Losing Your Following? How to Keep Fans Coming Back

RollerDerby_Entertainment(Part two of a series on roller derby fan retention.)

In the previous blog post on fan retention, I suggested changing the notion of “by the skater, for the skater” to “by the skater for the fan.” The post received an outpouring of comments, questions and ideas. Thanks everyone for ringing in.

Nothing is more important than playing. Period. The sport draws a rich subculture and instills confidence unlike anything else I’ve experienced. If playing is the focus and drawing a crowd isn’t, that’s fine.

But if your business model includes playing to fans, make it a goal to continually get more attendees to return and one day build a sustainable fan base.

Change Your Perspective

First off, don’t confuse family and friends with fans. Those who know skaters and staff account for a significant number of people, but their attendance fails over time and they often don’t return after “their” league-member leaves.

Fans are customers. If a restaurant sells food the owner likes, but customers find unappealing, change the menu or accept the consequences. Separate your opinions from that of the paying customer. You can give fans the night they want and they’ll return.

You can give fans the night you want, which might work, but fans won’t necessarily grow to like it.

There is no second chance.

Consider Your Impression

Are skaters qualified to play? New leagues sometimes rush into games without the skill or the stamina to make a good impression. As excited as it is to get out there, slow-moving, unstable, sloppy skaters trying to execute high-level strategies are difficult to watch.

Those who play prior to mastering minimum skills jeopardize themselves, teammates and opponents. Many serious injuries I’ve witnessed, (such as compound fractures) occurred during a league’s first game. As badly as we feel for the skater, the medical attention and screams impact the crowd. Imagine how it affects kids in the audience.

Be patient. To get your skating fix, scrimmage until the team is ready.

Speed of the Game – Controversial?

It need not be. The WFTDA rules allow for many styles of play. Can game play or speed itself create retention problems? Yes, but to what extent is unknown. I’ve had many exchanges with hardcore fans that left dissatisfied with the experience. My family no longer attends games.

In 2010, using the same/very similar pack definition rules, Detroit’s Racer McChaser put up a short-lived record of 36 points in one jam. Amazingly, her opponent was on the track the entire time. No stopping, no bracing and she put up a 36-0 run against her opponent. It took a skilled use of both offensive and defensive blocking. Would that look the same today? It’s highly unlikely, though many elements of the speed differentials used and the offensive blocking remain valid strategy today.

There are many ways to play. Half the fun of coaching is developing something new. I see 50 games a year or more and quickly notice teams that execute situational defenses/offenses all night, when offensive blocking would produce far greater points and excitement.

Simple Solutions

Try to keep nights within 2 ½ hours. Warm-up time is a necessity, but 30-minute halftimes (especially during double headers) and long breaks between games thins the crowd quickly.

Often, leagues leave seating wide open. Don’t. Put the skaters on the far side of the venue and the crowd on the other, facing them. Cordon off a section specifically for the fans so that they all sit together. The venue looks more full, the crowd feeds off each other and it’s easier for the league to interact with the audience.

Plus, it’s louder.

7 Pre-game Entertainment Tips

  1. Don’t allow fans to walk into a quiet venue with only player warmups to watch.
  2. The time prior to the anthem and intros is where a DJ can really go all out.
  3. Run league trivia on the scoreboard. You could even have announcers do it. Make it suspenseful, with a list of answers—have each wrong answer disappear until the right one is chosen.
  4. As fans enter, make sure they are walking through the merchandise area. Always put this in a high-traffic area.
  5. Set up a table near the entrance that is clearly labeled for derby newbies. Explain the game with a sketch of the track, moveable pieces to represent skaters, and a single-sheet handout of basic derby rules. Encourage them to return at breaks with questions.
  6. Run video compilations for the crowd showing great moves, big hits, revving them up for the action to follow.
  7. Have each team finish their warmup by forming a pace line. Take a few minutes to get that line moving as quickly as possible, wowing the crowd and blowing the hair back of those in the suicide seats.

Dramatic Intros

If you have entrance photos or videos for your teams, run them while players are introduced. Make it dramatic. Dim the main lights and run specialty lights if you have them. No need for taglines, just announcers projecting with emphasis on player names, like they do in pro-sports arenas.

Engaging Fans During the GameRoller-Derby-Fan-Retention

Kudos to WFTDA for appointing emcees to this year’s playoffs. As emcee of the D1 Madison tournament, I hyped the crowd, ran fan games during halftimes, and was turned loose to entertain. The role generated a lot of positive feedback.

Give announcers an appropriate, family-friendly leash. During timeouts and downtime, let banter flow. If announcers are having fun, so are fans.

Fan games. During some D1 tournaments, fans looked forward to musical chairs and scavenger hunts. In Madison, we threw dance contests, lip-sync contests, hula hoop races and had original games.

Kids’ games. Make them clever, don’t just give in to running races, dress-up races, three-legged races. I am the biggest kid in the room, no matter where I go, so interviewing the little ones is a must. What they say during interviews is half the fun. Besides, it’s catering to families.

Skater skills contests. Hold a skills contest at halftime and raise money for charity. Have buckets with each skater’s name at the merch booth. Have “runners” take the buckets into the stands to sell raffle tickets. Give the audience a stake in who wins – the audience places each ticket into the container of the skater they think will win and the winning skater then draws the ticket from his/her bucket.

7 Contest and Entertainment Ideas

  1. Fastest average lap. It takes a stopwatch and a little math, but you can time skaters and translate a lap’s average mph. I’ve done it and the crowd loves it. Run each skater one at a time to prevent contact.
  2. Backwards laps. Same thing.
  3. Measure Apex jumps.
  4. Run an obstacle course. Limbo bar, cone slalom, obstacles to jump. The fastest wins.
  5. Ask local entertainers to participate. Jam skaters, extreme sports athletes, family-friendly comedians, dance and tumbling squads.
  6. Jeerleaders, a more tongue-in-cheek cheerleading squad. Milwaukee’s Beerleaders not only cheered, they did a dance routine at every game.
  7. Supervised kids’ areas, where the little ones can color, bowl down pins with skates or play other games.

