We started our State of Derby series with a comment and historical perspective from Jerry Seltzer (son of Roller Derby inventor Leo), and then featured interviews with the heads of several major roller derby governing bodies: Old School Derby Association, Junior Roller Derby Association, the Modern Athletic Derby Endeavor, the Men’s Roller Derby Association and USA Roller Sports.
Now, the State of Derby series concludes with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). Executive Director, Juliana Gonzales, aka Bloody Mary, answered our questions in a group format. We’ve included all the questions from the group to preserve the context of Bloody Mary’s responses. As with the other large derby organization (USARS), the WFTDA has been scrutinized and challenged by members and non-members alike. Bloody Mary addresses those challenges and gives us all a look at challenges the WFTDA and derby may face in the future.
- Who are you?
- When and how did you become involved in derby?
- What is your title or primary responsibility?
- What is the name of your organization?
- What is the mission of your organization?
WFTDA: I’m Juliana Gonzales, the Executive Director of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is a membership association for roller derby leagues that are focused on women’s flat track derby. Our collective mission is to foster and promote the sport of women’s flat-track derby; on a daily basis, this means that we work cooperatively on everything from game standards and rules, to public relations, to international membership outreach.
In 2009, the WFTDA Board of Directors led the membership in a series of strategic planning discussions, which ultimately led them to recommend hiring paid staff to manage the Association’s growing operations. In June 2009, WFTDA hired me to handle the organizational management, and an Insurance Administrator to oversee our insurance programs. Recently we also added a Tournament Director, a Membership Data Manager, and a Referee Training and Certification Coordinator to our staff.
- What is your organization’s role in roller derby?
- How many teams (leagues) are in your organization?
- Approximately how many skaters does this represent?
**WFTDA: **The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association is a place for our member leagues to collaborate, share resources, organize tournaments, and develop guidelines to standardize game play worldwide. We currently have 117 member leagues (http://wftda.com/leagues) and 57 apprentice affiliates (http://wftda.com/leagues/apprentice). Those 174 leagues represent over 10,000 skaters.
- What separates your organization from the other derby organizations?
- How does your organization compliment the other derby associations?
- Are there too many derby associations? Why or why not?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA is somewhat unique from other associations in its scope. Our mission directs us to focus only on derby that is played by women on the flat-track, so we don’t attempt to regulate other types of derby. At the same time, part of our mission is to “foster and promote” the sport, which necessarily engages us with the sport at large and cooperate with men’s, junior, co-ed and banked track derby. Women’s flat track derby represents an enormous piece of the derby being played today, and while WFTDA’s mission is very specific and well-defined, our size and scope often mean that our efforts extend into other arenas of derby.
Our mission directs us to focus only on derby that is played by women on the flat-track, so we don’t attempt to regulate other types of derby. -Juliana Gonzales, WFTDA.
- As a sport, how would you rate the health of derby?
- What can your organization do to make it stronger, healthier, etc?
- What can other derby organizations do to contribute to the health of the sport?
**WFTDA: **I think the challenge for all derby associations right now is strategic, managed growth. Up until a few years ago, we were all a little uncertain about whether derby was here to stay, or if it was another edition of an old trend that would revive and then die. Now that we have confidence that our movement is well-rooted, we need to spend a few years building values, guidelines, and methods that are sustainable, so derby can continue to grow at this rate worldwide.
Let’s talk about challenges
- What’s the largest challenge your organization is facing currently?
- The largest challenge to derby?
**WFTDA: **The next 3-5 years is going to require the derby community to create some long term direction for its position in sports. Is derby’s purpose to provide athletic and recreational outlets for people? Does derby seek to generate revenue and engage in the professional sports and broadcast arenas? Is derby hoping to gain recognition from the Olympic Committee or gain leverage as an amateur sport? A unity of vision will be required to make sure we’re acting toward our goals for the sport, rather than reacting to the directions this phenomenon might take on its own.
As the largest and longest-standing derby organization, WFTDA has a responsibility to lead thoughtfully as the derby community sets this direction. As it attempts to lead in this strategy-making, WFTDA’s core strength is also its greatest challenge—our organization is democratic and collaborative, and our members are diverse and autonomous. Finding a universal vision among such fiercely unique leagues takes careful listening and patience with the pace of change.
- What’s the biggest or most common misconception about your organization?
- What do you, as an organization, know you need to improve on?
