Welcome to WRDN’s continuing Battle on the Bank IV Diary, a wrap-up of banked track derby’s national invitational tournament. This six-part diary will highlight six games and use them to comment about the event—and the state of derby in general—from a different perspective.
How did I have the best AND worst derby weekend of my life? What does it mean to take pride in your team—and your city? Why was the closest game of the weekend boring to me? And what does it mean for derby to see a superstar in the making? To find the answers to these and other questions, read on…
Previous BotB Diary Entries: Part I
Tilted Thunder 89, Tuscon 88
I have a rule. A sports rule, specifically. It goes:
A true fan of a sport will be able to watch and enjoy a game between any two teams of that sport, even if the teams involved are not their local and/or favorite teams.
I like to think this rule is universal. After all, a true sports fan loves the game as much as or more than their favorite team, right? Just think about the Olympic games. A lot of obscure sports are featured during the Olympics, particularly during the winter games. You can use this rule to pick out the true fans of those small-time sports in the crowd of nation-loving bandwagoners.
For instance, I can guaran-damn-tee you that no one in the U.S. cares about curling unless the U.S. curling team is winning during the Olympics. Do most of them care about our curling team when they’re not going for Olympic gold? Why do they root for their country’s curling team to win that one day they’re on TV, but not do it the other 1460 days between Olympics?
Clearly, the majority of them are just rootin’ for the red, white, and blue to win, regardless of the sport the team is playing. They’re fans of their country above all else, only to be temporary “fans” of whatever sport they happen to be playing at the time. The real curling fans know when the next bonspiel is. Or what the hell a bonspiel even is. But I digress.
As a fan of roller derby, I can enjoy a game regardless of which teams are playing. If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the same boat. Derby fans love derby, period. I certainly wouldn’t have driven seven hours to get to Phoenix to watch a bunch of teams I didn’t know if I knew I wasn’t going to have a good time from start to finish.
Even so, there were a lot of blowouts on the first day. Die-hards who got there early in the weekend (like me!) that knew they were coming, but still sat through them. A good time was had, anyway. Personally, I appreciated how good the good teams were during the lopsided bouts. I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy watching San Diego, Los Angeles, or Team Legit do their thing unopposed?
As the tournament progressed into its second day, games between closer seeds promised more competitive matches. If there’s a way to appreciate a great team tearing a new one into a team that’s not so great, a closer game between more evenly matched teams would almost certainly be even better. After all, if the outcome of a game isn’t certain until the very end, how can you not like what you’re seeing along the way?
I arrived at the Veteran’s Memorial early Saturday afternoon, hopeful for a good start to the weekend proper. First on the bill was Tilted Thunder of Seattle and the Arizona Banked Track Robbers of (mostly) Tuscon.
What took place was closest and most down-to-the-wire game of the weekend. Neither team seemed to be able to pull away from the other as the score see-sawed back and forth. The crowd was going crazy from start to finish. When it was all said and done, Tilted Thunder managed to overcome and hold off Tucson in two tense last jams to take their first-ever interleague victory, much to the delight of their fans.
But as for me?
While I was watching this game, I became bored. Very, very bored.
I’m being honest here. Although the crowd was pumped and the announcers were pumped throughout the game, I wasn’t. Every time the crowd cheered, I was indifferent. When someone scored a lot of points, I wasn’t impressed. Frankly, I thought the action on the track was, well…
I’ll get to that later.
Regardless, something didn’t feel right about this. Why was I getting bored, I wondered? The game was close and competitive the whole way through, so why wasn’t I feeling anything? If everyone else was cheering, why wasn’t I at least enjoying myself? Why were yesterday’s blowouts more engaging to me than the tight game unfolding in front of me on this day?
I continued to sit in my seat and watch the game go deep into the second half. The boredom persisted. I started to second-guess my decision to drive 400 miles to watch a national roller derby tournament. I mean, why would I have done this if I knew I wasn’t always going to have a good time? Because I started to notice that I wasn’t having a good time.
My sports rule came to mind. If I’m not enjoying this game, then—my God…
Am I actually not a true fan of roller derby?
This genuinely worried me. Of course I’m a roller derby fan…but why am I not engaged in this game? Desperately, I searched for an explanation.
I broke things down to the basics: If I’m bored with the game, and the crowd is excited about the game, but we’re watching the same game, then what’s the difference between what the crowd is seeing and what I’m seeing?
Well, let’s take a look at the crowd. Tuscon, being a local(ish) team, had a lot of support by default. Homers always cheer for the home team. Tilted Thunder had, quite surprisingly, a very large contingent of Railbirds supporters come down from Seattle (and good for them) as all of the red and the purple in the stands would indicate. Birds of a feather, flock together.
Alas, that meant the crowd was biased one way or the other. They can’t be used as a fair gauge to evaluate the game, since they’ll cheer for their teams no matter what.
I broke it down even further: Either this game really was good, the crowd was seeing it as it really was, and I was an idiot for not seeing that; or the game was actually bad, I was the only one seeing it that way (explaining my boredom), and everyone else wasn’t seeing the reality in front of them. Those could be the only two possible realities, I posited.