Be creative, keep the night moving and above all, enjoy it.

How do you keep your fans entertained? Ring in below; we would love to hear your ideas.

Roller Derby >

Dear Derby, the Honeymoon is Over. Now What?

Fan-Retention-RollerDerbyMarketing(Part one of a two-part series on fan retention).

For nearly ten years, derby enjoyed amazing crowds with little marketing. We were a viable entertainment option. So why, in the last few years, have so many leagues cut back on travel, lost money or their venue? They are not catering to the fan. Rat City’s crowd funding to save their practice facility should have been the wake-up call of all wake-up calls. Keep in mind that this is the same league that set the national attendance record a few years ago.

No more mainstream TV shows or movies about derby. The honeymoon period is over.

Business Acumen is Crucial
Lately, my role announcing is not nearly as important as being a business resource to leagues. My BA in Business Management followed by years running department stores, helps me see wasted money and missed opportunities. I managed budgets, marketing and personnel issues for stores that generated millions of dollars annually and was accountable when sales went up or down.

Trust me, when I say that general proper business practices lack at all levels of roller derby.

By the Skater for the Fan
Once you sell tickets, you are a business. Don’t worry about losing control; your league is yours.

It’s time to look at fans as customers. There are many decisions to be made in order to make a profit. Profit increases by generating more income (grow your fan-base, sell more merchandise, increase fundraising) or lowering expenses.

So, if your league is struggling, what will it be? “By the skater, for the fan?” I hope so. Unless you don’t mind playing for fun behind closed doors (nothing wrong with that), adapt your production, strategize your ticket sales and give fans a night to remember.

Fan Retention
Even if you pull in a fair number of fans, why do so many not return? There is a disconnect between what you offer and what fans hope for. I can give you solid ideas on how to increase the crowds coming through the door, but if they’re only coming once, your pool of new fans continually gets smaller.

Wondering what your fan retention is? To get a good visual, use your phone and take a panorama of the crowd at the beginning of your event, then after halftime and again at the night’s conclusion. You’ll see about how many stay for the whole game.

Speed of the Game
First off, it’s not WFTDA’s fault for the speed of the game and the way it’s being played. They made revisions to try to better define the game and it only takes one to find loopholes that many follow. Yes, the slower, stop-and-go-style of game confuses fans.

My job, as an announcer is to succinctly explain what is happening. It’s impossible, in a few sentences, to relay pack destruction, reformation and why they stop. People are confused; they don’t understand how a game on wheels can be slow.

You decide if this ends or not. If you are unsanctioned, play the game you want to. If you are sanctioned, use it when it makes sense. If you hate it, let your WFTDA BOD know.

Make the Night Memorable
Don’t kill production value; make it better. The evening needs to entertain from start to finish. A few ideas:

• Engaging openings for teams and videos for the screens or jumbotrons
• Keep skaters accessible to fans – autograph tables on the way in and way out
• Make each half-time short but memorable with acts or contests

Nobody wants teams to experience financial issues or constant worry that every bout has to be “the one.” Give fans what they want, make it consistent, sell more tickets and get fans to return.

Stay tuned for my next post in the series on fan retention. I’ll explore specific, creative ways you can keep ’em coming back.

How is your league retaining fans in derby’s post-Honeymoon stage? Comment below with your tips and experiences. 

Roller Derby >

How Argentina Time Applies to Roller Derby

Bob_Noxious_ArgentinaRollerDerbyLast month, I posted insights from my first week in Argentina’s derby community.

During my near 12 years in derby, I’ve documented, well … almost nothing of my whereabouts. Friend and New York Shock Exchange (NYSE) skater, Harm’s Way made me aware that I have “derbied” on four continents. Argentina felt different than other places I have traveled.

Roller derby may play by the same rules, but the experience is different. The subculture in Argentina is similar as that in the States, but more tightly knit and energy filled—reminiscent of the first five years in the U.S. That DIY spirit remains high. Argentina, as I expected, was electric.

I didn’t anticipate that Argentina’s social culture would parallel the derby subculture.

Family, Friends, Community

Argentinians are about family, friends, community and spending time to relax and enjoy each other. When sitting down to dinner, which is shared by all guests (you literally cut pieces of food and give them to the person next to you), who got stir crazy after two hours at the table? Yep, the U.S. crew. As friend Sin Diesel put it, “Fellas, you are now on Argentina time.” We talked, laughed and (Billy Joel reference) “forgot about life for a while.”

My greatest regret was not experiencing a neighborhood social club. Family, friends and neighbors gather to eat, enjoy the pool and relax at the clubs. They’re common in neighborhoods outside of the bustling city center. Many of the NYSE skaters had the experience and it sounded terrific. Of course, in 100-degree weather, a pool, cold drinks and good company always sounds terrific.

Argentinians aren’t joking when they invite you to stay at their homes. I was stunned to learn that the gentleman who put the SEVEN of us in his apartment wasn’t even a derby participant—his connection to the sport was a derby official in Buenos Aires. He opened his place in Cordoba to our motley crew of snoring, stinking-from-the-heat skaters and myself.

While in Cordoba, to express their appreciation for NYSE and support staff, they threw us a party. When invited to an Argentine dinner, eat a snack first. Chances are you will drink, share stories and laugh for three hours before the food comes out. Again, Argentina time. R-E-L-A-X. It’s hard for Americans, especially once we’re hangry. On a beautiful evening, our hosts worked magic over an open pit to make the best beef I have ever tasted.

