Dear Derby, the Honeymoon is Over. Now What?

Roller Derby >

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. 

  • Costa Ladeas

    Problem is many leagues (Gotham, TXRG, Rat City, Rose City, etc.) are PERFECTLY FINE with drawing “their particular crowd” which consists of family and friends obviously, hipsters, metrosexuals &
    the LGBT community. Now in a city like NYC, in a metropolis of 15 million people, it’s pretty easy to find that group of people to fill a building. When you go to these small towns (Sioux City, Omaha, Tallahassee, etc.) eh, not so much. As a result, those leagues become de facto “rec leagues” because they
    have to put in more of their own money to keep the league going. This is indicative of another problem, I hope can be brought up at another time.

    • jerry seltzer

      some of the cities you mention have had attendance decreases…I think the purpose of what Bob is doing is to look at ways to increase attendance and revenues and not just accept that pouring money in is just what you have to do… sure and watch for the 2nd part of his blog.

      • Costa Ladeas

        Why?? Because people like me said “to hell with this” and took their money somewhere else. Windy City went from 5000/bout to 500/bout for that same reason.

    • Laura Dodson

      Rose city does a great job of involving their audience. Their bouts are fun to watch. We maybe see one a year if we happen to be in Portland during a bout.

      • Costa Ladeas

        pardon my skepticism & cynicism but could you give examples???

        • Laura Dodson

          Really? 🙂 Okay. The crowd is engaged with the game, cheering, etc. There are organized cheers. The seating/bleachers is laid out well, so I don’t have to worry about hauling a chair in. There are vendors who sell game gear and other items. Most of the people attending are welcoming. The last time that I was there, I was wearing an Oly Rollers shirt, which got people talking to us, but in a positive way. Everyone seems to know the players and cheered for their favorites.

          • Costa Ladeas

            “organized cheers” as in organic cheers or like when the “applause” sign lights up??

          • Laura Dodson

            Organic. The crowd starts them.

          • Costa Ladeas

            if only all leagues would do that

          • Krissie

            Here in the UK, watch just about any Birmingham Blitz Dames game to hear a rawkus cheer of “Lets go Blitz Dames, Lets Go!”

            It’s not an uncommon thing in Roller Derby.

  • Midgimoto

    I’m so glad someone is pointing out the obvious. I, and MANY others, have said a league is a business. If you want your league to thrive, you need to meet the needs of your audience. I think one of the things that has taken away audience is that the rules have gotten so confusing and game play is far too slow. I was at Rollercon a couple of years ago and watched a WFTDA sanctioned bout that had a 200+point differential. At half time more than 75% of the audience left and did not return. If we can’t engage the people who LOVE this sport, then how will be engage those who don’t understand it.

    I will say that I far preferred the USARS rule set. it was simple, engaging, and the game kept moving. No one wants to see rules manipulated, they want to see games played. I’m sure this isn’t going to be a popular post, but I just wanted to share my thoughts.

  • doctorc4

    For years I have been saying, “We need to work on our show.”

    For the most part, derby is played in a cruddy warehouse, or a venue that is too large. In both instances, the acoustics are horrible. The audience needs to hear the announcers. The problem: sound equipment is expensive, and leagues are cash poor.

    What about music? With the licensing agencies cracking down on these leagues, many have resorted to using no music. Now you have a bad venue with bad sound, and the room feels dead because there is no bed of music to help amp the mood.

    Then there is slow derby. I hate slow derby. I have a stake in the game, and I find slow derby boring. Keep it moving, keep it exciting! I understand time outs, and official reviews. However, if you are 200 points down, please don’t call an official review with less than 5 minutes on the clock. The audience (and everyone else) is waiting for this bloodbath to end.

    The thing that (in my humble opinion) is killing derby is the “need” to legitimize. What happened to the costumes? What happened to the flair? When I first got involved it felt like watching a cavalcade of characters taking to the track. They were diverse, they were exciting, and they were FUN!!!!
    Now people have decided to have uniforms, and they are all uniform. It was easy (and fun!) to keep an eye on the players because they were all different and interesting. Now, eh. We need to get back to our roots.

    Spend money on sound equipment and treat your announcer well.
    Find a way to add music to your bouts!
    Keep the play brisk!
    Get back to your funky roots and add some flair! 😀

    • midgimoto

      I totally agree! When I started playing in 2006 the best part was it being a non-mainstream sport. I don’t want to be mainstream. I want to be different. Was I a killer athlete? Nope, not at all. But, the sport was for ALL skaters of all levels. In our desire to legitimize, we cut out the skaters who are not A players, who are in it for the fun of it and to get outside their norm.

