Roller derby

For the skate brand of the same name, see Roller Derby (brand).
Roller derby

From left to right, "The Alexorcist," "Margie Ram," "Chiquita WhamBamYa," "Bunz Bunny," and "Lady Shatterly" skate in a roller derby scrimmage in Utah.
Highest governing body WFTDA, MRDA, JRDA
Nicknames Derby
First played 1935, Chicago, Illinois
2001, Austin, Texas
Clubs 4,700+
Contact Yes
Team members 14 on roster. Up to 5 on track during each jam[1]
Type Indoor, roller sport
Equipment Roller skates, helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouthguard
Venue Roller rink
Olympic No

Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members roller skating in the same direction (counter-clockwise) around a track. Game play consists of a series of short match ups (jams) in which both teams designate a jammer who scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The teams attempt to hinder the opposing jammer while assisting their own jammer—in effect, playing both offense and defense simultaneously.[2] Roller derby is played by approximately 1,250 amateur leagues worldwide, nearly half of them outside the United States.[3]

While the sport has its origins in the banked-track roller skating marathons of the 1930s, Leo Seltzer and Damon Runyon are credited with the basic evolution of the sport to its initial competitive form. Professional roller derby quickly became popular; in 1940, more than five million spectators watched in about 50 American cities. In the ensuing decades, however, it predominantly became a form of sports entertainment where the theatrical elements overshadowed the athleticism. This gratuitous showmanship largely ended with the sport's contemporary grassroots revival in the first decade of the 21st century.[4] Although some sports entertainment qualities such as player pseudonyms and colorful uniforms were retained, scripted bouts with predetermined winners were abandoned.[5]

Modern roller derby is an international sport dominated by all-female amateur teams, in addition to a growing number of male, unisex, and junior roller derby teams, and was (as a roller sport) under consideration for the 2020 Summer Olympics.[6][7][8] Most modern leagues (their back-office volunteers included) share a strong "do it yourself" ethic[9] which combines athleticism and elements from camp.[10] As of 2014, the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), had 243 full member leagues and 114 Apprentice Leagues.[11]

Game play

A Charm City All Stars (Baltimore, Maryland) blocker vs. a Rhode Island Riveter (Providence, Rhode Island) jammer

Contemporary roller derby has a basic set of rules, with variations reflecting the interests of a governing body's member leagues. The summary below is based on a comprehensive rule set developed by the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA),[12] which is used by the vast majority of leagues. In March 2010, Derby News Network claimed that more than 98% of roller derby competitions were conducted under WFTDA rules.[13] For example, members of the United Kingdom Roller Derby Association are required to play by WFTDA rules,[14] while members of the Canadian Women's Roller Derby Association are encouraged to join the WFTDA.[15] Thus, the rules described below are WFTDA rules.

Basics of play

Roller derby is played by two teams of up to fourteen players, who both field up to five members for each two-minute jam, simultaneously skating counterclockwise on a circuit track. Each team designates a scoring player (the "jammer"); the other four members are "blockers." One blocker can be designated as a "pivot"—a special blocker who is allowed to become a jammer in the course of play.[12]:7 The jammer wears a helmet cover bearing two stars; the pivot wears a striped cover; the remaining members' helmets are uncovered.[12]:7

The bout is played in two periods of 30 minutes.[12]:4 Point scoring occurs during "jams": plays that last up to two minutes.[12]:5 During a jam, points are scored when a jammer on a scoring pass (every pass a jammer makes through the pack after the initial pass) laps members of the opposing team.[12]:33 Each team's blockers use body contact, changing positions, and other tactics to assist its jammer to score while hindering the opposing team's jammer. Certain types of blocks and other play are violations; referees call penalties and require violators to serve time in a penalty box.[12]:29


Two jammers (from the Oly Rollers and Rainy City) race from the jammer line

Play begins by blockers lining up on the track anywhere between the rear "jammer line" and the front "pivot line". The jammers start behind the "jammer line," a second starting line 30 feet behind the pivot line.[12]:12 Jams begin on a single short whistle blast,[16] upon which both jammers and blockers may begin engaging immediately.