- What’s the most common misconception about your organization?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA’s origins haunt it a little bit in the derby community’s perception of it. In 2004, the WFTDA (then “United League Committee”) banded together out of necessity. The 30 leagues playing derby at that time were presenting their communities with a revival of something that had been terribly misunderstood in earlier decades, and they were trying to create a new image of edgy athleticism and female strength. It was incredibly important to those founding leagues that they stick together and retain control of their own image and their own businesses. These founding leagues came together for collective protection from what they perceived to be a somewhat hostile mainstream world.
As a result, in its early years, WFTDA was very gun-shy. It was often afraid to trust and compromise, which made collaboration with other organizations difficult. It was passionate about providing women the opportunity to own and play this sport, and was tentative about trusting efforts that might allow men to “take this over too.” Out of fear that it might lose its leverage in business operations, WFTDA kept many of its decisions and assets behind a veil of privacy.
Out of fear that it might lose its leverage in business operations, WFTDA kept many of its decisions and assets behind a veil of privacy. -Juliana Gonzales, WFTDA
Fortunately, the last few years have really brought a great deal of confidence in WFTDA’s position, which in turn has allowed WFTDA to collaborate more openly. In 2009 WFTDA was able to launch the apprentice program and reopen membership, which added 96 new leagues to the previous 78. In 2010, WFTDA began publishing many of its resources, protocols, and decisions online, making resources like the safety protocol or Officiating Manual available to the general public. We’ve been working in the last year on developing collaborative relationships with men’s, banked, and junior derby groups, recognizing that collaborating with these colleagues will afford everyone greater strength for the movement we all share. As we move forward, I’m eager to see the WFTDA continue to have confidence in its position and its plans, and work together openly with partner organizations and the public.
**Obviously without the invention of derby, we wouldn’t be here today. **
- Outside of the actual creation of the sport, what from derby’s past has been the most important aspect of modern roller derby?
- For your organization?
- What from derby’s past has hurt or hampered modern derby the most?
- How important is it to your membership to know the history of derby?
- How important is it to your membership’s fans to know derby history?
**WFTDA: **For WFTDA, the single most notable part of derby history is the role of the skater in making decisions about the sport. Earlier incarnations of derby used a very traditional franchising sports entertainment model—the sport, the facility, and the skaters were owned and managed by owners and promoters. When derby reappeared in 2001, “skater owned and operated” almost immediately became a central value for the new movement. Modern derby has taken a great lesson from derby history; WFTDA treats the skaters as the experts and guiding force in our sport; the skaters own their leagues, manage their business operations, and ultimately chart how the game evolves and is played.
- What do you see as the biggest change happening for derby in the next 3 years?
- Over the same time frame, what big changes or improvements do you foresee in your organization?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA’s immediate future is mostly focused on somewhat unglamorous endeavors. Even as amazing growth and public attention swirls around us, WFTDA needs to buckle down and straighten out some fundamentals. Many of our policies, systems, technologies, and ways of doing things evolved for a DIY organization looking to provide basic support and resources. Frankly put, we’ve outgrown ourselves. As we hit the six year mark of existence, WFTDA is dedicating a lot of its resources to dissembling straw houses and building brick houses that will fit our growing family.
- In 50 years, what will derby fans say about you/your organization’s contribution to the evolution of derby?
**WFTDA: **I believe that WFTDA will be seen as the single largest force in fostering roller derby into the mainstream.
With 500+ teams, sellout crowds in various cities, several teams using full-size arenas, and increasing mainstream-sponsors, there’s a growing awareness and following of roller derby.
- Why do some teams struggle to get fans, while others, in less populace cities, have no challenge in selling out games or attracting fans?
- The current brand of roller derby has its roots as a sport for the players, not so much for the fans. Since we mentioned the sellout crowds and sponsors, do you believe the sport still “belongs” to the skaters?
- Going back to Roles & Professional derby, do you think competitive and recreational teams can exist together in the same association? Why or why not?
- Describe how your organization is structured to be better suited for recreational or competitive oriented teams?
- Why is there a tug-of-war between those who want to hold onto derby’s grass roots vs. those who want to “take it to the next level?”
**WFTDA: **In WFTDA, our membership is extraordinarily diverse. We have leagues in urban and rural areas, large and small leagues, leagues that support giant recreational programs and leagues that have only a small travel team. Some of our leagues are focused more heavily on a public media presence, whereas some leagues focus more on community engagement. Some do really well with local ticket sales, whereas others focus more internally on training and competition.
Despite that diversity, every WFTDA member league shares the “by the skaters, for the skaters” ethic– we are accountable to the skaters playing the sport. Only the skaters can set guidelines, make rules, and shape what the sport looks like. This shared mission means a great deal of diversity can occur locally on the league level without a disruptive level of tension.
