The biggest post season in the world of roller derby since the first Dust Devil has come and gone. WFTDA, after years of self-instituted hands-off approach to running tournaments, has finally taken more control of their playoffs than ever before. This includes retaining their video rights and not outsourcing to another network (MavTV) or website (DNN). Also a new emphasis on fan interaction happened as well with the bracket series and the #talk2wftda hash tag which a certain RDIT columnist originally suggested (hint: you are currently reading his column). To call this Big 5 a new chapter is an understatement. WFTDA is writing a whole new book, and let’s pray it’s as good as from the transition of The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
The questions of “when will roller derby be on ESPN?” and “when will roller derby be in the Olympics?” continue to be asked. This year is a step in the right direction for both, sort of, if WFTDA decides to go in either of those directions. WFTDA as a league (in the traditional definition of the word) is way too large (124 member leagues and 65 apprentice leagues as of September 1, 2011) to give significant airtime to. The most similar sports model to WFTDA is the NCAA, and with over 6 different channels showing college football games on Saturday, from noon till 11:30 p.m. EST, you can still only follow a handful of teams, depending on the importance of the games and where in the country it is being played. Could Gotham vs. Oly get airtime? Absolutely. Would Hard Knox vs. Memphis? Outside of their local area, my derby eight ball says “unlikely.”
The Olympics is also a possibility for roller derby as a sport, but it comes with various trappings. WFTDA would not control it; some form of Olympic committee would, which blatantly breaks from the “by the skaters, for the skaters” philosophy. Then there is the amount of training and sponsorship that would be involved, which would be unlike anything derby has seen to this point. I don’t really care either way if roller derby makes the Olympics, but I do think that people need to be realistic about what that would really mean to the sport and not to just romanticize it.
Even bigger than these two things is what the television industry is going to look like in 5 years. More and more content is finding its way onto sites like Hulu, streaming via Netflix, and crossing multiple platforms such as ESPN 3, which can be found on Xbox Live. Then of course there are websites such as Justin.TV and Ustream.tv, which allow people to stream content. Finally, there is the option to stream video directly through your website which many cable channels are doing and the WFTDA is doing with the entire Big 5 at www.wftda.com.
So what does this all mean? It means that the WFTDA might have already found their best solution for airing their content. By doing this, WFTDA is its own master, setting their own rules and not answering to a network that could make them change the presentation of the sport. They would, however, still be responsible for answering to their sponsors, but they have the advantage of being able to pick and choose who those sponsors are. The trade off for that freedom though is how much money they can bring in as big time sponsors are going to want to see certain things for their dollar.
WFTDA might have already found their best solution for airing their content
If WFTDA continues to use this model of steaming their own content, then the next step will be to grow their fan base, which means marketing and advertising will have to take major steps forward. Sure, you know where to find the Big 5, but you are also reading a website dedicated to roller derby. Basically what I am saying is you are in the know. The next step is going to be to grow outside the derby microverse and get the attention of people who are not in the know. That is going to mean spending a lot of money to be seen via web ads, magazine ads, and commercials. The old saying of “it takes money to make money” is true as the more eyes see roller derby the more money will come in. A perfect example of this: The UFC’s original beer sponsor was Mickey’s Malt Liquor, but now Bud Light exclusively graces the canvas of the Octagon.
As I stated in the opening paragraph, the move this year towards better fan relations and interaction is a big step in the right direction. Roller derby needs to cultivate relationships with people who don’t skate, ref, or volunteer but actually pay money for tickets to come watch the sport itself. The success and growth of roller derby is going to depend on this, as people who are purely just fans fill the stands for regular season home games yet still sparsely attend regional playoff tournaments.
the move this year towards better fan relations and interaction is a big step in the right direction
While all this is happening, other roller derby organizations continue to grow and depending on their marketing, business practices, and what they have learned from WFTDA’s past mistakes could eclipse the WFTDA model. The sexually discriminative jokes about men’s roller derby have faded greatly in the past 2 years, and what was once an amusing half time show of bumbling refs on skates trying to mimic the ladies is turning into a serious sport that continues to grow both in size and skill. USARS will also be a threat to WFTDA as the premier name in roller sports has decided to plant a serious stake in the world of roller derby. With a number of independent leagues in the world and the possibility to establish new teams in large markets, USARS could quickly become a force to reckon with. On top of this are various non-WFTDA events such as the World Cup and the Chicago Invitational (http://www.prorollerderby.com/) who are using current WFTDA skaters and teams.
Does WFTDA still have things to fix? Sure they do. Minor penalties, how and when the jam begins, and regions that are incredibly unbalanced in terms of talent immediately spring to mind, but they get an A plus for what they did with the Big 5 this year from a fan watching at home standpoint. The advertising of future events in 2012 to guarantee participation and interest was great during the WFTDA Championships. The announcing was close to picture-perfect this year, as the commentary was focused on the track action and not inside jokes and drinking games. And while there were tech issues from time to time, they did the best to correct them with FAQ trouble shooting links and direct email access to Blaze Streaming Media for help. I hope that WFTDA continues to evolve this model, because this aspect of their organization is moving in the right direction.