Argentinians share everything. They don’t crack open a twelver and hand out bottles. They’re more likely to mix Fernet and Coke, the local favorite into a large container and pass it around. After a while, you drop the germ-phobic tendencies and realize the group shares all food and drink. It’s an amazing tradition. Oh how the conversation changes dynamics when the beer is passed around, in one large cup as you chat.

No Pressure. No Politics. A Fun Night of Good Derby.
A few days in Cordoba passed and it was back to Buenos Aires. Everything on the trip at this point was amazing. Yet, the best experience was still to come. I was invited to two “tournament games” at a schoolyard. Seriously, who would miss that? The entire local derby community turns out and in Buenos Aires, that’s a lot of people.

Every other Monday night in summer, the community comes together to play and watch games—a simple concept with overwhelming results. For five weeks, two weekly games are played: one women’s, one co-ed. The teams comprise a mix of players from all teams in the city. You have five weeks of play; it’s round robin and one team has a bi each week.

With a track painted on a school playground, it is simply understood by street soccer players they will relinquish the area to derby at 8PM. Between 200 and 300 of the derby family arrives, tables get set up where they are mixing and selling drinks and desserts. As skaters prepare, people socialize, a scoreboard with flip numbers is set up on a soccer goal and managed by two women. By the time it starts, we’re playing under school ground lights.

Games end, people linger for hours to talk, go to grab some food, return to the playground and hang out into the early hours of the morning. Think about how easy this would be to do. How it would bond the local derby community and provide exposure to onlookers. Not to mention, give an outlet for skating during off-season.

No pressure, no politics. Just a fun night of good derby.

Everyone can take something from this story. Argentine roller derby complements the passionate culture. It accentuates all that is good about our sport – the camaraderie, our grassroots, and the fun we could have without the formality of a full game production. So many forget to enjoy the moment and each other. “Argentina time” takes some getting used to, but is greatly missed once back to the hustle and formality of everyday life in America.

The New York Shock Exchange, along with many other derby leagues will be participating in coast-to-coast derby blood drives, along with the American Red Cross and Brown Paper Tickets. Check out the schedule of the Blood for Life derby blood drives.

Roller Derby >

Derby Passion Runs High in Argentina

MensRollerDerby-Sqr-Argentina“Find passion and develop a lust for life with others who celebrate every day.”

No, this is not a personal ad; this sentence sums up my feelings on the Argentine roller derby scene. Argentina, a new hotbed for derby, is forging the movement in South America—the number of leagues is growing almost too quickly to track.

Traveling to South America excited me, but I also felt nervous. I am never nervous. I have spent weeks roving in countries where I don’t speak the official language. I have stood in front of 5,000 people with a microphone in my hand. But Argentina, land of tango and passion? This brash announcer dude would surely be out of his element.

Brown Paper Tickets sponsored the New York Shock Exchange, an American team playing in Buenos Aries and Córdoba tournaments. I traveled there to support, possibly announce and take photos. I took a derby leap of faith and found a room in Buenos Aires (population 14 million) believing my contacts, Optimuz Quad and NYSE would just find me.

Warm Welcome 

My Spanish was a bit rusty. Did I say rusty? I mean non-existent. I could count to eight and ask for a beer. Granted, “I’d like eight beers” has its uses, but requires seven buddies.

As I settled into the hotel, my phone buzzed with a Facebook alert: Optimuz was already checking in. I was unaware his team was hosting the tournament and did not know he was to be the tournament director. Our conversation went something like this:

“Still want to attend practice tonight?”
“I’m pretty beat, but I’m here so let’s do it.”

Three hours later, this staple in the Argentine derby movement was at my hotel. Optimuz is one of eight 2013 Team Argentina skaters who played in the Birmingham Men’s Roller Derby World Cup. A team that will resonate with men’s derby fans forever.

He greeted me with a hug (cool, I am a hugger), kissed me on the cheek (as is custom), and sincerely thanked me for making the trip. He had taken two hours of mass transit straight from work to familiarize me with the walk and subway ride. It didn’t matter how much was on his plate or how far he had to ride, as long as he took care of his guest. That epitomizes the Argentina experience.

It was the height of summer when I visited and hot. Not nice-vacation-let’s-tan hot, but my-clothes-are-stuck-to-me-and-I-stink hot. Thus, the city comes to life at night.

The ThunderQuads practice beneath an overpass, beginning at dusk. 2X4, one the numerous women’s leagues in Buenos Aries, practices from 10PM to midnight. The moon, stars and area walkways offered the only light sources. In the corners, teens with boomboxes practiced new breakdancing moves. A block north, boxers sparred. Runners filled a track about thirty feet west. Sidewalks clicked with the occasional skateboarder, while the overpass above hummed with cars and trucks. This was one of the most amazing, vibrant scenes I have ever witnessed in all of my derby travels.

Before ThunderQuads’ practice, everyone from both men’s and women’s teams introduced themselves and thanked me. As much as it meant to have NYSE attend their tournament and spread MRDA sanctioning into South America, they made it a point to also express gratitude to myself, refs and NSOs who traveled from other continents to assist.

HARD2016 Tournament

The HARD2016 tournament was crazy fun, even though economic limitations sadly prevented three Colombian teams from competing. Participating teams:

• New York Shock Exchange (USA)
• Hosting team Thunderquads (Argentina)
• Buenos Aires Conspiracy (Argentina)
• Congragolpe Roller Derby (Argentina)
• Terror S-quad (Chile)

Though a formal sport’s facility, the venue was another open-air location under an overpass. Teams began playing on two tracks, until a torrent of rain overcame the overpass drainage and flooded the facility (is anything easy in derby?). Teams played the second and final day on the other track, which was still dry.