I thought about reasons why people would cheer during a game that may be boring or otherwise not entertaining to the outside observer, but completely enthralling to those with a rooting interest.
Something came to mind pretty quickly.
AYSO soccer, Little League baseball, and Pee-Wee football are some of the most popular youth sports organizations. These groups let children play the games that they love in a fair and supportive, yet competitive environment. I’m sure everyone played some kind of sport growing up. I remember the one and only soccer goal I ever scored as a kid as if it were yesterday … I also remember that one goal I gave up while I played goalie that one year that I totally just watched go into the net. I would have dove for the ball if given a second chance. Hey coach, why are you pulling me out??
But again, I digress.
For the most part, the crowds who come to games at this level of sports exclusively contain the families or friends of the players, who always cheer and support their kids. You’ll never hear boos or jeers directed at the players (though maybe at the refs). They’ll cheer on the kids’ every move, saying they did a good job even when they lose the ball or mess up on a play, and congratulate them on doing a good job, even if they lose. Because the most important thing is that it’s a bonding experience and everyone involved has fun.
But in the grand hierarchy of sports, the level of competition in, say, a Pee-Wee football game, is nowhere close to the highest level of football, the National Football League. I thought, if I plucked a random sports fan off the street and offered a pair of free tickets to either a Pee-Wee football game or an NFL football game, which one would they realistically take? And why is that decision a no-brainer?
I wondered if you took this sports fan to the Pee-Wee football game anyway, they might enjoy the festivities, and they might be entertained if it’s a close game. But in all likelihood, the only reason why they may have a good time is because they would see kids doing the darnedest things. Not necessarily because there’s a particularly engaging or competitive sporting contest happening on the field.
But if you take them to the NFL game—at which they have no rooting interest—chances are high that they will enjoy the game, and they will be entertained at a fundamental level, even if it’s a blowout. Since pro football is the most popular sport in America and worth over $9 billion, it seems as if a lot of people enjoy NFL football. Even Buffalo Bills fans. (Still again—I digress.)
I thought about that as I continued to watch the exciting but not-exciting game roller derby game taking place on the track.
Then, it hit me: Even though the roller derby game I was watching was a really close one, and even though the crowd in attendance was cheering their heads off, the fact of the matter was this was a game being contested between two very, very (to use a fair term) inexperienced teams. I was watching, in effect, the equivalent of a Pee-Wee football game, when I would have much rather been watching an NFL game.
This is a fair statement to make, since many players in youth sports leagues have very little game experience. The same could be said about the teams playing this this roller derby game. Tilted Thunder has only had their banked track up for a few months and has scant interleague experience. Almost all of Tuscon’s skaters have never seen a banked track until Battle on the Bank, let alone play games on one.
This lack of experience showed on the track. Skaters were falling down left and right; packs were wide open; defense was non-existent (60 more total points were scored in this game versus similarly competitive 30-minute games among higher seeds); and for the first 29 minutes of the contest, there was a noticeable lack of intensity. In my sporting opinion, the game was a big, giant mess that just happened to stay close until the very end.
As it turns out, my theory was indeed correct: In my neutral sporting opinion, this game was, in fact, bad.
Despite this, the fans of both teams were cheering their lungs out. But of course they would. They’re not going to put down their daughters, sisters, mothers, or friends who are putting their heart and soul into the game. They were just happy to see points go on the board for their team, even if they weren’t earned in the most impressive fashion.
I preferred to sit in the stands and stay quiet out of respect; I wouldn’t dream of booing or putting down these skaters, for whom I have a tremendous amount. Being part of the grind myself, I know what it takes for a league to be born and a banked track to be built. And I know it’s not easy adapting to a foreign skating surface in a very short amount of time.
But they didn’t really give me a reason to stand up and cheer my lungs out, either. If I’m one of those superfan types sitting at a sports bar and watching this game, I’d have to be honest and say that wasn’t impressed with the performance of either team. Not that I was expecting an NFL-caliber roller derby game between two teams with very little banked track experience, mind you. But a big part of me wishes that I got one.
That’s why the more and more I thought about what I was watching, the more my boredom started turning into depression. I know that modern derby is in its infancy, and that players and teams are going to be bad before they’re going to be good. But seeing a mediocre game unfold in front of me, live and in-person, seemed to deflated my spirits about the current state of roller derby, as if the sharp reality of the state of the sport pierced the bubble that protected me from the truth I didn’t want to accept.
In my opinion, and in truth, there are really only a handful of really good roller derby teams in the country. At this point, the main reason why is that these teams have more experience and a stronger core of pure skating talent on their rosters. But for the hundreds and hundreds of flat track derby leagues appearing all across the world, with thousands and thousands of skaters playing the game I love, I came to the realization that the vast majority of them are no better than the players and teams in the Pee-Wee leagues…or worse. If there’s only so much talent at the top, then it only gets worse as you go down. And there’s a lot of leagues to go down through.
