The Brief History of the Roller Derby Part 2

But this popularity of the roller derby was not meant to last. Public interest in the mid 1950s was falling and new ways of keeping the sport alive had to be invented. It was completely unclear why the mood has shifted so dramatically. Seltzer eventually had to leave New York City and move to California, taking his organisation with him. At the end of the 1950s the was passed to Jerry Setzer, Leo Setzer’s son.

Jerry realised that television was becoming an increasingly important factor in the popularity of anything, especially the sport. In order for people to fill Madison Square Garden to watch the sport live, they had to be interested in it outside of it, and the only way to generate that interest is to make the sport available to people at home. Thus, Jerry Setzer’s most important, and in viral-video-filled retrospect obvious innovation, was capturing the competitions on video and offering them to local television station who were hungry for good spectator content to boost their ratings. With this seemingly simple solution, roller derby regained saliency in the minds of ordinary Americans, once again peaking in popularity around the 1970s.

Despite roller derby being nothing new by that time, it had a unique characteristic which combined well with the social movements of the time. Particularly, roller derby became a darling among the second-wave feminists. At the time, most contact sports were scene as exclusively male, with female teams and leagues existing only as an afterthought, in token form. Female athletes were not reverted to the same degree as the male ones, despite them playing in the same discipline. This was one of the main challenges female athletes of all types had to face every day. Yet, somehow, not the roller derby ones. Roller derby was conceived as a sport where men and women compete equally. Function in the team was not divided as primary or secondary and then given to men and women respectively. Women were always at the forefront of the sport and that meant it was perfect for becomething something of a simbol within feminist circles.

But the history repeated itself as in the mid 1970s the derby once again lost favor with the public. Jerry Seltzer had to sell his league to a competitor who still made attempts at keeping the sport alive, but went bankrupt only a few years after the sale. This fall was worse than the previous one because it wiped out all organisation that served as a foundation for the sport and which kept it a legitimate athletic discipline in the eyes of the public. Up to the 2000s all attempts at raising roller derby from the dead were made in ways that were not true to the sport, making it theatrical and staged for the sake of spectacle and profit, but it never caught on.

But in the early 2000s a group of women built what is now known as the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (W.F.T.D.A.). The “women” part is important because the success with which this organisation keeps roller derby alive has a lot to do with its feminist roots and a continuing feminist appeal. It both legitimises women’s full-contact sports and creates a genuine athletic community that is not based on a variety of a “man’s sport”.


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