The first day proven that the derby was quite good, but NYSE and the ThunderQuads were the cream of the crop. They would meet in the championship game and everyone was hyped for the match-up.

Seasoned announcers are used to varied environments. I called the 3v4 game and championship of the HARD Tournament with my new friend Yisus, an interpreter seated between us. That was awesome. It made for great (albeit delayed) banter. I worked the crowd’s excitement with the flow of the game and then looked to make Yisus and the crowd laugh. I was so out of my element, it was a blast and everyone seemed to be having fun.

Most Memorable Game

12705563_1043277625742645_7255121563801009624_n-1-1

The championship game was the most emotional and memorable in my 11 years as an announcer. The extraordinarily good home team competed against NYSE, who also had an outstanding record. The ThunderQuads played NYSE within a 30-point differential until the final ten minutes of the game.

Around 250 people sat virtually on top of the track and the outside ref lane needed to be cleared at times. The space was tight, making the audience part of the game. And it was loud. The crowd stood and shouted with each passing run. The adrenaline ran so high I had goosebumps and the call was pure excitement. When the game ended, I walked and paced for an hour afterward to come down. The scene was unbelievable. Players hugging in tears, exchanging uniforms (they even gave me one), photos went on for an hour, the crowd stayed until we moved to the after-party two hours later.

In general, derby is a passionate sport, but this was a whole new level. The players and crowd were so grateful for the Shock Exchange and support staff; they thanked us again and treated us like family the whole rest of the trip.

The after party gave us more time to talk, bond, and appreciate the people and experience that was the HARD2016 tournament.

Look out for another post on the growing Argentine derby community.

Photo credits: fb/johnnyderby21 and Len Rizzo

Roller Derby >

Roller Derby Beirut: Changing Minds, Changing Lives

gotgear_landingpage(square)_under1mbI’m excited to announce that with Brown Paper Tickets’ help, we’ve been able to collect and send merchandise to a burgeoning roller derby league in Lebanon—Roller Derby Beirut (RDB). And now, we have new tools in place to collect more supplies and raise funds so this league can continue.

The funds will be used to purchase new gear for RDB. I’m proud to be a part of this initiative. However, none of it would have been possible without Elisabeth Wolffhechel, aka “LOL” of the A-team out of Copenhagen, Denmark.

I first saw the call to help RDB this past November, while working the WFTDA European Tournament in Malmo, Sweden and then I saw it again at the Women’s World Cup. I tracked Wolffhechel down when I realized I could assist with the project.

Sweet Beginnings

Wolffhechel a university student in Copenhagen, paved the way for RDB, through her work with GAME, a Danish organization that wanted to get involved with the Middle East. Using street sports, GAME teaches kids and young adults about democratic ideas, taking responsibility and equal rights for women.

Watch a video of GAME Finals Beirut 2015 event, and the first roller derby match ever in Lebanon.

As a GAME employee, Elisabeth founded RDB within her body of work. The quest also helped her to return with experience for her master’s thesis. She left for Beirut late January of last year and returned to Denmark in July.

Building a League + Changing Minds

Any time derby breaks social mores where girls and women aren’t accepted as equals, it begs asking about the reaction. There are parts of the world that are not as accepting to girls on skates in a physical game.

As anticipated, RDB didn’t always impress parents as a sport suitable for women. Another hurdle she encountered was that different political factions control different parts of Beirut, making it difficult for some to find transportation to practice. Wolffhechel had to navigate varied social values. It wasn’t just about building a league; it was about changing minds.

The moment some of the young ladies returned home physically sore, they were told to quit. Wolffhechel feels the parents’ naivety of the sport presented more of a challenge than the cultural barriers. Women’s sports, in general, are very under-developed. Insurance is also an issue.

RDB, a Catalyst for Global Change

A university that draws students from all over the world sits in the center of Beirut—many skaters are university students. This adds to the importance of RDB, as when these women graduate, they will hopefully spread derby to new areas of the world.

Practice space wasn’t quite the issue I would have predicted. RDB was able to find practice space under a roof, though not an enclosed building, providing fair protection from the weather on a consistent basis. As far as a playing venue, sports facilities require rent, which is currently unrealistic.

Upon Wolffhechel’s leaving, they had 12 skaters committed to the league. She divided duties before she returned to Denmark and currently, the skaters are self-run.


Get Involvedroller-derby-lebanon

Wolffhechel started something wonderful, but RDB needs a little derby love to keep rolling. Brown Paper Tickets created a donation portal to help keep the league in the game. Donate to the drive. I will buy new gear for the league and Brown Paper Tickets will ship it to Derby Beirut with a love note.

Skates are the hardest to round up—I hope this donation drive will be the answer to getting equipment and skates to league members, who are often exchanging skates even just to practice.

Every little bit helps. Make a donation or spread the word to your pals.

Good Causes >

The Essential Guide to Merchandise, Part 1: Selecting a Vendor

BPT_buttons_2_300x300Whenever someone tells me that there’s no money in merchandise, I want to scream. Merchandise programs can become your league’s greatest return on investment. Especially once your merchandise program is established.

This is the first of a three-part series on derby merchandise programs and the best use of your merch committee’s time. Although this series is specific to roller derby, the following applies to bands, performers and anyone else who might sell merchandise at their events.

There is Money in Merchandise 

Two examples that speak to the value of merchandise sales:

-Bands make their name on the road. Most will tell you it is merchandise sales, not a cut of the door sales that support their ramen-noodle habit and van.

-My son loved watching the monster truck TV series, “Monster Jam.” One episode, Dennis Anderson, owner of the iconic Grave Digger, made a prolific statement about merchandise sales. In his early years, he ran the truck until it was wrecked, “to get the most out of merchandise sales.” That’s right, he traveled the country destroying expensive trucks to boost merch sales.

Roller derby merch has the same potential.

