Roller Derby 101
Modern Roller Derby has evolved from over a century of roller-skating sports. In the early 1900’s speed and endurance races were popular, leading Leo Seltzer (commonly known as the ‘father of roller derby’) to form the Transcontinental Roller Derby in the 1930’s. While these were marathon events, short sprint ‘jams’ were featured, and physical contact between skaters began to be encouraged as it proved popular amongst the fans. In the late 1940’s and 50’s, Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL), which included the legendary San Francisco Bay Bombers. The NRDL featured ‘theatrical’ whips, hits, and elbows.
The modern roller derby revival started in the early 2000’s in Texas. Modern roller derby is comprised of many female skater owned and operated leagues. Most leagues skate on flat tracks, but some also feature banked-track competition. Many leagues feature both home teams and primary ‘travel teams.’ The derby landscape has grown to include a wide variety of different types of skaters. Junior leagues, recreational leagues, and male derby leagues are becoming more common, attracting a wide array of derby disciples. Games, or ‘bouts’ feature un-staged physical contact played according to a strict set of rules. At the 123rd International Olympic Committee session, it was announced that roller derby was among eight sports under consideration for addition to the 2020 Olympic Games.
SVRG skates under the WFTDA 2013 ruleset.
Learn more about the WFTDA rules.
A roller derby bout consists of two teams who field five roller skaters on the track. A team wins by scoring the most points in the duration of the bout. The rules of roller derby are set by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA).
- One jammer per team per jam
- Identified by a helmet cover with a star
- Scores points
- One pivot per team per jam
- Identified by a helmet cover with a stripe
- Leads the pack
- Four blockers per team per jam, including the pivot
- Block the other team’s jammer and assists their own jammer
- Blockers from both teams comprise the pack
One bout consists of two periods of 30 minutes each. A period is comprised of short, successive intervals called jams. Each jam can last up to two minutes. At the beginning of the jam, one whistle blows to release the pack. Next, a double-whistle blows to release the two jammers.
Both teams can score points during the same jam. A point is scored each time a jammer passes a blocker from the opposing team. In each jam, one jammer can earn Lead Jammer status by being the first jammer to break through the pack on her initial pass. When Lead Jammer is awarded, the jam referee will tweet the whistle and point to the Lead Jammer. The Lead Jammer has the special ability to call off the jam at any time by putting her hands on her hips.
So roller derby is all about throwing elbows and tripping and clotheslining, right? Wrong! Modern roller derby is not what you remember from the 70’s television show. Some hits are legal. Some are not! Skaters can earn one minute in the penalty box for hitting with their forearms or heads, tripping other skaters, hitting other skaters’ backs, or cutting the track to pass other skaters.
Roller derby has one of the highest official-to-player ratios in modern sports. Roller derby requires both referees on skates and non-skating officials to track scores, penalties, game timing and to keep the game running smoothly.
Does everyone have to wear quad roller skates?
Yes - all skaters and referees wear quad roller skates, as well as full safety equipment, including knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, helmets, and mouth guards. Quad skates allow for better lateral movement which is essential in roller derby.
Are there ever fights?
Like most contact sports, fighting is discouraged. Any fighting could lead to expulsion from the game and disciplinary action from the league. Roller derby is the kind of sport where you can dish out legal punishment to your arch nemesis on the track, and buy her a beer later off the track.
Why don’t you skate on a banked track?
Silicon Valley Roller Girls is a member league to the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) and choose to skate on a flat track. Banked tracks in modern roller derby, as popularized by the derby revival in Austin, Texas, are very expensive for today’s skater-owned, skater-operated leagues. Flat track is a much more accessible and popular choice for derby leagues nationwide.
*skater photo credit: Mike Ko