by Hurt Reynolds, for HELLARAD #13, The Death of Fun
You missed the point.
Yeah, you. You with your rules about face paint, and pink shirts, and which refs are permitted to wear skirts and why that’s an indication of “professionalism” that’s necessary to be “taken seriously” so we can “build a fanbase” and “get on tv” and “play for a salary.” You totally missed what we were doing and why we were doing it, and in doing so you’ve robbed us of the very element that made us riotously successful in the first place.
Modern roller derby was revived in 2001 with the vision of a spectacle, an over-the-top lark… “flaming bears on unicycles,” to paraphrase Devil Dan. A bunch of friends DIYing something so outrageous you couldn’t help but laugh along, and join in.
And did it work? Boy, did it work. City after city followed Austin’s model because someone visiting town saw it, went back to Minneapolis or Seattle or Raleigh, and said “oh my god we’ve GOT to do this here.”
Along the way, the participants quickly discovered something totally unexpected. While mock-wrestling and pillow fights were fun, *actually winning* was even more fun. Between 2004 and 2006, the game rapidly became more disciplined, culminating in the miracle of Dust Devil 2006. Not a single on-track fight took place at that first massive tournament, because the skaters all felt that the competition on the track was paramount. (You young whippersnappers have NO IDEA how amazing this was at the time).
Let’s talk about Getting Taken Seriously.
Classic derby had all the trappings of a “legitimate” competitive sport, with teams in uniform and professionally-dressed referees ostensibly officiating with a regimented ruleset… but the truth was obvious. Classic derby was fixed, staged, a “fake sport.” It was the cousin of pro wrestling, not to be taken seriously.
Modern roller derby was essentially classic derby’s photo negative. We mocked the appearances they upheld so earnestly, and took seriously the spirit of competition they so comprehensively mocked.
By 2007, modern derby had arrived at a brilliantly successful (and marketable) formula. The appearance was carnivalesque, with skaters in wildly personalized boutfits, refs in bunny ears and tricorn hats, and support staff wearing whatever they goddam felt like within certain *very lax* limits of reason — but the actual on-track performance was as serious, and seriously officiated, as any sport.
And our audiences got it, and loved it. Jam off? Dance party. Jam on? All business. Sure, that ref has fairy wings on, but damned if he didn’t make the exact right call on that track cut. Appearances don’t deceive this generation. We’ve been swimming in million-dollar fx shots and “reality” tv our whole lives – we know what “real” is, and when it does and doesn’t matter. And furthermore, we get the joke, and we *like* the joke.
So why have we retreated to playing by the boomers’ rules? It’s our turn, goddammit, and we judge things differently. We’re way more savvy about the difference between appearance and performance (Exhibit A: Mark Zuckerberg).
By creating a modified-judgment environment, we gave license to everyone to contribute their own creativity to the presentation. Not just the skaters, not just the officials and support crew… but the audience, too, got in on the act. Half the fun of an early Rat City home bout was seeing how Grave Danger’s fans were gonna zombie it up this month, or what faux-Marxist silliness would arrive in support of the Derby Liberation Front.
When the audience gets in on the act, there’s more fun for everyone. WAY more fun.
Look at Comicon. It’s one of the biggest dates on the entertainment industry calendar today, because it so comprehensively captures the imagination of fans of high-grossing entertainment properties. Few things are generally more boring than a trade show, but here’s a trade show that’s come to be attended by tens of thousands of consumers, and why? I’d argue that it’s because it’s participatory. And participatory is engaging.
Engaging your audience on that level makes for a much more loyal and active fanbase. I’m not just there to cheer on my team — I’m there because my team, and my team’s fans, and the random people I run into on the way to get a pretzel get a laugh out of high-fiving the guy with the clown shoes and the unicorn horn. Making other people happy is just goddam fun.
Our original damn-near-anything-goes dress code made derby different from rugby, and lacrosse, and all the other aspiring team sports trying to break into big sports business. And different is marketable. Those silly outfits and funny names got us literally millions of dollars worth of free media. They were our notability, without which derby’s just another pretender to the throne. Silly outfits and funny names were the road to playing for a salary.
And they were fun.
We took the sport seriously, but we didn’t take ourselves seriously. We should remember again how to do that, before the last fun person checks out.
Photo of Hurt and Justice Feelgood Marshall by Levar Hurtin’
Photo of Hurt and B Train by Derek Lang