The pack is the largest single group of blockers containing members of both teams skating in proximity, arranged such that each are within 10 feet of the next.[12]:11 While blockers are required to maintain the pack, they are permitted to skate freely within the area of the track beginning 20 feet behind the pack and ending 20 feet ahead of it, an area known as the "engagement zone."[12]:13 The first jammer to exit the front of the pack, having legally passed all blockers at least once, earns the status of "lead jammer."[12]:7 Once earned, lead jammer status cannot be transferred to other skaters, but certain actions (notably, being sent to the penalty box) can cause it to be lost.[12]:8 After the initial pass through the pack, each jammer scores a point every time they lap any member of the opposing team.[12]:33

The lead jammer can stop the jam at any time by repeatedly placing both hands on their hips.[12]: If the jam is not stopped early, it ends after 2 minutes.[12]:5 If time remains in the period, teams then have 30 seconds to get on the track and line up for the next jam.[12]:5 Team members typically rotate between jams from the 14 players on the team's roster. Designations may change between jams: a pivot in one jam might be the jammer in a later jam.[12]:7


Lonestar Rollergirls in Austin, Texas, play on a banked track. This shows a Jammer (wearing the starred helmet cover) trying to pass a Pivot (wearing a striped cover) with various blockers assisting
Position Helmet Cover Responsibility
Jammer Stars Scores points by lapping opposing team members[12]:7
Blocker None Hinders the opposing jammer by preventing them from passing through the pack and assists their team's jammer to progress through the pack.[17] They are responsible for maintaining a pack.[18]:18
Pivot Stripe The pivot is a blocker who may be converted to a jammer during the course of a jam,[12]:7 if the jammer's helmet cover is correctly transferred in a "Star Pass" manoeuvre.[18]:29 The pivot is often an experienced player who establishes team strategy during play and broadly sets the pace of the pack.[18]:19


The jammer scores by passing opposition team members. Each jammer must first complete a non-scoring pass through the pack, which determines which jammer (if any) is the lead jammer. After this, the jammer scores a point each time they lap an opposition team member, including the other team's jammer.[12]:33 A five-point scoring pass is commonly called a "grand slam."


A German pivot attempts to knock a Dutch jammer out of bounds (the yellow line) at a 2011 bout held in Essen, Germany
An Idahoan blocker impedes a Utahn pivot at Spudtown Knockdown IV in 2013 in Garden City, Idaho

Roller derby athletes may attempt to knock their opponents out of bounds or impede their movements by blocking (actions which are not solely within the prerogative of the official blockers). Legal blocks follow certain rules. Contact by hands, elbows, head, and feet are prohibited, as is contact above the shoulders or below mid-thigh. Furthermore, contact may not be from the rear, only from a player's front or sides.[12]:14


Referees determine penalties.[12]:36 A player receiving a penalty is removed from play to sit in a penalty box for 30 seconds.[12]:29 If a jam ends beforehand, the player remains in the penalty box during the subsequent jam until the penalty is completed.[12]:30 Jammers are released from the penalty box earlier if the second jammer is sent to the box while the first is still seated. The second jammer's penalty is then only as long as the amount of time the first jammer spent in the box.[12]:31 A player "fouls out" of the game upon the seventh time they are sent to the penalty box, and is required to return to the locker room.[12]:32


Equipment check for the Surly Griffins of the Canberra Roller Derby League at AIS Arena, Canberra

Players skate on four-wheeled ("quad") roller skates,[12]:11 and are required to wear protective equipment, including a helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, knee pads, and mouth guards. All currently-played sets of roller derby rules explicitly forbid inline skates for players (WFTDA and MRDA permit inline skates for referees while USARS requires quad skates for all skaters; in practice virtually all skaters, referee and player alike, wear quad skates) Additional gear that is acceptable though subject to individual team rules include padded knee length pants, similar to what aggressive skateboarders wear, and biologically specific gear such as a hard case sports bra for female players and protective cups for males.[12]:39

Strategy and tactics

Roller derby is a game where offense and defense are played simultaneously,[19] a highly volatile aspect which considerably complicates strategy and tactics. Blockers, for example, may create a large hole for their jammer to pass through and score, but this same maneuver might also allow the opposing team's jammer to score.[20][21]

Two Wellington skaters (in purple) form a wall, limiting their opponents' movement, while their jammer (leftmost skater in purple) takes a hip whip to accelerate past the pack


Regulation WFTDA bouts are officiated by three to seven skating officials[12]:35 and a multitude of non-skating officials (NSOs). Due to the volunteer nature of the sport, many officiating positions are optional. Skating officials are usually referred to as referees and non-skating officials are called NSOs for short. Referees skate on the inside and outside of the track. They are in charge of calling penalties, awarding points, and most importantly ensuring safe game play.[12]:36 Referees must be on skates (inline skates are allowed) and typically wear white and black stripes.[12]:38 NSOs take up a range of positions inside and outside of the track, and are responsible for starting and timing the jams, recording and displaying scores and penalties communicated by referees, recording the number of each skater on track for a given jam, and timing and recording skaters in the penalty box.


