Flat Track Comes of Age: A Reflection on the State of the Game at the End of 2014

 

The Agony and the Ecstasy: The moments following the final whistle of the 2014 WFTDA Championship game, with Gotham defeating Rose City 147-144. (Photo by Joe Mac)

The Agony and the Ecstasy: The moments following the final whistle of the 2014 WFTDA Championship game, with Gotham defeating Rose City 147-144. (Photo by Joe Mac)

It had been somewhat of a tumultuous few years for the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. Beginning in 2010 when the flat track game began to evolve in ways distinct from any other version of the game that preceded it, there were pushbacks toward the Association from virtually every corner; whether from the roller derby’s remaining patriarch Jerry Seltzer, or its bloggers like Windy Man, or even parts of the WFTDA’s membership itself, from 2010-2013 the sport of flat track roller derby came under attack in ways that would have seemed ludicrous during the all-inclusive love-in that defined the community from 2003-2009.

Personally, I truly fell in love with the game in the fall of 2009 when all the elements that people seemed to hate about the sport first surfaced. For me, the game of flat track roller derby existed only in name until that point, as the sport was basically just a mutated version of the banked track game played on a flat surface. It seems, in retrospect, that people were content with this pseudo-version of Seltzer-style roller derby, but logically, thinking that the strategies that defined the banked track would survive forever on the flat one is equivalent to thinking that ice hockey strategies could be transported to field hockey: different surfaces, different games.

In 2014, flat track roller derby truly came of age. The sometimes awkward adolescence that hobbled the game through its strategic and subsequent rules evolution of the past few years finally seemed to balance out; the game hasn’t changed much over the past two seasons (though of course its gotten better through refinement), nor have the rules (again aside from clarification and “tightening”) and in 2014 we finally got to see what flat track roller derby is going to look like.

If you want to see flat track roller derby at its finest, you can do no better than the first half of the Rose City vs. Atlanta game at the WFTDA Division 1 Playoffs (watch on WFTDA.TV)

If you want to see flat track roller derby at its finest, you can do no better than the first half of the Rose City vs. Atlanta game at the WFTDA Division 1 Playoffs (watch on WFTDA.TV).

Some people still hate what the game has become, and that’s fine, but after an incredible 2014 playoff season and a heart warming World Cup (played under the WFTDA rule set), the attacks on the WFTDA seem shallow now; they seem to be coming from people who simply don’t like the sport, yet still, inexplicably, want to be a part of it (perhaps due to reasons of self-centred sentimentality and nostalgia: “But that’s not what the game looked like when I discovered it!”).

Another criticism still levelled at the WFTDA is about the lack of fans, and even more ludicrously, the notion that flat track roller derby from 2003-2009 had this massive fan base that the game has now alienated by becoming too strategic, too slow (the implication being that we should make it more “showy”; that we should alter the rules in ways to attract fans, as opposed to altering rules to match the natural evolution of the game on a flat surface). The idea that flat track roller derby ever had a sustained, loyal fan base outside of its own membership is, to be blunt, simply not true. It’s a fallacy built around the illusion that because places like Seattle attracted a few thousand fans for a few if its house league seasons and Toronto sold out its venue for a year following the release of Whip It, we had some massive, loyal fan base that has since been eroded.

There is absolutely no consistent sample size to base this argument on (though that hasn’t stopped people), and the logical conclusion to the idea of forcing the game to change in a way to better entertain fans is RollerGames (which I am confident in saying that no one wants). The flat track game has only just “settled” in the past season or so; I believe we are probably still 5-10 years away from seeing the beginning of a devoted fan base, if at all. And really, that should never be the goal of a sport that is at an age when it’s still figuring itself out.

And while on the surface, growth does seem to be somewhat slowed at the highest level (this year’s WFTDA playoffs probably drew about the same amount of fans as last year’s, etc.), at the base, the game is flourishing. Men’s roller derby and junior roller derby both grew leaps in bounds in 2014, and the game spread to corners of the globe that would have seemed impossible a few years ago for various reasons (Hello CaiRollers!). The junior exhibition game at the World Cup, though initially seeming like an afterthought, was a sight to behold. The fact of the matter is that at the highest levels of the game, we are now tinkering. We are refining the game and making it better, more athletic. Smarter. And all the while, the base upon which this is supported is growing and strengthening.