Though there are many types of merchandise you can sell, clothing will draw your greatest sales and profit. T-shirts are critical to any merch program. They are relatively inexpensive to make and can generate a strong profit.

Your relationship with your clothing producer is a critical one that’s reliant on trust, so be choosy when it comes to your vendor.

Choose Vendors Wisely 

The three factors to be aware of when choosing a vendor are reliability, the cost goods and the quality of their work. Too often, leagues have “merch problems” from making a poor choice of vendors. Many leagues are offered great deals from startup print shops, a league-mate’s friend or even someone within the league.

What could possibly go wrong?

Reliability

You get a great deal. At first, your orders may not have time sensitivity. Especially if it’s off-season or the league is in early stages. But when you need inventory by a certain date and it doesn’t show up, it’s a big problem.

If you are out of sizes or styles, those are lost sales. How could this happen? More than likely, they’ve offered this same killer deal (undercutting the price of other printers) to a number of others. The print shop is looking to build its clientele. The general concept of creating printed t-shirts is not difficult, but bulk printing is. Problems arise when the printer takes on more work than they have staff, equipment or time. For some shops, it isn’t a full-time business; it’s a “hobby.”

How to Sniff Out an Unreliable Vendor 

  • Ask to tour their shop prior to committing your business. If they keep stalling, they don’t have a shop. They have limited equipment (potentially homemade) in a corner of a basement or garage. One or two screen presses won’t keep you stocked, especially once there are other customers.
  • If they made their own screen printers (fairly easy), the turnaround time on each piece will be a killer. If a tour of the shop shows you professional equipment for creating screens, printing bulk shirts, advanced drying equipment, heat presses, CAD cutters (printers that cut a vinyl material) and the like, you’re working with professionals.

Don’t be afraid to look into larger companies. When I had my own t-shirt company, all of my screen-printing was done by a large facility contracted by the likes of Nike and Reebok. Yes, my orders were squeezed between large corporate ones, but done with consistent quality, available as promised and often less expensive than if done in smaller shops.

Remember, league money needs to be held tight. Spend it cautiously, especially early on and know that every dollar spent needs to earn more dollars. Choosing the right shirt printer is a vital first step.

What’s a “Good” Deal?

There are two ways to maximize the contributions of your merch program—find the right selling price and keep costs low. Your goal is to make quality merch at the lowest price possible. Clothing printers will provide you with shirts and do the printing.

They buy the t-shirts at wholesale prices and mark the price up. If you’re told blank t-shirts are $4, work on driving that price down. Let me arm you with reality. A quality, men’s black tee, at wholesale price, is no more than $2.50. It’s also not uncommon for wholesalers to run specials for under $2.

My goal was to create a final product for $6 maximum and sell at $15, which is an acceptable price for fans. As my own company however, I bought shirts at wholesale and either applied the print myself or sent them to my screen printer to use. Some printers will not allow this, some will–they have to make money too. But if your single-color tees are running $8 to make, force them to bargain or walk away. You hold the cards in this decision, don’t let them pressure you into a cost that is too high.

How to Test Merchandise Quality 

Roller-Derby-T-ShirtT-shirts don’t have to be anything special, but they should be quality. Gildan is just one example, but a very popular choice for good reason. Gildan is popular because it’s a reasonable for the quality, they make a sturdy 5.1 oz. cotton tee and provide them in men’s, women’s and children sizes.

When choosing a t-shirt vendor, ask for a sample. Put your hand inside the shirt. If you can see your hand clearly through the cotton, don’t use them. It indicates poor quality. The shirt will shrink drastically and the print will chip in a short period of time.

As you will learn, start easy with safe bets on merch and slowly build as the demand rises. Begin with t-shirts only; one or two styles with a decent stock of sizes. Upcoming blog posts will explain building an inventory plan, projecting merch needs and the kinds of merchandise that are risky or not worth the return.

What do you think? Comment below with your merchandise experiences or questions.

Roller Derby >

Take Care of Each Other, Do It for #57

After news broke of the suicide of Michigan teen Sam (Casper) Taub, a 15-year-old transgender skater, I’ve not felt like writing about derby business.

As someone immersed in roller derby culture, active in the junior derby community and a father of two teenagers, the news hurts even though I had not met Sam. Being a teen today is much harder than it was in the past—especially with bullying, as social media makes it impossible to get away.

We have to find comfort in our own skin to be happy. That’s hard for everyone, especially teens. I can’t fathom how emotionally trying it is for a teen who realizes their sexual preference is different than their peers’ or who is struggling with gender identity.

Right now, you might be sad, angry or in shock. I realize it’s easy to jump into wondering who is responsible. I ask everyone disturbed by this tragedy not to do that. This is a product of many different factors, no matter what is discovered or decided. The way we honor Sam is to pursue change.

If blame is what people need, it doesn’t have geographic nor demographic boundaries. The blame lies within all of us. Ask yourself, “Have I done enough?” I’m not preaching; I’m right there in the conversation. How many straight derby members have marched in pride parades? What have we done to support organizations that help transgender individuals? I’ve often thought of our subculture to have moved beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” to “don’t ask, doesn’t matter.” The derby culture needs to live and preach acceptance, not just tolerance.

As a whole, we have learned to see people for who they are, regardless of lifestyle. It’s great that we can co-exist having fun and respect for each other, yet maybe we’re not sensitive enough to our peers’ personal obstacles and needs. Today, I realize I haven’t said, “Hey, you’re my friend, I care about you, how can I help?”

So what’s the business message in this? Take care of business by taking care of each other. Organizations like the Vagine Ragime (VR) are important. Many of us have friends associated with VR, but let’s support the cause. This goes further than our differences; it’s also celebrating what all of us share.