Type Number Responsibility
Head Referee 1 Responsible for the general supervision of the entire bout and has final authority on all rulings.[12]:35 The head referee will take the position of inside pack referee.[29]:1 Along with the responsibilities of an inside pack referee, the head referee is also responsible for issuing expulsions[12]:35 and for announcing the results of official reviews.[12]:38
Pack Referee Up to 5 Located both inside and outside the track, pack referees are responsible for watching the skaters in the pack, pack definition and calling penalties.[12]:35[18]:29
Jammer Referees 2 Skating on the inside of the track,[18]:29 jammer referees watch the jammers of a specific team and wear a wristband (and optionally a helmet cover) in that team's color to identify which team they are watching.[12]:35 They award points for opponents passed by their jammer,[12]:36 and signal whether theirs is the lead jammer.[18]:29

Non-skating officials (NSOs)

Type Number Responsibility
Scorekeepers 2 Record points scored by jammers.[12]:36
Penalty Trackers 1 (min) Record each skater's penalties.[12]:36 Notify the head referee of skaters in the current jam who are in danger of fouling out.[29]:3
Penalty Timers 2 (min) Ensure skaters sent to the penalty box serve their penalties;[12]:36 notify referees when a skater leaves the penalty box before her time is fully served.[29]:3
Jam Timer 1 Responsible for starting jams and for ending jams that run to two minutes, timing the thirty seconds between jams,[12]:36 and for calling an official timeout if the time between jams runs over 30 seconds.[29]:36
Inside Whiteboard 1 Maintains a whiteboard in the center of the track that shows each skater's accumulated penalties.[12]:36
Lineup 2 Responsible for recording every player on the track in each jam:5
Scoreboard Operator 1 Update each team's score after every scoring pass.[12]:36[29]:5


Professional endurance races

Two women's league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallen in a 1950 bout in New York City

The growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized multi-day endurance races for cash prizes, as early as the mid-1880s.[30][31][32] Speed and endurance races continued to be held on both flat and banked tracks in the century's first three decades[33] and spectators enjoyed the spills and falls of the skaters.[34][35] The term derby was used to refer to such races by 1922.[36][note 1]

Evolution to contact sport

The endurance races began to transform into the contemporary form of the sport in the mid-1930s, when promoter Leo Seltzer[note 2][note 3] created the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a month-long simulation of a road race between two-person teams of professional skaters.[39] The spectacle became a popular touring exhibition.[40][41] In the late 1930s, sportswriter Damon Runyon persuaded Seltzer to change the Roller Derby rules to increase skater contact.[39] By 1939, after experimenting with different team and scoring arrangements, Seltzer's created a touring company of four pairs of teams (always billed as the local "home" team versus either New York or Chicago),[42] with two five-person teams on the track at once, scoring points when its members lapped opponents.[43]


In 1948, Roller Derby debuted on New York television—broadcasting well before television viewership was widespread.[44] The broadcasts increased spectator turnout for live matches.[45] For the 1949–1950 season, Seltzer formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL).[46][47] The NRDL consisted of six teams.[46] NRDL season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week.[47] During the late 1950s and 1960s, the sport was broadcast on several networks, but attendance declined. Jerry Seltzer (Leo's son), the RollerDerby "commissioner", hoped to use television to expand the live spectator base. He adapted the sport for television by developing scripted story lines, and rules designed to improve television appeal; derby's popularity declined in spite of this.[48]

1989 saw the debut of RollerGames, a show which presented an even more theatrical variant of roller derby for national audiences, which ran one season for some of its distributors for syndication went bankrupt. It used a figure-8 track and different rules adapted for this track. Bill Griffiths, Sr. served as commissioner while his son, Bill Griffiths, Jr. served as manager for the L.A. T-Birds, who (according to the storylines) were seeking revenge on the Violators (led by Skull) for cheating in the Commissioner's Cup and stealing it from them when the Skull interfered with gameplay. The other teams included the Maniancs (led by Guru Drew), Bad Attitude (led by Ms. Georgia Hase), the Rockers (led by DJ Terringo and consisting of skaters that were also professional rock and roll musicians), and Hot Flash (led by Juan Valdez Lopez).