Only the skaters can set guidelines, make rules, and shape what the sport looks like. -Juliana Gonzales, WFTDA
- Why can’t derby get on TV?
**WFTDA: **Derby can get on TV and some of our member leagues have been very successful with getting broadcast in their local markets. Television producers with stars in their eyes approach WFTDA regularly about broadcasting. For a WFTDA-wide deal, I think it’s worth waiting for an opportunity that really showcases the skaters and the sport well, and prioritizes presenting the sport well over commercial sales or airtime purchase price. It takes discipline, but we need to continue building something worth watching, and not get distracted by less-than-perfect offers.
- There are various tournaments inside and outside of the WFTDA. Yet attendance at these events is almost exclusively derby players, coaches, or other “derby insiders.” Is modern derby still not ready for primetime?
**WFTDA: **The growth of derby in the mainstream is still pretty radical. I have confidence that we’ll start to see ticket sales for tournament weekends parallel the rapidly growing ticket sales for bouts.
- As professional derby begins to develop, there will almost certainly be an outside interest (non-skater) in ownership. This could take the form of a/an individual investor(s), a corporation or a combination. Presuming your organization isn’t the governing body for pro-level derby, would pro-level players and/or teams be allowed membership and to compete in your association?
- How does your association deal with outside ownership inquiries and interests?
**WFTDA: **At the moment, WFTDA doesn’t regulate the business operations of our member leagues. They can certainly rely on investors or other financial support. Our only commitment is that the member leagues be owned and democratically operated by the skaters that skate for them.
Equipment & Business Development
**Companies such as Reidell, PRO-TEC, Triple 8, etc., have benefited greatly from the rebirth of roller derby. Several individuals in the roller derby community have also prospered as roller derby entrepreneurs. **
- How are these companies contributing to the development and promotion of roller derby?
- Which company/companies has received the greatest benefit from roller derby?
- Do these companies have an obligation to develop products specifically for derby?
- Which company/companies have lead the way in derby product development?
**WFTDA: **Derby has seen significant support from the roller skating community, most notably skating rinks and retailers of skates, helmets, and pads. WFTDA is delighted to have their reciprocal support—we’re glad they acknowledge what the gains roller derby has brought to the skating community and its business, and are giving back to derby with corporate support.
- The NFL and NHL both have lists of approved equipment. When do you anticipate your organization restricting equipment selection to an approved list as other contact sports have?
**WFTDA: **We’ve taken some recent steps towards educating skaters and officials about properly selecting and fitting gear, and you’ll see a new safety protocol release later this year which includes some general guidelines about equipment. Until or unless our athletes are paid to play, however, I don’t anticipate WFTDA regulating what brands of gear they use.
There seems to be a resistance to earning a profit in derby as there are several roller derby teams set up as not-for-profit organizations, yet other teams have signed contracts with sports marketing organizations involved with professional level sports.
- As roller derby continues to evolve, will not-for-profit teams have to change classifications (to for-profit) to remain competitive at the higher levels?
- How does your association help individual teams develop their business plans, fan base, and attract advertisers/sponsors?
- How does being either not-for-profit or for-profit help or hurt a team’s growth?
- Why would either classification be a better fit for your organization?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA members have an extraordinary amount of autonomy in selecting a business structure and running their operations. We see members that are very successful using both for-profit and non-profit models, based on their league’s mission and goals. It’s important to WFTDA that our members are able to run their league the way that is most meaningful for their context and their community.
Disparity in Play/Set Season
As of now, there isn’t a set derby season. The closest is the tournament season which happens mostly through the fall. The WFTDA is currently the most widely used rule set. Some of the rules have allowances for venue restrictions. Example: 10ft ref lane. With new teams joining the WFTDA, these allowances won’t go away soon. The WFTDA hasn’t set a saturation point for membership, nor has any other derby association.
- What will be the process and determining factors for your organization to mandate a single playing surface for all teams? Which surface do you see becoming the standard?
**WFTDA: **The standard track setup used by WFTDA leagues is voted in as part of the rule set: http://wftda.com/rules/wftda-rules-appendix-b-track-design.pdf
I don’t anticipate WFTDA moving toward requiring the game be played on any particular surface, beyond the rule that it be “clean, flat, and suitable for roller skating.” One great outcome of adapting roller derby to the flat track in 2001 is that the game can be played just about anywhere. That accessibility is an important part of our values and our culture.
- Does your organization have a size limit or capacity? Why or why not?
