'The skater owns the WFTDA': The International Roller Derby Championship comes to ESPN3

In January 2006, Rollergirls, an A&E Network reality show debuted, following the Texas Lonestar Rollergirls. Low ratings made the series short-lived, but it provided the origin-story for many women in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), who are holding their 10th annual international championship in St. Paul, Minnesota, starting 6 November and airing on ESPN3 for the first time.

Jenna Cloughley, WFTDA marketing and communications manager, who skates under the nom de plume, Mia Culprit, for her team based in Toronto, found the show to be her kickstarter.

“After seeing that, I wanted to play in Toronto,” she said. “I found that there was flat track roller derby in Toronto, which means you can play anywhere on any flat surface, and found some like-minded women, and a couple of gentlemen, and we founded Toronto Roller Derby.”

“The skater owns the WFTDA,” remarked Cloughley, “Everything that’s done in governing body is done democratically and we really respect the athlete voice. They all have a say. My job is to make what the athletes want — happen.”

Though most of the teams and leagues are in North America (and mainly the United States), the association is consistently making an effort to promote the sport and build momentum around the world. The likes of Glasgow, Turku, Gothenburg, Essen, Tokyo and Bogota dot the landscape. Cloughley credits the accelerated growth of the Internet as a true accelerant for the roller derby.

“It allowed our sport to be spread across the world, especially airing it online through our television channel,” said Cloughley. “Our business is built digitally. So, internally, we’re able to share best practices — and we track game data on cloud-based programs, for example. Externally, we’re able to get our message out in social and market, which has really allowed us to continue to grow.”

The main audiences of the association are the skaters themselves — most of whom work full-time jobs — but there is interest from outside the roller derby athlete community that is catalyzed by focused and smart local marketing (including grass roots outreach) for events, including the championship in St. Paul. At these larger-scale events, sellouts are not at all unusual. However, for all of the positive momentum, there are still some unfair stigmas and images attached, likely due to taking some interesting, unknown first steps many years ago.

Photo credit: Donna Olmstead

At present, the WFTDA counts 400 member leagues on seven continents. Teams in the championship this week are mainly from the United States, but representatives from London and Australia will participate as well. For the uninitiated, roller derby can seem at times to be rugged and rough as the skaters make their way around the track, elbows flying. But the sport also requires athletes to be in peak condition, especially at the elite, A-teams level competing for the championship.

A unique aspect of the sport are the nicknames. Some skaters choose to use their real names but a good number choose to go by skater names. A few choice ones include: Scald Eagle, LeBrawn Maims, Puss n’ Glutes, Smoka Hontas and Lucinda Knickers.

What also sets the association apart is a decidedly egalitarian approach. There is no one owner, commissioner or bureaucracy that stands in the way of making changes, including to the rules, that can positively impact the sport and the athletes themselves.

“We didn’t know what to do,” chuckled Cloughley, “we thought ‘let’s wear fishnet stockings. Let’s wear cute clothing.’ And now, as we’ve grown up and matured — and are feeling like athletes, we keep fighting the stigma of ‘librarian by day, roller girl by night.’ The truth is that it is ‘athlete by day, athlete by night, athlete all the time’.”

Over time, though, the athletes learned, through trial and error, what works — and most everything is built, nurtured, morphed and executed, up to and including broadcasts, to ensure the authenticity of the sport is presented in the right ways.

“We’ve had some people in the past come in and say, ‘we’ll show you what that should look like,’” said Cloughley. “And we’ve replied with, ‘well, actually, we know what the sport should look because we know our sport.’ And it’s helped create a better overall product.”

The new relationship with ESPN excites Cloughley and the WFTDA very much. It will open up new doors and opportunities with larger partners, sponsors and new audiences.

But the fact is that it feels like the natural progression of a sport and dedicated athletes who continue to catch their stride and roll along the right path to the future.

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