In 1999, Spike TV (TNN at the time) debuted RollerJam, which used exactly the same rules on just a banked oval track as classic roller derby, but allowed for inline skates to be used (although some skaters went with traditional quad skates). Jerry Seltzer was commissioner for this version.

Contemporary roller derby

Standard (WFTDA/MRDA flat track roller derby) track. The USARS track differs in that the straightaways do not taper but are uniform in width along their full length.

Worldwide amateur female revival

A Windy City Rollers (Chicago, Illinois) jammer
Teams competing in Hobart, Australia, in November 2010

Roller derby began its modern revival in the early 2000s as an all-female, woman-organized amateur sport. The revival initially began in Austin, Texas,[49] and by August 2006 there were over 135 similar leagues.[50] Leagues outside the U.S. also began forming in 2006, and international competition soon followed. There are over 2,000 amateur leagues worldwide[51] in countries including, but not limited to, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France,[52] Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Norway,[53] Sweden,[54] Denmark,[55] Israel,[56] Singapore,[57][58][59] Dubai,[60][61] and Egypt[62][63][64] (where, like many other international leagues, all of the gear and equipment must be imported).[65] Roller derby's contemporary resurgence has been regarded as an aspect of globalization which demonstrates "the speed with which pop culture is now transported by highly mobile expatriates and social media, while also highlighting the changing role of women in many societies."[3]

A large number of contemporary roller derby leagues are amateur, self-organized and all-female [66] and were formed in a DIY spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts.[67] In many leagues (particularly but not exclusively in the U.S.), a punk[68][69] aesthetic and/or third-wave feminist[70] ethic is prominent.[71] Furthermore, roller derby teams are typically composed of members of various social strata such as stay-at-home mothers, lawyers, and nurses,[72] and "Being gay/straight/bi/trans is simply no big deal, as long as you can skate."[73] Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts.[74] Most compete on flat tracks, though several leagues skate on banked tracks, with more in the planning stages.[75][76]

Each league typically features local teams in public bouts which are popular with a diverse fan base;[77] larger venues hosting audiences ranging from 4,000 to 7,000 are no longer unusual.[78] Many leagues took advantage of the release of the roller derby feature film Whip It (2009), to increase awareness of the sport[79] (which has also received cinéma vérité[80] and high definition digital movie camera[81] treatments).

As the sport has matured, successful local leagues have formed "travel teams" composed of the league's best players to compete with travel teams from other cities and regions. Furthermore, corporate advertising has used roller derby themes in television commercials for insurance,[82] a breakfast cereal,[83] and an over-the-counter analgesic.[84] At the 123rd International Olympic Committee session in South Africa in February 2012, it was announced that roller derby was one of the eight sports under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.[85][86]


Santa Cruz Derby Girls v Pacific Roller Derby at the 2011 Dust Devil tournament. Players wear a uniform shirt with leggings. Some wear short shorts and knee/thigh high socks.

Most players in these leagues skate under pseudonyms, also called "derby names" or "skater names," many of which are creative examples of word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture, some of which are the subject of some controversy.[87]

Examples of Derby Names[88]
Name Allusion
Patti Smithereens Patti Smith and The Smithereens
Guinefear of Jamalot Guinevere of Camelot
Michelle O'BamYa Michelle Obama
Mazel Tov Cocktail Mazel tov, Molotov cocktail
O Hell No Kitty Hello Kitty
Sandra Day O'Clobber Sandra Day O'Connor
Punky Bruiser Punky Brewster
Roly Mary Mother of Quad Holy Mary Mother of God
Stevie Knacks Stevie Nicks
Ania Marx On Your Marks
Princess Lay-Ya Flat Princess Leia
Anna Mosity Animosity
Smack Ops Black Ops
Trauma Queen Drama Queen