One of my picks for game of the year was the Montreal vs. Toronto showdown at this year's Quad City Chaos. Watch the complete game here. (Produced by Layer9.ca)

One of my picks for game of the year was the Montreal vs. Toronto showdown at this year’s Quad City Chaos. Watch the complete game here. (Produced by Layer9.ca)

And Canada remains right in the centre of it all (or perhaps more accurately just north of centre). For a long time it seemed as if Canada was constantly playing catch-up, with the game in general but with its own internally dominant league as well, Montreal Roller Derby. And this year, the rest of the country caught up in a big way. Both Toronto and Terminal City pushed the Skids to new heights of competitiveness, and in 2015 the game at the national level is expected to be played on an ever-increasing playing field. The Rideau Valley Vixens defeated Berlin’s Bear City in an incredible final game of one of the most incredible tournaments that flat track roller derby has ever seen (hosted, no less, by Canada’s Tri-City Roller Derby), and those thrilling D2s were followed by an equally thrilling D1 playoffs that was capped off by one of the greatest games ever (and certainly, given the stakes, since the 2010 WFTDA Championship game), when Gotham held off Rose City (147-144) to retain the Hydra.

Sure, Canada didn’t surprise as it did in 2013 when Toronto and Terminal City both went on spirited and unexpected runs in their respective Division payoffs, and Montreal once again lived up to its moniker as being the Most Heartbreaking Team in playoff history with another last-gasp loss, this time to long-time rivals Charm City, but nonetheless it was a banner year for the sport in the country and saw the rise of a new, true, power from the west in the Calgary Roller Derby Association, whose record-setting march up the WFTDA standings has made them a team to watch in the coming season. Overall, with the very recent additions of St. Albert, Winnipeg and Guelph’s Royal City, there are now fifteen WFTDA leagues in Canada spread across all three divisions, and three hundred member leagues overall.

Globally, the game is growing competitively, not only at the National level, as we saw with teams like Argentina and New Zealand, but at the league level as well. Berlin (D2) along with London and Melbourne’s Victorian Roller Derby (D1) all announced themselves as players on the WFTDA circuit. And there are more in the wings. When you think about the struggles and in-fighting that have gone on in trying to put professional sports leagues like the NHL and the NFL into global markets, the fact that a still-amateur sport like flat track roller derby has been able to sustain a “league” with international membership is nothing short of astonishing.

In 2014, the sport of flat track roller derby came of age. The game is better than it has ever been, played by stronger and fitter athletes in more places on the planet than anyone could ever have conceived of. It’s a fine time to be a fan of the sport, and I’ve got a feeling that it’s only going to get better.

****Take a look at the gallery below to see some of my favourite photographs that appeared on this site this year. A very, very BIG thanks to photographers Neil Gunner, Greg Russell, and Joe Mac for allowing me to illustrate my ramblings with their fine work.

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10 comments

  1. “Some people still hate what the game has become, and that’s fine…”

    You want to know why people like me still feel the way we do about WFTDA roller derby? Because of statements like that. What’s fine for you ain’t fine for us.

    The most frustrating thing about the last several years, and even the past year, is the very-incorrect assumption that the things “we” want in the game (the things that have always been in the game, in all forms, historical and modern) must therefore be things that skaters don’t want, if it will somehow make the derby less fun, less athletic, or less “theirs.” On the contrary.

    I wouldn’t be poo-pooing about this unless I truly believed it. I do. And it’s not because of “reasons of self-centred sentimentality and nostalgia.” It’s because the people who have listened to me are thankful that they have. I do it for them, and will always do so.

    I’m grateful that more people are listening.

    1. Fair enough. I guess that because I love all roller derby (new banked,old banked, flat track in its various forms, etc.), I always find it strange to discover that there are people out there who only like certain kinds (or only hate certain kinds, as the case may be) and then go out of their way to attack the kinds they don’t like (through blog posts or presentations for example).

      I prefer box lacrosse over field lacrosse, but I don’t go out of my way to attack field lacrosse, it’s just not for me.

  2. I guess as the “remaining patriarch” I should post some response. Ironically, today I have been accused of not respecting “my” Roller Derby in favor of flat track, so I guess I am in the right place……I thoroughly enloyed the games as played in Dallas, as anyone who read my blog (or saw me there) can attest…..Today’s game (excuse the pun) is definitely on track: the athletes better than ever. I still believe there will be adjustments that will make the game better in the future, and as you all know, I will not hesitate to give my opinion. But to have seen the 30 countries in Dallas playing a game that was derived from my father’s concept was an amazing experience, and I am pleased that I have friends in 30 countries.

    Keep up your work, Nerd.

