History in the Making?

This past weekend marked a significant and very important next step in the evolution and growth of modern roller derby. The Spring Roll tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind. saw the coming-out party of the newly launched Men’s Roller Derby Association. Ten men’s teams played in 17 games, with one of them ending in a historic snap-streaking upset that parallels one that started the WFTDA on its way upward national trend.

Even though men’s games were held during Spring Roll last year, this year the event was dominated by men’s games, turning it into a showcase event for the MRDA. I hope that a lot of you got to catch DNN’s streaming coverage of the event, because if you missed it, you missed out. If you didn’t see it, thank your lucky stars that DNN has archives (or will eventually, depending on when you’re reading this) for all of the games, streaming on-demand.

What I saw during Spring Roll was roller derby as I’ve never seen it before. The men were skating faster, jumping higher, and hitting harder than I’m used to seeing in top-flight WFTDA action. Guys weren’t just throwing good blocks, they were throwing massive hits. Jammers falling to the floor were so quick in getting back up after falls that the blockers that knocked them down were scored on before they knew what was happening. Skaters leaping three feet into the air for an inside apex jump was common, and not just from jammers. And don’t even get me started on Quadzilla’s smooth moves and near-miracle last jam against New York, almost snapping their (at the time of his effort) 22-game winning streak.

Have you seen this man? If you haven’t seen Quadzilla play roller derby, you haven’t seen roller derby be played. (Image Credit: rdunnel on Flickr)

Even DNN’s commentators were singing the praises of the guys, with one of them even going as far stating it was the most exciting roller derby she had ever seen in her life. It was so engaging and entertaining, in fact, even blowouts were entertaining to me, since I knew something cool or crazy was going to happen on every pass of every jam.

So yeah, it was a pretty good weekend for watching roller derby. However, much like the early days of interleague WFTDA play, MRDA’s maiden voyage was a bit rough, and at times, very sloppy.

With the extra speed the guys are capable of generating, and naturally being bigger than women, the laws of inertia tell us that it’s harder for such a combination of mass and velocity to come to a stop so easily. As a result, There were a hell of a lot of back-blocking penalties during the weekend. Many of them resulted in skater pileups or awkward falls, and a few of them resulted in some injuries that required some walking off. I also spotted a lot of low blocks and elbow calls, due to blockers getting really aggressive during a one-on-one situation while trying to hold back a jammer on the verge of clearing the pack.

Men’s teams were also much more cavalier in interpreting and applying the rules to their advantage. (MRDA uses the current WFTDA rulebook.) Packs were quickly shifting their entire compliment of blockers, pivot included, directly in front of the jammer line before the start, and then taking a knee to force the jammers off immediately to create an advantageous split pack situation (as explained here). On top of that, teams were even as going as far to deliberately keep a split pack separated during a power jam to give their jammer a free pass and easy points (as explained here, albeit without the taking the knee part).

There were even instances of entire packs skating clockwise (reverse of normal direction) for significant distances. Skaters also wanted to play referee, trying to get refs to call no packs or disagreeing with penalties by looking at them and giving them hand signals while the jam was going on. Kind of bush league, if you ask me.

A lot of those questionable tactics made for quite a big mess at times. Even for a derby vet like me, it was getting borderline confusing. For those reasons, It wasn’t a perfect weekend for men’s roller derby. Still, the positives more than outweighed the negatives. Speaking of the negatives, I don’t know if the men’s game needs to have separate rules that are tailored for them (since WFTDA rules were obviously designed for female skaters), or if men’s teams and skaters just need more experience, or both, to smooth out the kinks.

There are plenty of kinks to work out, regardless. Even so, I think there is enormous potential for men’s derby on the national and mainstream scale. We can look to history to consider the future of men’s derby, and roller derby in general, even as history may be in the making as we speak.

Let’s rewind the calendar a few years. Through 2008 and up to the 2009 tournament season, WFTDA leagues in the east were thought to have the best teams in the country. Chief among them was Gotham Girls Roller Derby of New York, who was riding on an unprecedented 18-game winning streak going into the 2009 East Regional finals. Gotham’s next two games, however, marked a changing in the tide; they lost to Philly in the regional final, and were dealt an even bigger upset loss to the 2009 champs, the Oly Rollers, who added to their own winning streak.

The Oly Rollers knocked off a giant in Gotham during 2009 Nationals, then became a giant of their own. (Image credit: Joe Rollerfan)

After seeing it was possible to beat the once-thought-to-be invincible girls from Gotham, there was an immediate realization that the quality of roller derby was improving not only in the east region, but throughout the entire country. Teams everywhere were stepping up their games, using Gotham as the benchmark of excellence. After Gotham fell, the benchmark was set higher by Oly. When Oly went down, Rocky Mountain picked up the torch and ran even further with it, taking on banked track teams and beating them handily. It can only go up from here when it comes to the quality of WFTDA play.

This brings us back to the events of May 15, 2011. The newly-reformed MRDA, which was born from the MDC, had a majority of their experienced leagues located in the east. New York’s roller derby team was again riding an unprecedented winning streak, with the men of the New York Shock Exchange not having lost a game in their league history.

After almost losing to the west coast’s Puget Sound Outcasts in Quadzilla’s last jam during the evening before, the once-thought-to-be-invincible Shock Exchange were finally felled by an up-and-coming St. Louis Gatekeepers team, ending a 24-game NYSE winning streak and the notion that quality men’s roller derby teams are localized to one city or region. And so the bar is raised another notch.

The St. Louis Gatekeepers, after knocking off a giant in the NY Shock Exchange. Are they another giant in the making? (Image credit: Bob Dunnell via DNN)

The parallels between the start of WFTDA’s growth of quality teams and what just happened with MRDA this past weekend are eerily similar. You can’t not see that. If history is repeating itself, it would be a pretty safe bet that in the next few years we can expect to see similar leaps and bounds made in the quality of men’s roller derby.

Like the exponential growth seen in women’s roller derby, men’s derby should see growth in the number of participating male skaters, number leagues and their distribution throughout the country, and the larger potential audiences for men’s games. It’s hard to know if that growth will be as sweeping or as fast as with the women’s game. But there’s no doubt that there will be growth, and quality growth at that.

However, with that growth will come some hard questions: Will MRDA and WFTDA be able to thrive separately, or will they need to merge in the future? Will local men’s and women’s leagues need to affiliate with each other, or will they eventually be competing with each other in local economies? Will men’s roller derby forever remain second-fiddle to women’s roller derby? Will the men’s game eventually become more popular than the women’s game, as is the reality in virtually every other sport in existence? If so, how would that affect women’s derby leagues, if at all?

Consider the popularity of men’s and women’s basketball. Will this divide someday become an issue for roller derby? Perhaps that question is best left for another time.

Whether the derbyverse likes it or not, questions like these will eventually need to be answered. “Eventually” may be a few years away yet, or it could be longer than that. It’s hard to say at this point. How soon the need will come has a lot to do with how quickly male roller derby can grow compared to its female counterpart. But for now at least, there’s plenty of room for everyone to strap on some skates, play roller derby, and enjoy the game as we know it today. I know I’ll be doing just that.

Just remember, though, if and when derby hits that crossroads, this last weekend may be the one we look back on as the one that set everything in motion. Kind of neat to see history as it’s happening, isn’t it?