20th Century Derby: The Rise and the Reboot

Roller derby at Atlanta Municipal Auditorium

Roller Derby at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, 1937.

At the turn of the 21st century, the modern sport of roller derby broke out of its incubation from the underground scene from Austin, Texas and onto the national stage. Roller derby, however, is not a new sport, but one that has experienced several iterations of play and varying degrees of popularity.

The First Wave of Derby

Chicago, 1935: the Transcontinental Roller Derby is born. The sport was originally played by co-ed teams who took turns skating laps on a banked track. The winning team was the one who first completed enough laps to span the length of the U.S.; competitions would last several days. Roller derby was widely popular; good skaters achieved celebrity status and the sport maintained its popularity until the early 1960s despite struggling with waning attendance during World War II. 

Derby-mania and the Second Wave

Roller derby was reinvented for television consumption in the late 1970s. While roller derby had previously been televised as early as the 1940s, the sport had adopted pro-wrestling's theatrical performances. Gameplay had been changed and it now showcased rough-housing skaters vying for position on the track. It was not uncommon to see players throwing elbows, tripping and shoving, and brawls breaking out on skates, much of which was staged. Players adopted personas. The sport had evolved into part spectacle, part performance, and from its onset the second wave of roller derby struggled to achieve a foothold in popular culture. Various iterations of this type of play tried to win popularity but by the 1990s the sport had once again disappeared.

20th Century Derby: The Rise and the Reboot