Dig deep, look at your league to see if you’re having the fun and camaraderie you should have. Stop sweating the small stuff and creating needless drama. Simply love each other.

To echo my Facebook post, “Sam, I’m sorry derby didn’t save your life like it has for others. Yet I do believe it touched your soul. May you skate in a better place.”

Roller Derby >

What’s in a Name? (Hint: Everything)

Your derby league’s look and feel affects the success of your marketing and your community relationship. A smart, calculated and yes, creative selection of your logo, league name, team name(s) and tagline is vital.

Derby Branding 101 

97931 Fort Wayne

If you are not familiar with branding, think of it as a consistent look and voice that represents your league. When it comes to derby, branding gives merchandise, boutfits and marketing a unified style.

I’m a flat-out sports fan. I can identify professional teams at a glance. And it’s no accident–a group of experts choose logos, colors, team font (yes, even the typeface stands out) and taglines that fans can spot in an instant. Good branding is a must for any business and sports teams are businesses.

Lovin’ it or hatin’ it, McDonald’s is a branding machine. The signature red and yellow, arches, jingle and tagline make their ads and restaurants recognizable in a few seconds. You want to capture a consistent visual and written style that strives for a McDonald’s-level of familiarity to your community.

Let’s start with the first steps—a logo and a name. I’ll touch on all elements of branding in future posts.

Choose Logo Colors Carefully

Roller Derby Apparel Your logo is a major part of your branding effort. It is the fastest way people will identify your league and an image that’s unmistakably you. It also should make the connection with roller derby very easy.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I owned Flyin’ Squirrel, a derby novelty t-shirt company. I approached a Mad Rollin’ Doll’s fan to create the logo for the company. He was known nationwide for his style. He delivered my vision and my logo kicked butt. This was my calling card, my stamp. It affected how we designed the website and every piece of marketing collateral.

My logo was a tremendous success visually, but it created a few problems price wise.

The success: I was able to sell merchandise that simply had the logo on it, a goal of mine when searching for a logo design.

The problems: the logo was a bit complex, which created some small hurdles. But the biggest issue was that it comprised six colors.

If it looks cool, who cares?

Your bank account cares. Every color in your t-shirt, banners and program printing can cost additional money, depending on technology used. This is a definite when you print clothing. League merchandise, clothing in particular can be a major profit center for your league. Printing costs account for the majority of money invested in merchandise.

My merchandise company’s brand centered around one image (as it should), but my brand identifier was a profit assassin. I sponsored leagues, an actual b-team, and was printing t-shirts with my squirrel. The b-team sponsorship included both home and away boutfits. Making the team’s uniforms was expensive enough without the logo and really expensive with it. The team’s logo was so cool that fans bought loads of the shirts. But my profit was a fraction what I made on other shirts.

So what, you were still making money.

Wrong attitude. You’re a business. Weather, unexpected costs/economic downturns, time and pocket money needed from league members affect the league’s ability to survive. Spend wisely, as if it was your own cash. And remember, the non-profit model does not mean you shouldn’t make a profit.

My branding developed from that logo. The expense of traditional printing of images on clothing grows with every color. Six colors meant I could only print logo clothing occasionally. Even when I received price breaks for ordering a higher quantity, the profit was half or less than other shirts I made.

It may not just be clothing that’s affected by your colorful logo. Color copies, stickers, posters (if screen-printed) will potentially be more expensive.

The Deal with Die Cutting

Though certainly the lesser evil than the color, the logo’s shape also came with a price. If your logo has sharp features, it may not look right inside a circle or rectangle. Die cutting is a process where the vendor cuts the sticker or patch to the outline of the image.

Though I compromised to use a less expensive tagline, I chose to die cut the patches. They were great to sell and I had them pressed onto winter hats and shirts, but I had to order 500 to 1,000 of them to keep the cost down to a reasonable per-piece price. The cost was high, an amount most leagues couldn’t afford to spend, especially ones just starting out.

What’s in a Name?

squirrel1

What’s not in a name? The logo may be the visual trigger, but early on, the name means more.

I’ll admit it. Coming from a business background, I don’t understand creating a league or team name that has a double meaning, is inappropriate, or represents something negative in the community’s history. There are plenty of these out there. Taglines can be as helpful or damaging as the name itself. Madison’s “Hurt in a skirt” is an example of a fun, appropriate use of words.

New derby used to be more edgy, racy and rebellious, but those comedic names created marketing barriers. Most leagues today describe themselves as family friendly. It’s increasingly important that names avoid innuendos and aren’t disrespectful. I love that roller derby welcomes open-minded, free thinkers. However, our sense of humor and irony get the best of us on occasion.

If your community finds your brand offensive or off-putting, your marketing and publicity opportunities will be limited. I won’t name names (see what I did there), but there are some teams that will never appear in local publications and newspapers. Their brand is too controversial or vile to publish. Think about it: how does the local newspaper report on the league if the league’s name cannot be used? They’ll likely skip the story.

Pick-up teams, regional teams that come together to play exhibition games or closed-door leagues can go outside the bounds with their branding. But if you’re playing in front of a crowd, being covered by media or receiving acknowledgement for charity or community work, craft your brand for the mainstream.

Prepare Your League for the Long Haul

If there is one piece of advice to take away from this entire blog series, it’s that you should take the time you need to prepare your image and build a foundation that will support your league for generations to come. The sacrifice? Playing the game publicly may happen later than members would prefer.

Remember, you can play whenever you are ready; just don’t open the doors publicly until your business is prepared. Marketing and public relations will hit the ground running the moment the league is announced.

If playing to the mainstream is what you desire, make sure your brand won’t hurt profitability in pure cost or the cost of negative public opinion. Back tracking to fix your brand image is a long process. It can take years to win back community love after a branding snafu, so craft your image carefully from the beginning.

