Peanut Butter and 70 Jams

Something crazy is happening in Los Angeles on the banked track this year. The L.A. Derby Dolls have recently been engaging in some of the fastest-paced roller derby you’ll ever see.

Like, really fast.

The pace of play in L.A., and in the RDCL in general, has only been getting faster over the years. If the number of jams in a game is anything to go by, the LADD home season in particular has been ridiculously fast lately.

To appreciate how fast, consider the 2012 season. Banked track roller derby was hit particularly hard by the slow-derby pandemic1, and it showed with long jams with little action to show for them. In this environment, games averaged about 52 jams, many of which went the full 60 seconds.

After a very successful rulebook update in 2013 that considerably opened up gameplay, the jam count shot up dramatically. Just a few months into the new rules season, RDCL interleague games were easily seeing jam counts in the high 50s, with LADD intraleague games regularly topping 60. One of these games managed 64 jams, which was remarkable considering where things were the year before.

Through 2014 and 2015, the new normal in the RDCL became 60 jams, give or take. But it reached a plateau. The 64-jam threshold was regularly reached in home team play, but never overcome.

Then, just a few months ago, something amazing started to happen.

From out of nowhere, games were finishing with jam counts in the high 60s. The sudden increase in jams surprised many, most notably L.A.’s ref crew, who were starting to find out their tracking sheets didn’t have enough lines to adequately record all the jams.

The 68 jam game in October of last year was a bit fluky after some confusion in the last minute added two or three jams toward the end of the game that wouldn’t have normally been there. The 65 and 67 jam games this year were legitimately quick, though. And there was no reason to suspect things were going to slow down any time soon.

After the 67 jam game happened on Valentine’s Day, we were confident enough in this to predict that crossing the 70-jam threshold was bound to happen this year.

It didn’t take long. During L.A.’s third home game of the season, just a month and a half after burning up the track in two record-setting games, a completely unfathomable 70-jam game went down. In a last-jam victory for good measure!

In 2012, a game getting to 54 or 55 jams would have been considered fast-paced. Now we’re seeing games with as many as 70.

Seventy jams in sixty minutes is mind blowing. It’s unfathomable. It’s nuts!

So how the heck did they cram so many more jams into the same amount of time?

The 60-second jam clock in use on the banked track, the shortest in all of roller derby, is obviously a factor in games rifling through jams at the rate of more than one per minute.

But it’s not really a big factor, if you can believe that. Other RDCL timing rules actually play a much larger role in keeping things moving lightning fast for fans.

The most important one lets the officials begin a jam before the 30-second lineup clock runs out. The refs don’t wait if both teams are lined up and ready to go for a jam. They just blow the whistle early and get on with it.

RDCL Rules v3.1 (2016)
Section 2: Game Parameters

2.5 – Jams
2.5.3 – Between jams, teams have thirty (30) seconds to get into formation. If both teams are in formation with helmet covers on before thirty (30) seconds has elapsed, the referees may start the jam.

This practice saves a significant amount of gameplay time from being wasted away, an average of 2 to 5 seconds per jam reset. That might not sound like a lot, but multiplied by 55, 60, or more jam resets? That adds up to 2 to 5 minutes of roller derby pulled out of thin air, giving skaters more time to skate.

Another timing practice in the RDCL that increases the density of derby mandates that a quarter can only end during live gameplay. If a jam ends with even one second left on the period clock, the rules require one more jam to be played, even if time expires during the reset.2

2.4 – Quarters
2.4.5 – If there is time left on the clock when a jam ends, another jam will take place. Neither a quarter nor a game will end by time running out in the thirty (30) seconds between jams.

This generally turns what would be the last jam to turn into two last jams, and for there to be as many as three jams in the final minute of a quarter. With four quarters in a regulation RDCL games, this creates up to four opportunities for jams to be played that would wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Combined with the minutes worth of additional jams made available from time banked on shorter jam resets, anywhere from 4~8 jams, or about 10% of jam time, would not exist without the these rules in place.

To see how dramatic this effect is, take a look at a breakdown of the 70-jam game played in L.A. this past April.

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The green bars represent the accumulated time saved by starting a jam a few seconds before the 30 lineup clock runs out. The blue bars show the three jams that began after time expired in a quarter.

The stacked blue and green bar at the end of the breakdown represents the number of jams that would not have happened had the game been played under standard WFTDA timing rules. (WFTDA timing does not truncate jam resets and does not allow new jams to begin after period expiration.) As we calculate it, this particular banked track game would have ended around the 7:00 mark of the 4th quarter after jam 62 if it were timed as a flat track game between jams.

