowds! We want to give them what we want to see!

Here’s the problem: Fans absolutely could not care less.

Most derby fans are looking to have a good time on a weekend. Eat, Drink, and have some excitement before moving on to the next item on the weekend agenda. Not only do most not care about WFTDA, but most don’t care about any other team but the local one!

These Local Roller Derby fans WANT the spectacle. They WANT the fun. They WANT the wacky clothes and the big personalities. They are looking for a GOOD TIME, not a serious sport. It sucks for us, the passionate, but that’s the way it works. Most families want to bring the kids to something that will make them laugh and thrill, and root for the home team.

When teams reduce this spectacle and replace it with the straight trappings of a sport, the casual fans, the people who are throwing down the money just for a show, stop going. When the game became the slow game (which I honestly feel has been mostly fixed in the new rules, ) they get bored and leave. When they leave, not only do they not come back, WORSE, they tell their friends that it was not a good time!

Forget Fruit, Let’s Cook Some Bacon!

For Local Roller Derby Teams to retain fans and grow their audience, they need to find the balance between spectacle and athleticism. Fan retention is the key. If fans can be retained and given a positive experience, they become more likely to bring their friends, aka more paying customers to the next bout! To extend the food metaphor, they need a little savory bacon to entice them to come back.

To find this balance, I believe that the bout day position of “Fan Coordinator” would go a long way. This person would have one job, encouraging the fans to have a good time. They would be part marketer and part super-fan. From getting fans cheering for individual skaters, the team, or just doing the wave, the Fan Coordinator would handle the value-added entertainment OUTSIDE the rink as the teams go to work INSIDE the rink.

The game stays as pro as the team wants, but with a fan coordinator, the fans are given the tools to have a good time. Whether it be league members playing around outisde the rink during time outs, giving away merch to encourage super fans, or just being silly with mascots, the fan coordinator could be the key position that gives the fans that little extra bit of entertainment that will hold them until the derby has a chance to catch their attention.

Giving fans something to talk about after leaving the bout is an essential tool in retention and growth of an audience. When bouts are dour and totally focused on the game, the casual fan that does not have a sophisticated understanding of the game can get bored. Bored fans are costing your team new fans!

Again, balance is the key. Obviously, a bout should not be about the antics outside the rink, much like good announcing, though, the encouragement of fan participation is an essential component of fan retention. Fans invested in the team will return and bring ticket buying friends.

Ticket sales are the lifeblood of bout success, but to build that audience on a local level, engagement with the game may not be enough. Like a great meal at a restaurant can be ruined by a poor atmosphere, the atmosphere of your bout is an essential component of bout success that is too often ignored because, as lovers of roller derby, we expect the fans to immediately embrace it as passionately as we do, but this isn’t a realistic expectation.

It takes time to build loyal fans, and sometimes, as much as we derby folk think otherwise, it takes time to bring them back again. It takes more than just good roller derby, it takes the right atmosphere to spark the social belonging that will retain those audience members that may leave their first bout on the fence about returning. To bring back these “maybes” it’s worth creating a complete bout experience dedicating a team to ensuring that they leave happy.

We need to merge the best of the “old” derby spectacle and attitude with the professionalism and competition of modern tournament play. The two DO NOT need to be mutually exclusive!

In times when attendance is dwindling and money is getting tighter, there is only one place that roller derby has not improved, and that is in value-added fan retention. Give the people what they want! Once enough fans are on board and are as passionate as we are, flip the switch, become the slick, intense, uniform derby machine, but until the, don’t forget that MOST of our teams are not top 25, nor are they likely to be by the end of next season. Until then, we have to work HARDER to retain fans.

Presenting fans with Pink Apple Fruit Salad with a side order of Bacon will make everyone happier and, hopefully, allow teams to make enough money to improve not only their game play, but the entertainment value they can offer to fans.

**All information here is anecdotal and suggestions are strictly from only my own point of view.