What are your biggest derby branding challenges? Don’t be shy–comment below.

Roller Derby >

HR Secrets to Keeping Derby Drama Out of Bouts

Roller Derby Conflict Drama? What drama?

Drama is too prominent in the derby experience. It lurks at all levels and, too often the f-word expletive replaces the other (and most important) f-word—fun.

Derby allows individuals to express themselves within a group driven by shared goals. That’s an eloquent way to say the individualism is celebrated and yet, affects interpretation of the group goals.

As you can probably tell by now, my passion for this sport is strong. I spent seven years helping to unify and improve announcing (with the help of peers) and currently help leagues plan events and improve their business acumen. Passion, like individualism, can take your focus off overall goals. Find your role, avoid fighting the system over every little thing, and support group goals while accomplishing yours.

Unattended Derby Conflict Becomes Derby Drama

If I have a super power, it’s working with conflict. Most avoid it, but I’ve learned how to resolve it as a manager and human resources director. In general, conflict is healthy; without it, positive change would never occur. However, unresolved conflict spreads through your league, becoming destructive-with-a-capital-D drama.

Conflict Examples

•    Personality clashes between two or more people
•    The power play of one or more strong-willed, intimidating people, including leaders or founders
•    Differences in opinions that go unattended and eventually divide the league

Remember, the moment you sell tickets, your league is a business. Drama comes from poor structure, poor planning, lack of communication and/or not addressing conflict immediately. Ever been given the cold shoulder? Asked to leave without explanation? I have. I worked with team captains to coach a league’s perennially worst team (four seasons running) into the best team in the league, helping them win a championship. The third season? No call, email, no even telling me I was done. Eighty percent win record, no open conflict and I was dropped without an explanation. It hurt for a long time.

Take the “Personal” Out of Conflict 

No one is wired to want to take on conflict. It doesn’t come naturally, not even to me. Assigning a human resources person to maintain a presence within the league, enforce policies and smooth out drama puts an end to conflict. How? It removes the personal. Drama rears its head when things feel too personal.

Pre-planning is key, as nothing can be enforced properly without developing expectations. Often, implementing a plan is done in retrospect when the damage already occurred. What you need:

New skater and staff orientation: a practice where newbies are told realistic costs, expected time commitments and receive honest answers to their questions. Do not recruit someone without full disclosure; they will train for two months and leave.

One of a business’ greatest costs is employee turnover. It is the same with derby league member turnover. Training new people takes a lot of time and time is a drain on league resources. Keeping people long term allows focus on other goals and tasks.

A league handbook: Just like the first day on a new job, provide a handbook and necessary paperwork to new staff and skaters. The handbook should cover:

•    League history and goals
•    League structure chart
•    Non-skating participation requirements
•    Attendance requirements
•    Job description for non-skaters
•    Training expectations for staff/skaters

A League Code of Conduct: A description of how members should use the system if they feel they are being denied their rights as a member. This tells members what is not acceptable in the eyes of the league. Could include:

•    Unbecoming behavior
•    Representing the league in matters that don’t fit within your role as a league member. Examples: Committing the league to an event without consent of the BOD or proper committee.
•    Finding sponsorship opportunities and negotiating terms instead of facilitating communication with the right committee
•    A no-tolerance bullying policy
•    Inappropriate or vulgar behavior on the track
•    The penalty if it’s determined someone broke the code
•    A tear-away page to sign, date and turn in. This is proof they received all of the necessary information.

The examples above are not detailed. You need detail. If you leave your Code of Conduct or handbook without specific examples of infractions and ramifications, you’re not better off. Don’t interpret someone’s future as they’re standing and waiting for disciplinary decisions. For instance, what would constitute “unbecoming behavior?” It’s far too open for interpretation.

Roller Skate All About Transparency

Transparency means every function is known to its members, projects are not hidden, detected personal agendas are squelched, the operations of the league remain open and honest. At many levels, derby does a terrible job at maintaining transparency.

Often people get wind of rumors that are never laid to rest or even answered dishonestly. Granted, a project just kicking off may not need explanation, unless it’s a sensitive topic. Yet once it’s in full swing, people should know. Others may even have contacts and expertise to help.

How Does This Keep the Derby Drama Out of Your Bouts?

If you address broken rules or clashes among people immediately and according to your code of conduct, there’s nothing to argue about. The personal side is removed and it’s more cut and dry. For example, if you have a three-strike rule, each strike must be addressed professionally and calmly. By the third, it’s no surprise that he/she will be asked to leave. I’ve fired people and shaken their hands because they weren’t mad at me; they knew it was coming. No hostility, no conflict.

Mediation is also important to stopping drama. A neutral party, often a staff member without connections to a skater or any teams, is assigned to conflict between peers. They help two parties work toward compromise and don’t take sides.

Keeping your BOD out of these decisions (though they should be informed) makes disciplinary processes less intimidating. The more people there are involved in a disciplinary action, the more defensive the accused becomes. Create a role that reports to the BOD whose job is to run the orientation, interview applicants and hand down repercussions of infractions.

Nobody is Above the Rules

A multi-tiered system of discipline will not work and different treatment for different levels of “employees” can be against the law. You cannot make exceptions for anyone. Not the best skater, best official, not even the league President. The fallout destroys the checks and balances you developed.

You’re better to let your best skater leave the league than accommodate them. If they stay, you not only undermine your personal rules, but the malcontent created will tear the team or league apart.

Take a Morale Check

Back in the day, I watched my best, hardest working employees leave for greener pastures because they were not happy. I found a morale boost made a positive difference in contribution. I’ve seen this in derby when a league acts by terminating a star player who felt they deserved special treatment. Once gone, the league adjusted, worked as a team and ended up better for it.

More on morale in my next piece. Comment below with your thoughts and conflict resolution techniques.

