Yep, lots of girls in spandex balancing on
wheels while slugging each other.
By most measures of cable TV success (except maybe ratings), RollerJam has been a hit; it has snared dozens of licensee contracts, moved into international markets, hit the road on a national tour, and captured the hearts of many 14-year-old boys. Not bad for a sport that most of its viewers had never even heard of before tuning in. But how do longtime Roller Derby fans feel about RollerJam?
For the past 20 years or so, there has been a loose collective of faithful supporters who have kept the games memory alive long after mainstream audiences gave up on it. And all along, theyve been hoping for a Derby revival, waiting for the day when it would be restored to its proper place in modern pop culture instead of being relegated to camp history. Are they happy with what they see on RollerJam? Yes and no.
Brian Sullivan, a 37-year-old lawyer residing in Burlington, Vermont, grew up near Chicago watching Roller Derby in the late 60s. As a kid, he felt that he had discovered something unique by watching such a non-mainstream sport; he loved the games speed and grace of movement, combined with the hard-hitting action. He sees RollerJam more as television spectacle than sport, whereas the original focused more on the latter.
"Part of the charm of old Roller Derby, especially viewed now, is how gritty and low-budget it all seems," Sullivan says. "I would think that RollerJam would kill for that kind of edgy feeling. Instead, RollerJam has gone for the fog machines, disco lights and spandex approach."
While Sullivan is impressed by the athleticism, speed, and grace of the RollerJam skaters, hes dismayed by what he describes as the "silly antics and storylines" used by the shows producers.
"There are two areas where I think RollerJam has stepped over the line," he says. "In Roller Derby, the women skaters were appreciated as athletes, with their physical attributes put second. Indeed, at least half of the audience of Roller Derby was female. RollerJam reverses this. The other thing that disturbed me is some angles that could have the effect of dividing people or playing on prejudices. Roller Derby was always ahead of its time in terms of race relations; teams had black coaches in the 60s. A couple of unfortunate things got said in interviewsprobably out of overzealousnessthat should have gotten edited out."
Philip Berrier, a 47-year-old factory worker in North Carolina, has been a Roller Derby fan for about 37 years, and counts the friendships hes made through the Derby as some of his closest. Hes a collector of Derby memorabilia and is a Derby trivia buff, and says he was hooked on the sport the first time he saw it. The fact that fans identify so closely with the players is what makes the Derby special, he says. Is RollerJam a fitting revival of Roller Derby?
"Fans looked at RollerJam almost as the second coming," Berrier says. "Derby purists, like myself, have been disappointed as much as we have been thrilled. RollerJam could easily be made into a much more fitting revival of the Derby. I am amazed by the talent on the track. The kids are remarkable. The talent these skaters exhibit could make for some great Roller Derby action."
Again, though, Berrier cites the combative story arcs and the focus on women players "babe factor" as being a big letdown: "For me, the main difference is the emphasis on ridiculous storylines and T&A that the producers of RollerJam have chosen to concentrate on." Admittedly, though, RollerJams producers were seeking a much larger audience than just Derby old-timers, and Berrier realizes this. Whats more, he says a lot of these Derby-ites are tuning in RollerJam despite their reservationsand reluctantly enjoying themselves.
"There are old-time fans who tune in each week hoping for a glimpse of the past," he says, "thinking maybe this will be the week when everything they dislike changes for the better. A lot of old-time fans claim they no longer watch but they always seem to know exactly what is going on in the games."
One longtime Derby fan whos a strong RollerJam convert is Keith Coppage, author of Roller Derby to RollerJam ("The Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport"), a thorough history of the Derby leading into the RollerJam era. He started watching in 1968, back when "there were about three choices on anyones TV set." Coppage prefers to view RollerJam as a new entity rather than a continuation of Roller Derby.
"RollerJam is a re-interpretation of the Roller Derby, not a revival per se, although there are many similar elements," Coppage says. "It definitely honors the original with the style and athleticism the original often hadand then some."
Coppage points out that the show utilizes true athletes, such as speed skating champion Heather Gunnin. This points toward the eternal question of whether the game is truly a sport, or "sports entertainment" a la professional wrestling.
"Roller Derby in its purest form is a true sport," says Sullivan. "The trouble is that, in order to attract fans, Roller Derby was only skated in its purest form for a short period of its history. Most of what I saw as a kid would have to be called sports entertainment. However, even with the entertainment, there is the stuff of a real sport in therestrategy, athleticism, competition, rules that make sense. I think this distinguishes Roller Derby from wrestling. You could never make pro wrestling real. You can make Roller Derby real and, for a time, it was. Ive got the video tapes to prove itall before my time!"
Fortysomething magazine writer John Black of Seattle, who started watching Roller Derby on TV in 1963, finds RollerJam to just be part of the times.
"RollerJam is not Roller Derby, as it reflects the bad is good spirit of the 90s," says Black. "It does showcase some very talented young skaters, and showed some improvement as the first season wore on. If it tries to copy the popularity of pro wrestlingan event I detesttoo much, it wont be able to succeed on its own merits."
Sullivan thinks that trying to imitate pro wrestling will not satisfy any of RollerJams potential audiences. "This approach is a mistake, because this [teen] audience will not find RollerJam edgy or extreme enough for them. They will find RollerJam too confined and prefer wrestling or extreme sports. I hope I am wrong. If RollerJam did try to convert other fans like myself, they would have a very easy time. With all of its warts, I still support RollerJam because, after 25 years, I am just grateful to have something to watch."
First Published: Spring 2000, PopCult