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Roller Girls Bring A Dead Sport Into The 21st Century

Roller Derby was never really a big deal in the US, but has been around forever and was a staple of the early days of television. It was similar in its promotional format to its better known “sports entertainment” cousin, professional wrestling. It was frequently seen in the same bad timeslots on the same low powered UHF TV stations, and it was run by the same loose confederation of promoters and businessmen that characterized the regional territory era of pro wrestling. That’s where the similarity to wrestling ends–it’s storylines made pro wrestling angles look like high drama. While there is a definite history to the sport–great teams like the LA T-Birds and Bay Bombers, and legendary skaters like Ann Calvello it never really stuck in the public consciousness like the pre-Hulk Hogan era of pro wrestling.

New era roller derby reached a national audience through the A&E reality series Roller Girls. It featured a local, all-girl roller derby league in Austin, Texas and followed the lives of the players on and off the track. While the show was oddly engaging, it was the first clue that many had that such a league existed in the first place. A sport that was never taken seriously to begin with and that was really living on borrowed time since the 1960’s before fading into the lowest level of obscurity had been rediscovered and embraced by an eclectic group of young women. They had kept the same essential format, thrown in a healthy dose of burlesque camp and Varga pin-up inspired glamour and made it into their own vibrant subculture. They changed some of the nomenclature and competitive format–in lieu of regularly scheduled games they renamed the competitions “bouts” a la MMA or boxing. The result was a compelling mixture of glamour, toughness and athleticism driven by a healthy dose of punk rock “do it yourself” mentality.

Today, roller derby is a full blown worldwide phenomenon. There are hundreds of local roller derby leagues not only in the United States, but Canada, Australia and Europe. Most of the local groups similarly play up the campy retro pin-up/hot rod iconography and everyone involved sure looks like they’re having a good time. Between teams there’s a vibe of good natured competitiveness and camaraderie. In the US, these groups exist under the auspices of a national organization called the Womens Flat Track Derby Association. Las Vegas has the ‘Sin City Roller Girls’, Portland, Oregon the ‘Rose City Rollers” and Seattle the ‘Rat City Rollers’. There are now groups in not only the larger and traditionally “hipper” cities but also smaller communities such as Birmingham, Alabama and Omaha, Nebraska.

The young women in roller derby have taken what was cast off TV time filler and revived it into their own distaff ‘action sport’. The community that has sprung up around it bears a striking resemblance to the skateboarding or snowboarding subculture. There’s one big difference–in contrast to more male dominated action sports the roller derby circa 2009 is just the opposite–a living, breathing matriarchal success story.

The new generation rollergirls also pay homage to their sports’ pioneers much in the same way that skateboarders give props to Duane Peters and Tony Alva. Many of the individual group websites have sections devoted to the history of roller derby, and the late Ann Calvello–regarded as the Queen of the original Roller Derby–is revered as something of a patron saint. The Texas Rollergirl group featured in the A&E series has renamed their championship the Calvello Cup.

Ross Everett is a widely published freelance sports writer specializing in college football and NFL NFL betting online. He is a frequent contributor to print publications, and often appears on talk radio where he gives tips on successful NFL betting. He lives in southern Nevada with his two dogs and an emu.