Roller Derby History
Leo Seltzer had an idea for a skating competition that required speed and stamina. It was to take place on a flat track and the goal was to skate the longest.
August 13, 1935
Leo Seltzer introduced the Transcontinental Roller Derby to 20,000 spectators at the Chicago Coliseum. A total of 57,000 laps were skated.
Transcontinental Roller Derby was split into two ten person teams, 5 women and 5 men on each. The teams traveled the United States skating an average of 8 hours a night in front of audiences of 10,000 plus.
Joe Laurey, champion skater, illegally pushed a couple of skaters out of his way and over the rail. The fans loved it. Skaters began skating more aggressive. Whipping, elbowing and slamming into each other in order to get ahead.
March 24, 1937
In route to the next performance the skater’s bus crashed near Salem, Illinois. Killing some 20 skaters and 20 support staff this tragedy almost brought an end to Transcontinental Roller Derby.
New skaters were signed and roller derby persevered. Four co-ed teams traveled the United States. Damon Runyon, sportswriter and essayist suggested the competition have more contact and rules. Roller Derby was broadcast on the radio in Los Angeles.
Roller Derby continued to grow in popularity. Rules were adjusted and the game became less of an endurance sport and more of a full contact sport. A 45 degree angle was added to the flat track to give skaters greater speed. Eight co-ed travel teams went from city to city, one team always claiming to be the “home” team. Sponsors began to offer money to help support the teams and buy equipment.
WWII brought another regression to roller derby. Several skaters joined the armed forces and Transcontinental Roller Derby regressed to one team, fans dwindled.
Leo Seltzer built Roller Derby back up and fans came back.
November 29, 1948
Roller Derby broadcast live in the New York area for the first time on TV.
National Roller Derby League (NRDL) was created by Leo Seltzer with six teams, New York Chiefs, Brooklyn Red Devils, Jersey Jolters, Philadelphia Panthers, Washington-Baltimore Jets, and Chicago Westerners. Roller Derby was being broadcast throughout the United States on ABC.
First Roller Derby World Series was held at Madison Square Garden. Roller Derby Girl nominated for an Academy Award in the short film category.
Fireball, a film about the roller derby world, premiered. Skaters wanted to skate phony with showmanship and antics. Leo Seltzer wanted to legitimize the sport and ban staged theatrics. The Roller Derby Hall of Fame was established. Television contract expired with ABC. Several independent stations continued to air games but without national network exposure, Roller Derby began to fade again.
Leo Seltzer moved Roller Derby to LA and formed the first international team, LA Braves. The LA Braves left the states to travel and compete in Europe.
The San Francisco Bay Bombers were established.
Derby was on a downhill slide. Leo Seltzer worked to revive it, but struggled. His son Jerry took over the organization and in 1958 was able to secure a television deal with Oakland TV station KTVU.
Roller Derby gains popularity again, being broadcast nationwide. Sports Illustrated, Time and Life magazines all published articles about the sport. Jerry Seltzer revised the rules making helmets mandatory for the first time. Copy cats began to spawn, National Roller Derby, Roller Games, American Skating Derby, Eastern Skating Derby and tried to compete with National Roller Derby. None succeeded. Annual contracts and profit sharing were introduced to the skaters, previously they held jobs outside of derby in order to make ends meet.
Attendance records were set. A documentary entitled Derby was released. Kansas City Bomber staring Raquel Welch and Unholy Roller premiers. Roller Derby queen by Jim Croce is played on radio stations. Skaters go on strike.
December 8, 1973
The last Roller Derby Bout was skated
Roller Derby tries to be revived several times throughout the years, the most successful being International Roller Skating League (1977-1987). ESPN has aired some of the 1985 bouts on its Cheap Seats comedy show. American Skating Derby introduces Rollerjam! Several bouts were played but it never took hold. The movie Roller Derby Mania is released.
Queen of the Roller Derby by Leon Russell gets radio play.
Rollergames was broadcast on national TV for one season. It presented a theatrical version of the sport and was rated in the top 25 of all nationally syndicated shows.
Joanie Weston, a “Golden Girl” of skating revived some interest in the sport with her passing.
RollerJam airs on TNN. The show emphasized the dramatic elements more than the athletic. Demon of the Derby: The Ann Calvello Story releases.
A musician in Austin Texas decides to reinvent Roller Derby. He invites several punk rock type girls to a bar to discuss how it will work. The savvy women were unmoved by “Devil Dan’s” ideas.
The women brought together by Devil Dan formed Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) and set the basis for the new resurgence of today’s Roller Derby.
BGGW held its first public flat track bout at Playland Skate Center in front of 600 fans. BGGW split off from the original organization to form a banked track league, Texas Rollergirls.
Women began forming leagues all across the nation.
The United Leagues Coalition (ULC) was formed, consisting of a handful of flat track roller derby leagues, each owned and operated by skaters sharing the singular, driving compulsion to re-imagine roller derby as a modern sport.
30 flat track roller derby leagues were represented at the historic first meeting of the ULC, with the goal of developing the guiding principles and aspirations of the organization. Following that meeting, the ULC voted to change its name to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) to reflect the organization’s goals.
Reality series, Rollergirls, aired on A&E. The program featured the Texas Rollergirls.
WFTDA creates East and West competitive regions and develops a quarterly ranking system, used for tournament qualification and seeding
To accommodate growth in membership, the WFTDA expands into four competitive regions and expands its playoff system to include 40 leagues competing in four regional tournaments and one championship tournament.
The WFTDA is made up of 117 WFTDA member leagues and 57 leagues in the WFTDA Apprentice program. An estimated 600 roller derby teams play in 20 countries.