That’s leaving an awful lot of roller derby on the table.3 The RDCL has been able to recover this time and recycle it back into gameplay, contributing towards adding 10-16 more jams per game since 2012. This has the effect of creating a 60-minute game that packs five quarters of action into four quarters of period clock.

But as you might have deducted, not all of that is from shorter jam resets. It simply can’t be. If every jam went its maximum length of 60 seconds, a jam reset average of 25 seconds would yield 44 jams in a game, a mere 4 more than the theoretical minimum for an RDCL game.

The only way roller derby games can have a very high number of jams, regardless of the timing rules in use, is if the teams playing on the day are ending jams well before their natural conclusion. If the lead jammer is compelled to call it off due to the opposing jammer getting into scoring position quickly, the jam clock will rarely hit zero during a regular jam.

But how quickly do the jams get called off? How short do they need to be for there to be so many more jams in a 60-minute game, and what tends to happen during them?

We recently timed a handful of other banked track games in Los Angeles and San Diego to try and find the answer.

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Click for full size

The April 23 tilt is a good reference point to compare to put the 70-jam monster in perspective.

Playing in their first-ever interleague game, the Bay Area Black Widows went up against the Sparks, the B-Team of the San Diego Derby Dolls. It was a pretty typical mismatch with a lot of penalties, including 16 power jams between the teams.

It was a game where one in four jams is a power jam, with nearly 40% of overall jam time having only one jammer on the track. This slowed the pace of play a lot, as evidenced by the relatively long average jam time. Of course, slow is relative when we’re talking about banked track roller derby: A 40 second jam is still pretty quick by any definition.

What’s interesting about this is what happens when you factor out power jams from the average jam time calculations. Even in a slow-paced game by RDCL standards, a significant number of jams do not need a significant amount of the jam clock.

In moderate mismatches, a lesser team still has plenty of opportunity to put up a fight against a superior opponent. The Black Widows were getting doubled up by San Diego on the scoreboard, but were quite competent when both jammers were on the track. Despite Bay Area being in their very first live game together as a team, they were still able to press the Sparks enough to force call-offs just past the halfway mark on most jams.

This is a pattern that is more or less the same in the other games we surveyed. The initial pass, the transition in the pack during the jammer breakout, and the scoring pass are all generally happening within 30 seconds, making the 60 second jam clock almost completely unnecessary. In fact, only 7% of the regular jams in these four games got to even 50 seconds, let alone  the full 60. Just 17% of regular jams—35 out of 201—needed to go to 40 seconds of jam time before being called off.

The 60-second jam clock wasn’t really a factor here. You only get jams this short with such frequency if both teams are getting their jammers out of the pack quickly. This just-so-happens to create very competitive jam scoring along the way.

Our PPJ (points per jam) stat measures just how competitive the scoring is. It’s no surprise that more competitive jams create more short jams, which leads to more jams overall. It follows that more frequent lower-scoring jams will result in a lower PPJ value, signifying a derby environment that is naturally more competitive.

That falls right in line with our four sample games, with the B-team blowout seeing moderately low jams (57) and a slightly-above average PPJ (6.26).4 The 70-jam blitz had one of the three lowest PPJ values (3.83) we have ever seen in the RDCL. The other two games are in the middle of both categories.

So rule changes alone aren’t why banked track roller derby has such high jam counts, including a game that somehow got to 70 jams. It’s really a result of everything coming together to produce a fast-paced and competitive environment.

RDCL rules were changed to open up gameplay and improve game flow, which allowed teams to better compete against one another on the track. This helped normalize the level of competition among home teams and leagues, which gave them all more quality jam time against each other. This in turn naturally led to a higher frequency of shorter, more competitive jams, creating a feedback effect that allowed time for even more jams.

As a result, banked track roller derby went from intense to extremely intense in the span of a couple of years. Long-time banked track fans are absolutely besides themselves with how good things have gotten recently, particularly here in Southern California.

Why? It’s simple. With shorter, faster, harder jams, there’s no time for skaters muck about. Because of this, every moment of every jam becomes insanely important—and insanely compelling to fans.

To mix food metaphors: The more jams there are, the less fat there is to chew on. When you get rid of the unnecessary stuff, the only thing the bone has room for is the meat. And when you get a rack of meat that’s got 70 jams on it, it tends to be pretty damn good, as we observed a few days after that 70-jam game.

The only questions that remain at this point is whether or not more RDCL games outside of L.A. will start seeing absurdly high jam counts above and beyond the mid 60s, and if we’ll ever see a game with more than 70 jams. There’s definitely the potential for a 72-jam game, but jammer penalties and power jams would need to be virtually non-existent for that to happen.

As for the rest of the RDCL and other banked track leagues? It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun finding out.