A year and a half ago, I was talking to my buddy Rocker Boy, announcer for the Carolina Rollergirls, swapping stories about announcing at the North Central and South Central Regional tournaments. Rocker is not only a good friend, but he’s also one of my favorite announcers to listen to because of how intelligent he is. As we were talking, Rocker hearkened back to a conversation he had with our mutual friend Corndog, “Man, I don’t know why they just don’t call these things conventions. All I do is see the same people over and over again; there are hardly any fans there.” That made me stop and think. I realized that Rocker was right. People walking around in funny costumes (I am not talking about the girls’ jerseys), getting drunk in a hotel that everyone shares, and the people that are there are all somehow part of the same subculture? Check, check, and check. Sounds like a convention to me.
Last year as I sat in the stands at the Thunda on the Tundra in Milwaukee, not much had changed, and Rocker’s words rang in my head. Even with the influx of new leagues into the WFTDA and attendance records being set around the country at regular season games, there still weren’t many fans in the stands unless they were camouflaged as empty seats. As I sat there, I thought about how many people actually paid to get in to see this and how much each team had to pay to play in regional tournament that should have been a reward instead of another cost for these leagues. While the NC Regional had a sponsor to cover this cost, most of the Regionals didn’t, and if they didn’t make enough money, the teams were going to have to eat the cost.
Hosting a tournament isn’t easy. Back in 2007, I helped my former league, the Ohio Roller Girls, host the East Regionals. WFTDA was very hands-off in allowing us to plan the tournament, which was a good and a bad thing. While we didn’t have to ask anyone for permission to make decisions, we also didn’t have any type of financial backing from the WFTDA and had to go out and find our own sponsors. My hat is off to any league that steps up to take on this momentous task, especially since there is a chance they will be losing money due to lack of tickets sales. This is because tournaments don’t draw nearly the paying crowd that regular season home games do. Hosting a tournament should be financially rewarding, not taxing. The world is a different place in 2011 than it was in 2007, and there is a way for the WFTDA to turn a profit to help grow the sport, and that is through the sport itself.
The biggest commodity that WFTDA has is something that they are not making money off of currently: The video rights to the games themselves. While they do have money coming in from issuing insurance to every WFTDA league (104) and apprentice leagues (59), they could be receiving money for the actual games themselves. How is that possible? Easy: WFTDA could work in conjunction with the leagues that host each tournament in the Big 5, East Coast Derby Extravaganza, and Wild West Showdown (7 tournaments a year) and sell them online as iPPVs (Internet pay-per-views). Today with expanding bandwidth, HD cameras, and other technological advancements, it has become cheaper and easier to create quality video content without having a professional television network backing it. WFTDA has always been based on DIY principles, and this is a logical extension of that philosophy. Additionally, by filming their own games, WFTDA controls its own image and doesn’t end up out sourcing games to channels like Mav TV again, whose other programming was akin to reading Maxim while huffing gasoline.
But Tank, you may be thinking, why would I pay for pay-per-view when I get all of these things for free now? Because currently neither WFTDA nor any of the teams hosting or playing in these tournaments are making any money from the online video. The women who are putting on these tournaments and putting their bodies on the line playing in them deserve that money more than anyone else, and currently they aren’t making a damn dime. Instead, if you paid $10 to $15 a day to watch each one of these tournaments, money would actually go to the athletes that are playing the games.
How would this work? Simple: By using the model that Blaze Streaming and Sacred City Derby Girls used for Westerns last year. You would pay a fee ($10 or $15 a day) to watch a day’s worth of derby via iPPV. That might sound a bit expensive, but look at it this way. Last year, for the final day of Westerns, I had 7 people over to my apartment, all of whom gave me $5 to watch the game and order pizza. That’s $35, which equaled a whole day’s worth of derby, 2 large pizzas, and a side of breadsticks. We had a great time together and it only cost us pocket change to watch. On that day, there were over 1,000 individual IP addresses watching those games (955 free/45 paid). That means for a daily price tag of $10, they made somewhere in the neighborhood of $450 for the Sunday thread I was watching. Over a 3-day weekend tournament, the hosting league, video production company, and WFTDA could theoretically split close to $1500 however they saw fit off of PPV, if those numbers held. This is before any type of DVD which brings in a nice bit of coin as well. At the very least, it could help the hosting league to keep from losing money on renting the venue and paying the camera crew. That would make it possible for WFTDA to not charge leagues $500 or more to play in a regional tournament that they earned the right to play in, and give WFTDA themselves some additional capital to hire more people to work full-time for them or reinvest into advertising and promotion to expand the sport into new markets. As more money became available, teams could be awarded prize money for where they placed, or money could be split equally and used for travel and hotel accommodations.
Experts agree that the future of television will involve the Internet, and we are seeing that already with websites such as Hulu and ESPN 3. With the integration of the Internet and television together, it will be more of a common occurrence for people to watch things online. With that thought in mind, more companies are looking to invest in a web presence. WFTDA could gather sponsors to air commercials in between periods and games. Businesses such as www.netflix.com and www.threadless.com would make perfect choices for sponsors, as both companies are entirely web based. Going back to my original numbers, if 50people, I work better with round numbers, buy 7 iPPVS a year ($30 dollars for all 3 days), that’s a revenue of $ 10,500 before sponsorships and DVD sales, which could bring in even more revenue.
To create interest in these iPPVs/tournaments, WFTDA needs to capture the interest of general public by hyping the hundreds of regular season games that can be seen for free on the web all year long. These regular season games need to be the free showcases that get new fans to follow the sport and try roller derby out. It is as simple as teams posting their games on Ustream and WFTDA tweeting or posting about them on Facebook to advertise them. A perfect example of this was the recent Minnesota (NC 2) vs. Madison (NC 3) game, which had a major impact on how the North Central Regionals could be seeded this year. Had Madison won, they would have automatically leapfrogged into the No. 2 spot in the region. That was a huge game, shot beautifully on multiple cameras, and was available online for free. It should have been marketed and advertised all over the place. By having fans get attached to teams during the regular season, they will pay a small fee online or buy tickets to see their team play in the Regionals.
WFTDA is making some wise decisions this year with whom they’ve chosen to host the Big 5 in 2011. All of the teams/cities selected to host the tournaments (Baltimore, Portland, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Denver) have large fan bases that bring in thousands of fans per game. Hopefully, those fans also come to the Big 5 this year to pack the stands, which will look very impressive online. While watching things on the Internet is good, ultimately the goal is still the same as it’s always been: Get people’s butts off their couches and into arena seats.
As past evidence shows, the WFTDA as an organization and roller derby in general are going to continue to grow. How big they get is intertwined with video rights and production. WFTDA can control this, but if they don’t, inevitably someone will, as there is definitely money to be made. Will that money be used to advance the sport and help to ease the financial burdens that teams and players face, or will that money go into the pocket of someone else? Only time and WFTDA’s decisions on this matter will tell. Personally, though, when I go to a tournament in 5 years, I want to feel like I don’t know 80 percent of the people in the hotel with me rather than feel like I’m at a convention where I know almost everyone.
*When not writing about roller derby once month, Tank can be found locked in his apartment working on artwork, basking in the glow of his television, and spending quality time with his girlfriend, Miss Print (journalist/jammer) and dog, Doyle Von Frankenstein. You can follow him or yell at him on twitter, @tankofalltrades.
**photo by Axle Adams.
***This article has been edited from its original version. Comments in the thread below have been unaltered.