Roller Derby >

8 Derby Business Pitfalls to Avoid

Roller Derby Merchandise TableOpening a roller derby business is an exciting, adventurous and potentially dangerous idea. How would I know? I acted on it in 2007 with Flyin’ Squirrel, a novelty t-shirt company. Flyin’ Squirrel closed in 2010 after one of the worst economic crashes in U.S. history.

Exciting and adventurous? Yes. Confidence boosting? Absolutely. I still have the equipment, the know-how and am smarter because of Flyin’ Squirrel. However, unlike playing derby, running a business isn’t something you can jump into with only excitement as your fuel.

The economy improved and so has the success rate of small businesses in the U.S. Fifteen to twenty years ago, only 5-to-10% of small businesses lasted five years. In 2012, approximately 50% of small businesses made it that long. It could be attributed to the popularity of online shopping and various distribution options available for online businesses. A store can sell online with much lower overhead. A creative marketing campaign can have a tremendous impact through social media.

I’ve selected five pitfalls most applicable to derby business from Patricia Schaefer’s article: “The Seven Pitfalls of Business Failure and How to Avoid Them,” which nicely summarizes known start-up issues. I added a few tips from my experience.

1. Starting a Business for the Wrong Reasons
Wrong reasons include: making big money, having more time for yourself and your family or being your own boss.

Unless your product is truly unique, highly technological, has a high profit margin and dollar amount or can be marketed beyond roller derby, don’t expect riches to rain upon you.

A reasonable living or part-time income is more realistic. Furthermore, running your own business is more work than most realize. Design, development, production, order management, fulfillment, accounting, marketing and even employee management is what you’ll face. Don’t go it alone.

Derby-Fashion2. Poor Management
Poor management is often listed in reports as a leading cause of small business failure. It’s also one of the top reasons people leave their jobs. If you’re not a “people person,” hire someone who is. Sales, customer retention and employee relations depend on it. Good managers know how to reinvent stagnant business, create a positive image of the company and keep competent employees.

3. Insufficient Capital
Remember, it’s not just the cost of getting started; it’s the ability to fund everything for at least a few years. Most businesses aren’t profitable immediately and you need to plan for that. You cannot mix funds for the business with money you need to maintain for living expenses. It’s one thing to close your company and another to jeopardize your everyday life.

4. Location, Location, Location
Depending on the type of business and its structure, location can have a heavy hand in your success. Oftentimes, skate sales are required to connect to a brick and mortar store before they can be distributed online. That said, you shouldn’t open traditional retail shop just so you can start selling online.

Location factors:
• Customer location
• Accessibility
• Location of competitors
• Building’s condition
• Area incentive programs for start-up businesses
• The history and community receptiveness to a new business

5. Lack of Planning
Roller derby requires a lot of planning. Though leagues vary on their planning abilities, it’s far from a new concept. Planning is the core of a successful business or league.

Business plan components: 
• Goals, mission, vision
• Number of people (employees) to make it work
• Identification of potential problems and their solutions
• Financial analysis
• Competitive analysis
• Marketing and promotional campaigns
• Budget and growth management
• Design of marketing and promotional campaigns

I personally experienced these last 3 pitfalls with my derby business. They are not referenced in Schaefer’s article.

6. Trying to be More Than You Can
I suffered from too-many-good-ideas-at-once syndrome. Not only did I want to sell merchandise online, I wanted to help others sell unique items, post stories about my many trips across the U.S., and try to push forward charities related to derby leagues.

I spent too much time developing material that grew outdated quickly. I should have focused on my business plan to design and sell reasonably priced t-shirts. Instead, I buried myself in projects.

Roller Derby Appearel 7. Not Hiring a Website Manager
(This applies if your website is your main channel of sales and promotion.)

I knew just enough about web sites and coding to be dangerous. The more I learned, the flashier I tried to make the site. Too much time (again) with little payoff. A nice, clean site with easy navigation and payment tools is all you need. Having someone to update prices and prices, or give it a fresh look every year or so takes a big part of the work off your hands.

8. Selling Merch at Far-Away Events
Of course, this totally depends on what type of products you sell. It might work for you if your product is not high-margin or you’re able to take orders and don’t have to provide the product on site.

Most are not moneymakers. If you decide to sell merchandise at an event you have to fly to, consider costs involved:
• Table(s) for your booth
• Shipping merchandise to and from the event
• Flight, hotel and food

In the U.S., with the exception of the top three or four most-attended events, you will likely lose money or break even at best. That might be perfectly fine, if the contacts you make and product exposure pay dividends later on. Let’s do the math: $500 for one table, plus a $650 flight, $90 a night (4 nights) and $200 in shipping would be $1710. That doesn’t even include food. And this is a low estimate, as table fees have probably climbed.

It might be better to attend events close to home with your merchandise. If you can drive and return home at night, the cost equation changes dramatically.

New Derby Project

photo4
I wanted to take a moment and recognize an important derby project. Neil Gunner, a derby photographer in the Toronto area released a book of derby photos and stories. Preview the book, Into Battle: The Roller Derby Experience in Photos and Interviews.

I’m honored to be in the book, but that’s not why I mention it. I love Toronto Roller Derby and so I offered Neil help with marketing advice. In particular, my ticket blitzing strategy, where coordinated blasts on social media multiply ticket sales.

In Neil’s words: “Bob’s plan for ensuring that multiple people share the same post on the same day across social media was directly responsible for increasing awareness far beyond what I would have been able to accomplish otherwise. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to be able to include Bob in the book. The book itself owes its success in large part to Bob as well. The marketing ideas Bob has shared with me, developed as part of his role as a Doer, have proved invaluable in spreading the word and generating both interest and sales.”

Eh, sometimes I know what I’m talking about.

 

Roller Derby >