There are a lot more good WFTDA teams than there are good banked track teams, obviously. I’d say that in my sporting opinion, only four banked track teams (including Team Legit), and around 20 flat track teams are worth giving the time of day over. But even that’s a stretch.
To cite an example in flat track play, consider that #3 Gotham completely obliterated #19 Boston a few weekends ago, with the final score reading 260-24. We all know that Gotham is a really good team, but can someone outside of the derby community say with a straight face that Boston is also a “good” team when they get outscored by a factor of 11 and couldn’t even score 25 points in an hour-long game?
Yeah, Boston is waaaaay better than all but 20 or so teams in the country. I recognize that. But I believe you measure greatness from the top down, not the bottom up. There’s a long way for Boston, and many of the other top-25 teams to go before they can even dream of competing at the top level. The outcomes of recent games seem to reinforce that opinion.
Personally, I feel there are less than a dozen WFTDA teams I would go out of my way and pay money to see play. All the other teams are the collective punching bag for the truly “good” teams to chew up and spit out in between their real tests between each other at events, like the Western Regional and WFTDA Championships.
And by watching two very (I still hesitate to use a stronger word, out of respect) inexperienced teams play a game before my eyes, I further realized that there are hundreds of thousands of people paying money to watch roller derby in games all around the country. The world, even. And the majority of games they’re seeing are not very good. They simply all can’t be good, because so, so many skaters are relatively inexperienced compared to what they could be, if this 75-year-old sport we call roller derby had players playing the game legitimately from its earliest days, and continued doing so into the present day.
That’s probably what upset me the most. Too many people have no idea what a truly good roller derby game looks like. Hell, even I don’t know what one looks like. No one does. No one can. Until there is an established national professional roller derby league play under legitimate rules with athletes who make the game their career, there’s no telling how mind-blowingly stupendously incredibly amazing the sport of roller derby can be. Until we see two professional teams play each other legitimately, we can’t know what a truly good game looks like. We just can’t.
But the sky is the limit for roller derby. However we decide to reach for the sky, t’s going to take a long, long time to get there. Then again, it’s already been a long, long time: 75 years since the invention of the sport. But the spectacle drove its potential in a different direction. I can only have faith that the skaters who someday also want to see roller derby played at the highest level possible—myself included—will take the wheel and steer us in the right direction.
But I’m impatient. Shouldn’t have this happened already? It’s been 75 years, after all.
It had better not take another 75.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
Oh, I almost forgot about my sports rule. Turns out it was missing something important.
I mentioned that I was bored out of my mind for the first 29 minutes of this game. I was most certainly not during the last one.
As if both teams looked at the scoreboard and noticed that they were really close to winning the game, they kicked things up a notch or three and went for broke. I felt that the second to last jam of the game was the best of the game, one that had a clear increase in speed and intensity compared to the jams before it, which were pedestrian in nature.
Almost immediately after the penultimate jam started, I felt a rush of adrenaline jolt through me. My heartbeat picked up. I noticed I was breathing a little more heavily. All of a sudden this really, really boring game turned into a really, really compelling one. Yes, I started screaming. And yes, I was excited by a competitive finish ending in a nail-biting last jam that saw Tilted Thunder seal the deal with a quick jam call-off by Creep Suzette.
I was genuinely thrilled that Tilted Thunder got its first interleague win that day. Granted, on paper, they should have had an easier time of things. But a win is a win, and I was just as happy that they got it as they were. Way to go, Railbirds.
Still, I wondered, why did it take 29 minutes for my brain to go, “hey, you’re fan of roller derby and you should be enjoying this game!” Probably because the that sole jam was the only part of the game where I felt the teams gave their best effort. Yeah, all the skaters were giving their best effort for the entire game. But if that was the case, why didn’t I feel that the first 25 (or so) jams were as exciting as the last two? If they were, surely I would have loved the game from start to finish. But I didn’t. Because maybe their best effort wasn’t the best effort.
That’s when I realized that my rule was missing an important qualifier:
A true fan of a sport will be able to watch and enjoy a game played at its highest possible level between any two teams of that sport, even if the teams involved are not their local and/or favorite teams.
As I mentioned before, all roller derby teams and players are very far away from the zenith of roller derby amazingness. But relative to its amateur status, there are plenty of amazing teams playing in amazing games at the top tier of flat track and banked track derby. Even down in the Pee-Wee leagues, Tilted Thunder and Tuscon were able to play at their highest possible level, if only for a minute.
So it looks like my rule is true after all. Yes, I am a true fan of roller derby. (Thank goodness.)
Now let’s see what it’ll take to make more true fans of roller derby. I heard the NFL was thinking about taking the season off this year, so there’s going to be plenty of potential sports fans with nothing to do over the autumn weekends. What better time for Buffalo Bills fans to take in a Queen City Roller Girls game?
Question is, is QCRG, and other established or up and coming roller derby leagues, ready to play the game at its highest possible level and convert those Bills fans into true roller derby fans for life?