- If the potential membership is unrestricted, aren’t you really creating a big blanket trying to cover everyone?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA membership is limited to leagues that are focused on flat-track derby and charter only female athletes. Additionally, we’ve identified “by the skaters, for the skaters” as a core value, and as a result we restrict membership to leagues owned and managed by derby skaters from that league, and require that WFTDA members offer all their skaters a democratic voice on the league management. There’s no cap on WFTDA membership — WFTDA will accept as many member leagues as are eligible according to our mission and bylaws.
- Why or why shouldn’t the various associations define a calendar-based season?
**WFTDA: **Given how much overlap there is in the pool of skaters, officials, and fans of the various derby associations, it’s quickly becoming in our best interest to coordinate schedules.
WFTDA will accept as many member leagues as are eligible according to our mission and bylaws. -Juliana Gonzales, WFTDA
- Do the associations have a responsibility to their members and derby fans to place teams in different divisions based on ability? Would this be better addressed internally at the association level or should different associations be for different levels of play? Why/why not?
**WFTDA: **WFTDA is exploring skill-based divisions. As we only have an interest in women’s flat track game play, we wouldn’t ever attempt to impose our structures on the other associations, although our partner organizations often choose to model their programs after the tested methods WFTDA has adopted.
Derby is very unique in that local teams are responsible for recruiting and training officials in their region. While it isn’t a requirement for them to do so, having access to some level of officiating practically mandates this.
- What has been the largest challenge to “home grown” officials?
- What has been the biggest benefit to derby with this type of officiating recruiting?
- If previous officiating experience was required to become a derby referee, which two sports would you say best prepare potential derby referees?
- The WFTDA and OSDA have implemented certification programs. Do you see the certification process as the first step in creating a derby officiating organization that is not entirely controlled by its associated governing body?
- What advantage(s) do you see in keeping officials part of a governing body, rather than having their own association or union?
**WFTDA: **In WFTDA, the skaters, the officials, and the game have necessarily developed concurrently. We also learned together and we all have an investment in where it is now. The officials discuss and vote on decisions alongside the rest of the membership. I’m not sure we’re quite ready, at least not at this point, to see them forfeit their stake in those decisions and discussions.
It is worth noting, however, that WFTDA certification puts an official into a pool of officials that trumps league affiliation. WFTDA certified refs participate directly with the organization without going through league representation channels. In that sense, we’re in the early stages of building an independent pool of officials that could eventually peel away from the WFTDA organizational structure.
- What would it take to bring the different derby governing bodies in agreement on a unilateral referee certification/accreditation program?
WFTDA: **We’re very close to alignment right now. The challenge is mostly the fact that the various derby organizations are at extremely different places in their development, and so the needs and resources that apply to a WFTDA referee are quite different from what’s needed for an MRDA or JRDA referee.
With the exception of a few professional hockey and baseball teams in North America, most countries have their own levels of amateur and professional sports. The WFTDA and USARS both have taken steps in becoming the preeminent internationally governing body or roller derby.
- How can a sport whose membership is nearly 100% from the U.S.A. fairly oversee and govern teams not only in other countries, but on other continents?
- It seems a governing body whose purpose is to govern international competition, such as FIFA (soccer) or the International Olympic Committee, would be better suited for such a role. How do you envision a derby governing body developing, which is truly international?
- Outside of the North America market, where is your organization focused to further promote and help develop roller derby?
WFTDA: It’s an incredible challenge for WFTDA to shake its domestic bias in order to better support roller derby internationally. We only began accepting non-US members in 2009, and even today the number of non US leagues is very small– three members and five apprentices as I write this. The challenge for USA Rollersports (USARS) is possibly even greater than WFTDA’s, USARS being exclusively dedicated to rollersports in the United States only.
At the same time, some things are universal. The knowledge and resource-sharing that our members rely on from WFTDA seem to function across national differences. The collective bargaining power that WFTDA offers is most certainly stronger when it includes leagues from all over the world. Most importantly, all the leagues worldwide seek to play the same game, and the standardization WFTDA offers makes that possible.
**While it may not be a topic in the immediate future, there are hopes for derby to expand beyond its current amateur and mostly adult leagues. There are different sports associations for the various levels of play. For example, ice hockey has the NHL (pro-football), the Olympics, the ECHL and AHL (semi-pro), NCAA (college), various state high school athletic associations, and numerous little leagues. **
- How do you define professional or semi-professional roller derby?
- How does your membership feel about creating semi-pro or professional level derby?
- Explain how your organization is can help pave the way in both directions, towards professional derby and youth recreational derby.
- Why or why not would each level of play need its own governing body?
We need to continue building programs and resources to foster and promote our sport internationally. -Juliana Gonzales, WFTDA
**WFTDA: **WFTDA currently doesn’t distinguish between members that are pursuing professional, in which the athletes are paid, and amateur models, in which athletes play for little or no compensation. I’d say that the vast majority of our membership is playing roller derby as an amateur endeavor — a fervently loved, but unpaid pastime.