  3. Wow “the derby nerd” is right on so many levels, thanks you for this wonder knowledge and outlook. Our sport is growing and we should all help it become what it should be! Great for our fans and great for our athletes!

  4. So well put, thank you! I had so many thoughts and feelings after being apart of World Cup, and being a skater that doesn’t really take the time to read articles or watch Bouts online (I know, I know, shame on me… Hahaha) this put all the things I was thinking and feeling in the right place! I feel so inspired and motivated after Dallas, and I’m so glad that someone with such background knowledge and research history of the sport, shares the same general views as myself 🙂 Derby Love to you!!!

  5. Nerd, I think the world of you, and you know that. Because of my work, however, I can say, based on empirical experience (i do not have, nor want, access to ticket sales) that fan turnout is not the same. You are right in saying some places and many of WFTDA’S larger events never had a real fan base to begin with, but many larger leagues – and others – consistently had crowds of 1200 – 4000 for five or six years. Minnesota, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Rat City, Detroit, Carolina, Texas, Kansas City (I could go on). And, we’re not seeing these numbers like we used to. Fargo North Dakota had 1500 fans it’s first season. No longer. Carolina Roller Girls had 1500 or more fans for years. Today, as an example (granted, there could be numerous reasons) Carolina has left Dorton Arena and plays (I’ve heard from multiple sources) to 300 or so people back at the roller rink where they started. Rat City was not an anomaly in the states. I get too many emails,from leagues begging for some sort of help as they will lose their venue if the next game night doesn’t draw fans. The US will likely begin to see some consolidation and disappearance of leagues in 2015. I do agree with you that it likely hasn’t changed as much in Canada nor has it in Europe.

    I do think part of it is the rules. Personally, I don’t enjoy the game like I used to. It likely makes a difference that I am an all-around sports fan. I love the speed of hockey, college basketball, and the NFL. Hockey, is what I used to liken to roller derby. And, no, I was not crazy of the speed game we had where you could just run away from the other team (which many who like the new rules always point back to). But, by 2008 or so, with a new pack definition, we stopped that game and I LOVED IT. My mic time has decreased over the last few years willingly to help run events and work on other projects. For me, it’s more about the people and supporting the game regardless of how they want to play it. BUT, a lot of my frustration is because many strategies are not used correctly. Many teams will use the passive offense every time, even when it makes no sense. I think if we saw less of a “cookie cutter” following of how the rules are used, I’d be OK with it. One of the reasons I spend so much time outside of the US with derby is because, Canada included, doesn’t play the game that way (typically). It is more of a hybrid of old derby philosophies and new. I don’t mind that.

    I don’t blame the WFTDA for the rules, because most of what many complain about came around because coaches found holes and exploited them. Granted, the handful of changes and redefinitions, which I often read as something that would speed up the game, had only made it more convoluted.

    The rules may not affect those coming for the first time, but I do think it has an effect on fan retention. We’re simply not getting them to come back for some reason. Certainly, leagues could also do more to connect with fans, improve production value, etc. It’s not all about rules.

    I’m hoping to work a few leagues this year to do exit interviews at the doors during the second half of the night to solicit answers. When people leave early, we (derby) need to know why (many leagues have a fraction of the fans left in the building if you run over 2 or 2 1/2 hours) and if they’d come back. I’ve done this, written about it a number of times, and encourage leagues to use the panoramic photo option, common on most newer phones, to photograph the crowd as the night starts, then again at each halftime, and, finally, just as the final game winds down. Visually, it has more impact. Too often, people don’t like what they see.

    I am NOT a hater. Again, I’ve come to the conclusion that helping those within the subculture is really what I do. That never changes no matter what the rules are. But I do think, to some extent, what intrigues the derby masses, doesn’t translate the same way to the average fan who may be used to other sports.

    I always enjoy your thoughts, but I do think the US and “the rest of the world” are a bit different. Maybe I’m wrong – I hope that I am – but I do believe rules play a partial role in the attendance woes we’re experiencing in the states. Hopefully, 2015 shows us differently! I’m always hopeful

    Bob

    1. Sorry, other point. Again, to me, the rules are fine IF they are written to force teams to have to stop and play the passive offense. Though they can keep moving and draw pack destruction on the team who stops, I don’t agree that they may have to stop to help reform the pack. It seems to me that as long as they skate a “skate speed” they don’t have to give up their advantage.

      Let’s face it, if the NFL were forced to play the same defense all the time, it becomes a different game.

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