What Became of Roller Derby?

As we’ve stated before, professional sports are a business. History is littered with unprofitable sporting events, teams that have folded, and entire leagues that have disappeared. But in the case of Roller Derby, we have an entire sport that has practically vanished from the mainstream. Now relegated to that of a fringe sport, Roller Derby was once a thriving enterprise, selling out arenas coast to coast and attracting millions of regular viewers by way of television. The demise of Roller Derby was felt the hardest in Northern California, as the San Francisco area was the epicenter of the sport in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, serving as the home base of Roller Derby’s most fabled team, the Bay Bombers. There probably is no easy answer why “the derby” faded away, but I think it’s worth looking into.

Conceived in the mid-1930’s, Roller Derby was the brainchild of Leo Seltzer, a motion picture theater operator, turned promoter. Wanting to capitalize on the popularity of roller skating, Seltzer’s initial concept, which he trademarked as Roller Derby, was a series of marathon skating races involving teams comprised of men and women couples. Twenty thousand spectators crowded into the Chicago Coliseum on August 13, 1935, to watch the first “Transcontinental Roller Derby,” an event with which Seltzer planned to tour the country. Business eventually cooled off, until one night in Miami, when famed sportswriter Damon Runyan provided Seltzer with the germ of a great idea. Runyan pointed out to Seltzer that the best part of his races were when skaters collided into each other, often resulting in entertaining chaos. To increase skater contact, Seltzer immediately began to tinker with his creation, until he came up an entirely new sport. Roller Derby was now a contest between two teams with five skaters each, moving around a banked track in the same direction. Both teams would designate one skater as a “jammer”, whose job would be to roll ahead of the pack, and be awarded a point for every opposition skater he/she could pass. The rest of the skaters would physically be engaged with each other, bumping opponents with shoulders, knees and elbows, attempting to either allow their fellow jammer to score, or to prevent the other team’s jammer from doing so…or something like that. Each team would have men and women units, alternating the eight, 12 minute periods that made up a match. By 1939, Leo Seltzer had four pairs of teams traveling the country, going town to town much like the circus.

It was in its earliest days that Roller Derby developed some its most familiar characteristics. Although Roller Derby was a barnstorming sport, each contest would include a “home” team, even if that evening’s crowd had never heard of them before. The other team would always be billed from elsewhere, typically New York or Chicago, thus giving fans a rooting interest. The other important element had to do with the legitimacy of the games themselves. Those involved with the sport understood that if Roller Derby was played the way it was drawn up, injuries would soon decimate the rooster. Also, skaters soon realized that fans loved spectacular falls, intense contact and frequent fights…plus it didn’t hurt if the games were close enough to usually be decided in the final minutes. To Seltzer’s chagrin, Roller Derby became like professional wrestling, more show than contest.

By 1941, Roller Derby had built a modest, blue-collar following, but World War II dealt a crushing blow to the business, as many of the skaters enlisted in the military, and fuel rationing made the constant travel difficult. Roller Derby staggered through the war years, but got its biggest shot in the arm yet, with the development of television. Eager to fill up airtime, networks started showing Roller Derby in 1948, with CBS televising matches from the 69th Regiment Armory four nights a week. The exposure on TV jump-started interest in the sport, and soon Roller Derby began attracting large crowds for many of its live events, including a five-day run at New York’s Madison Square Garden that saw Roller Derby draw over 55,000 fans. Leo Seltzer sought to make his sport more like a mainstream team sport, and so by 1949 he formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), which had six teams, a regular schedule, and standings, which would appear in many newspapers. Skaters like Ken Monte, Bert Wall and Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn were pulling down between $200 and $250 a week, performing for such teams as the New York Chiefs, Chicago Westerners, and the Jersey Jolters. Like boxing and pro-wrestling, Roller Derby’s action was confined to a small area, which made it easy for early television’s primitive cameras to follow.

