Flat track roller derby is arguably one of the fastest growing sports in the nation. It is also the most misunderstood. Modern day roller derby is a fast-paced contact team sport that requires speed, strategy, and athleticism.
Roller derby began as an endurance sport during the Great Depression. It quickly evolved to a team sport where two teams of five skaters circled the track in a pack, each team sending out an offensive “jammer” who rounded the field and lapped opponents, scoring a point for each opposing team member he or she passed. Teams consisted of alternating women’s and men’s squads accumulating points into a final winning score. The sport exploded with the advent of television and continued to evolve, or perhaps devolve, into the campy theatrics that many still remember to this day.
Roller derby was born again in the early 2000s in Austin, Texas. Lacking the budget for a traditional banked track, the skaters drafted a modified set of rules to allow the same basic game to be played on a flat surface. The ability to mark track boundaries on any suitable flat surface, such as skating rinks, basketball courts, parking lots, and airplane hangars, rather than building and storing a large banked track, has made it possible to play the game just about anywhere. The play-anywhere nature of the flat-track game greatly reduces the capital needed to form a league, thus allowing small groups of determined skaters to get a fledgling league off the ground.
Today’s flat track roller derby is a legitimate sport, and the hits, spills, and competition are all 100% real. The fast-paced action, body checks, and whip assists are all still very much part of the game. However, flat track rules and the different physics of skating on a flat surface, versus a banked track, make the strategies and game play very different. Punching, tripping, and blocking from behind are illegal, as are elbowing, clothes-lining, and cutting the track. Just like any other contact sport, there are strict rules and penalties for such infractions. A small army of referees is required to enforce the rules, which are in place to protect the athletes' safety and preserve fairness. Protective gear is required for all skaters and referees, and both skaters and referees are required to pass a minimum skills assessment in order to participate in sanctioned bouts.
Leagues are typically non-profit organizations run by the skaters themselves. A successful league requires hours of volunteer work from skaters, referees, and non-skating officials alike. Leagues may consist of one or several teams that may or may not travel on a national scale. The DIY spirit that drives the sport allows roller derby leagues to create their own unique identities and adapt their structures to reflect their local communities.
The Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), formed in 2004, develops and maintains the standardized rules for roller derby, in use by WFTDA member and non-member leagues internationally. The WFTDA also serves as the sanctioning body for flat track roller derby games, hosts regional and national tournaments, sets safety standards, provides roller derby insurance to athletes and leagues, and serves as a networking venue for flat track roller derby leagues to share resources and get advice.