New players are often encouraged to check their name against an international roster to ensure novelty and uniqueness of the alias before officially using it.[89] Some players claim their names represent alter egos which they adopt while skating.[90] Referees may also choose to use derby names as well.[91][92] The phenomenon of roller derby aliases has attracted legal and sociological analysis within the ambit of intellectual property and trademark law as an indigenous activity.[93]

The names of the bouts, tournaments, or double-headers themselves are typically just as sardonic and convoluted—for example, Nightmare on Hull Street (Nightmare on Elm St.), Night of the Rolling Dead (Night of the Living Dead), Are You There Blocker? It's Me, Jammer (Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret), Knocktoberfest (Oktoberfest), Spanksgiving (Thanksgiving), Seasons Beatings (Seasons Greetings), Grandma Got Run Over By a Rollergirl (Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer), Skate & Destroy Her (Search and destroy, or The Faction's song Skate & Destroy), Mama Said Knock You Down (Mama Said Knock You Out), Cinco de May-hem (Cinco de Mayo), and War of the Wheels (War of the Worlds).[94]

Safety concerns

EMTs and others tend to a roller derby athlete who suffered a spiral fracture at her debut bout

Since roller derby is a contact sport, there is a risk of injury.[95] Injuries range from common bruises and sprains to broken bones and concussions[96][97] and beyond.[98][99] As is the case with many sporting events and other large public gatherings, modern roller derby games are required to be played with appropriate medical professionals on site.[12]:39 Some leagues prominently display their injuries,[100][101] and safety and injuries are a perennial topic on skating blogs and other forums.[102][103][104]


Although the early 2000s revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams and unisex games. Furthermore, as of May 2013 there were over 140 junior roller derby programs in the United States, and many more around the world.[105] As the sport of roller derby expands, so does the media devoted to the sport. Viewing roller derby bouts is now possible via live online streaming and archived footage of previous bouts and tournaments. The WFTDA offers live streaming video of its tournaments at,[106] and WFTDA membership is a major goal of aspiring leagues.[107] The Derby News Network offers live streaming video and archived video of many more roller derby bouts, both WFTDA events and non-WFTDA events at[108]

FiveOnFive magazine is devoted solely to covering the sport of roller derby, and covers diverse topics regarding the sport such as business, training, junior roller derby, and nutrition.[109]

Governance and organization

The largest governing body for the sport is the Women's Flat Track Derby Association, with 308 Full Member Leagues, and 99 Apprentice Leagues.[11] Other associations support either coed or men-only derby; among them is the largest organization supporting the growing trend of male roller derby, MRDA.[110][111][112] Within the United States, roller derby played by those under 18 is governed by the Junior Roller Derby Association, which uses the widely used rule set of the WFTDA, with modifications for players who are minors (such as no hitting, or accelerating into a block).[113] Outside of the United States many roller derby leagues enjoy support from their national skate federations such as the Skate Australia,[114] the British Roller Sports Federation,[115] and Roller Sports Canada.[116] In Europe, roller derby otherwise received recognition as a legitimate sport by the Federation Internationale de Roller Sports (FIRS) in Paris in 2010; this organization reports directly to the International Olympic Committee. Although affiliation with a national organization has been declined by American leagues who prefer governance on a grass roots level,[117][118] the WFTDA and USARS maintain a reciprocity agreement for insurance purposes.[119] Canada's national roller derby league works with the American federation.[120]


Since 2006, the WFTDA has sponsored an annual championship. In 2008 this first took the modern form of the "Big 5": four regional playoffs, and a final championship tournament.[121] The association also officially recognizes eligible tournaments hosted by member leagues.[122] E.g., the annual SpudTown Knockdown, which is held in Boise, Idaho beforehand, is "the Best of the Rest of the West." The first Roller Derby World Cup, an international competition, took place in Toronto, Canada, in December 2011.[123] The second World Cup took place in Dallas, Texas, in December 2014.[124]

See also


  1. "Roland Cloni of Akron, world's champion roller skater, who yesterday tried out the track in the Broadway armory, where the national roller skating derby will be held this week, asserted new world's records can be established for flat tracks. The derby will open tomorrow and run until Saturday."[36]
  2. Sources disagree on whether it was Leo alone or with his brother, the skate maker Oscar Seltzer.[37][38]
  3. "Roller derby has entertained the masses in one form or another since the 1930s, when brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer conceptualized the idea of a skating contest on a Chicago restaurant tablecloth."[37]


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