The last century of sports has really seen blurring of the “amateur” definition, to the point where it is becoming somewhat less important for eligibility in international competition. In 1971 the IOC removed the “amateur” requirement from its charter, and in the modern context, most athletes are only able to train full-time if they are compensated. The elasticity of the word “amateur” is evident across most sports today.
For WFTDA, the main priority is that the skaters retain control over the sport and have a hand in shaping the game and how it is played. We don’t believe that “skater owned and operated” is mutually exclusive with supporting athletes financially. At the same time, paying skaters doesn’t seem to be the reality in our current context.
- With nearly every Olympic event being having a men’s and women’s competition, it stands to reason that derby must become more gender inclusive, specifically more male competitors. How is your organization helping promote gender equality in the sport?
- Why or why not is gender equality necessary for roller derby to continue to grow?
**WFTDA: **Women know better than any other “class” of people what it is like to be shut out of participation in sports. Women are also intimately aware of how derision, glass ceilings, or old boys’ clubs can create an invisible but systematic limit to participating in sports. WFTDA is committed to fostering and promoting our sport; the inclusion of men and children in the sport are critical pieces of that mission.
At the same time, our mission directs us specifically to roller derby played by adult female competitors. In order to keep focus on our mission while supporting the growth of roller derby overall, we’ve partnered with the Men’s Roller Derby Association. Our partnership allows us to share resources and move in tandem when interacting with the public, without attempting to regulate men’s derby or causing us to lose focus on our own membership and mission.
- How would male or co-ed derby hurt or help modern derby grow in popularity or move towards becoming an Olympic event?
- Please explain the 3 biggest obstacles in derby becoming an Olympic event or some level of professional sport?
**WFTDA: **I think there are two things standing in the way of roller derby’s inclusion in the Olympic Games or some other mainstream showcase of the sport:
- Time. It’s typical for a sport to take 25+ years from its appearance in the mainstream to its inclusion in the Olympic Games. Roller derby probably needs another decade or two to ripen into something stable and mature enough to fit into the Games.
- Connections. International governing bodies of sports are incredibly political networks. They are insular even as they are internally struggling against each other for their interests. Currently, our sport doesn’t have the connections to the power players or networks there.
- How should the derby community as a whole overcome these issues?
**WFTDA: **I’d strongly encourage the derby community as a whole to “Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). We need to continue building programs and resources to foster and promote our sport internationally. This would include:
- continuing to expand to more skaters, teams, and leagues
- building programs that are equitable and valuable
- building systems and resources that are simple and sustainable, and
- training skaters and officials to excellence.
When it’s time, let’s make sure we are proud of what we have to promise and offer.
- **When we revisit this conversation next year, what will be the most noticeable changes in derby? **
**WFTDA: **I’m watching two trends in particular over the next year:
1) Formal relationships between derby organizations with tangible outcomes. I expect that by this time next year, the current collaborative environment will have manifested in more tangible, cooperative efforts undertaken by colleague organizations like WFTDA, Men’s Roller Derby Association, junior derby groups, and federal sports bodies. Hopefully these collaborations will have very tangible outcomes in terms of shared rules, policies, and resources.
2) *Continued international growth. * I think derby has probably reached the tipping point outside the US. By this time next year, WFTDA expects to have many more non-US members, and anticipates that these new member leagues will be building membership numbers towards regional rankings and tournaments in Europe and Australia. WFTDA is prepared to carve out competitive regions for non-US members as they grow.
- What changes would pleasantly surprise you if they happened within the next year?
**WFTDA: **I’d be pleasantly surprised if any of the international sports organizations tied to the Olympic programs reached out to derby in a real way. I suspect that still being in our first decade, those conversations are still a bit premature. WFTDA is focusing right now on building our programs and resources so that when it is time to go to the next level of formal recognition internationally, we’ll have a strong and flourishing program ready for launch.
- What is your personal derby mission for the next 12 months?
**WFTDA: **My commitment is to building our non-US membership and ensuring that they’re able to participate in the organization in a way that’s meaningful and beneficial in their context.
- Final thoughts?
**WFTDA: **Right now WFTDA is enjoying a season of Officiating Clinics, offered at a variety of locations all over the world. Once those wrap up in August, join us in turning attention toward our annual Big Five tournaments season, which kicks off September 16. Stay tuned to wftda.com for other news, events, and resources as they release.
NEXT: The Take-aways.
Previous: The State of Derby – Part V: USARS.