Unfortunately, network television’s love affair with Roller Derby was short-lived, as frequent showings began to saturate fan interest, and by the early 1950’s, Roller Derby was only being shown on a handful of independent stations. Crowds had become so small, that Seltzer more or less abandoned the East Coast altogether, and in 1954, moved his entire operation to the Bay Area, founding the San Francisco Bay Bombers in the process. Business continued to fall off, and so in 1958, Leo Seltzer turned Roller Derby over to his son Jerry. One of Jerry’s first moves was a crucial one…he worked out a deal with the brand new independent television station, KTVU, having the Bomber’s matches carried on a weekly basis. In addition to having Roller Derby exposed to Northern California TV audiences, the younger Seltzer also was able to put together a syndication package that eventually was picked up by over 100 stations across the country…Roller Derby was back in business.

Jerry Seltzer’s formula was a winning one. The Bay Bombers became, more or less, the permanent home team, playing a nine month schedule against teams like the Midwest Pioneers, the New England Braves and the Northwest Cardinals. Every Sunday night, KTVU would broadcast a game from Kezar Pavilion, using the telecast to promote upcoming matches held throughout the region, including San Jose, Sacramento, Stockton and Richmond. Bomber stars Charlie O’Connell and Joanie Weston became household names throughout the Bay Area, as did a few of their many opponents, including Bob Woodberry, John “Porky” Parker, and Roller Derby’s all-time bad-girl, Ann Calvello. Once a month, a huge match would be skated at the Cow Palace, with bloody halftime “match Races” used to swell the crowd count beyond 10,000. After completing an April-December season, Roller Derby would barnstorm the country for three months, taking advantage of whatever interest might have been generated by the syndicated broadcasts. Seltzer and Roller Derby’s new found success prompted competition, and in 1961, a new enterprise called Roller Games (“Roller Derby” is a trademarked term) was founded, with an outfit known as the L.A. T-Birds becoming the darling of a league that was a much more theatrical version of what Roller Derby had become. (“Roller Games” had a cult following in the Bay Area, with syndicated matches being shown on KBHK 44. Jim Trotter, Ronnie Rains and Lester Quarles were the main stars of what was more soap opera than sports).

The early 1970’s were a great time for Roller Derby. An outdoor match at the Oakland Coliseum between the Bay Bombers and Northeast Braves on July 4, 1970 drew 28,314, and that figure was topped the following year, when the Bombers attracted 34,418 at the same venue. In 1972, an interleague match between the Derby’s Midwest Pioneers and Roller Games’ L.A. T-Birds was arranged at Chicago’s Comiskey, drawing a record 50,118 fans. But soon after Roller Derby seemed to reach unprecedented heights, everything fell apart. Attempts to grow the sport by developing new “home” teams across the country failed, and in late 1973, citing increasing fuel costs and other growing expenses, Jerry Seltzer pulled the plug, and the Bay Bombers, along with Roller Derby as we knew it, disappeared.

Roller Games continued for a few years, but its pro-wrestling like presentation was never appreciated by hardcore Roller Derby fans, and that too was gone by the mid 1970’s. Attempts to revive Roller Derby have been numerous since its demise, occasionally bringing back the Bay Bomber name along with a handful of aging stars, each time garnering little success. In 1986, ESPN televised a tournament held by the International Roller Skating League, and it was hoped that the IRSL might repeat the success the World Wrestling Federation was experiencing at that time, but no long term TV contract was forthcoming, and the IRSL was shut down in 1987. Roller Derby continues to exist to this day, but with no television exposure, it’s only a tiny fragment of what it once was.

So why did Roller Derby all but die out? My theory is that the expansion of mainstream sports on both network and cable television has left very room for anything else. Roller Derby thrived when the San Francisco Giants only did limited television, and the 49ers would only be seen when on the road. With NBA, NHL dominating cable sports channels during the winter, and an increasing number of college games being shown as well, Roller Derby lost whatever niche it once had. But all is not lost. When jogging on the Foster City levy, I often see people of all ages rolling along on skates. If I’m patient and observant, I’ll spot an occasional collision, and if I’m lucky, a fight will sometimes break out.