      We want to be compared to major league sports, yet our minor leagues are suffering intensely. I don’t see a positive future for the sport because what was once an inclusive group has now become an exclusive group for those who are super athletes. Makes it hard to get behind when there’s no hope for us little guys.

      • RYeager

        I also agree on the lure of derby is that is was non-mainstream. I think the women of this sport are trying to push it so hard into being mainstream that they’re going to lose everything. I feel like they skipped a couple steps in the evolution because the sport grew really fast among women wanting to skate, but in all the seriousness and millions of penalties and nuances of gameplay it started bleeding fans left and right! Every time I take new people to a bout I have to explain so much. Why did she get a penalty, why did she do that, what’s happening I’m confused. Sigh, it’s super frustrating to see a sport that you love so much lost on people because its overly complicated. 🙁

    • RYeager

      I totally agree on the flair! You can wear something funky and STILL be taken seriously! Yes, some people may sexualize it, some people may want to be sexualized, to each their own, but I think the uniforms are boring. When I started derby I saw it as a safe place to have an alternate persona. To do the things and wear the things I wouldn’t be comfortable doing/wearing otherwise. My self confidence went from non-existent to through the roof, and it’s because of that safe place where I was allowed to be a ‘big’ girl in short shorts, or fishnets, or whatever I wanted. It makes me very sad to see that this has gone so far away. We don’t have to revert all the way back to the boutfits of the early 2000’s, but can’t we bring SOME of it back?? 🙁

  • Ann Bromley

    Yes, the stroller derby has to go. It’s a bore to watch and only makes sense to people who play. If you don’t put on a good show, it might as well be a closed practice. Practice is for players, games are for the audience!

    • RYeager

      Amen! Show is the key word here. Let’s not forget that there’s elements of entertainment in all sports! We just need to bring ours back. Give the fans a reason to watch!!

  • David Gerry

    I’m a derby skater from the old days. I’ve watched some games and tried to enjoy them but I just can’t. The stop and start after every jam is very annoying. I see that you want to change players but change one or two. That’s easily done if the skaters are still moving then form the pack and start the jam. The worst thing that I saw which was in my, and many other people’s opinion was the stall jam, I guess you’d call it. I watched a video on Youtube of two minutes of absolutely nothing happening but the skaters standing there, which resulted in boos from the audience. Hopefully that and things like it have stopped. The other thing I think needs to improve is the blocking. It seems to be almost non-existant which leads to huge scores by jammers. A good defense is important. We sometimes trained on flat surfaces and we had no trouble blocking so I’m wondering why it’s lacking with these leagues both male and female. I’m glad Derby is being continued and would like it to succeed.

  • Joe G

    I have to say that the game has so changed just in the last 5 years I have been going to roller derby…it use to be fast, free wheeling action with the jammers flying around the track and the pack moving ….now the pack stays at a stand still and there is no real action just a big bunch of skaters at a stand still pack.. I don’t go much anymore because to be honest the game has become so boring and slow… not sure why the style of play has changed so much but it really has hurt the action, the game and the fun of watching the game…..

  • Laura Dodson

    We were up at the D1 Vancouver this weekend. I was stunned at the poor attendance. Seattle is a couple of hours away, there should have been more Rat fans, at least. Vancouver had plenty of local fans attending for the three days, fyi. From my perspective, it was difficult to find any information on the WFTDA website about attending. Another key issue at the Champs (we’ve attended multiple years, now) is that the food is horrid. Tennessee in particular had terrible food. That was the place that other fans spilled drinks on the floor behind us. When we complained, they poured more drinks on the floor. It’s fan behavior like that, that makes people stop watching derby. We are going to Portland, but it was a discussion. 🙂

    • Laura Dodson

      When I say difficult, the venue wasn’t announced so I didn’t know where to look for a budget hotel. Vancouver is large and the traffic is pretty bad. In other parts of Vancouver, I could have gotten a hotel for $75 cdn vs the amount that I ended up paying. Do I randomly pick a hotel that might have a 45 or hour commute in a large city?

    • Laura Dodson

      During one of the D1 games, a person wearing a WFTDA board member jacket stood up on stands so we couldn’t see part of the track. A minor complaint, but I have spent some time wondering about the tone at the top of WFTDA. She’s probably a very nice person, but for about 20 minutes she blocked my view. LOL

    • Costa Ladeas

      of course not. no news = good news.

  • Working with marketing and partnerships in our league by night (and at an ad agency by day) I must say: THIS IS SPOT ON. It’s uncomfortable for may to hear, but I’ve seen every bit of it borne out in a season. There must be a reckoning: is the priority the fan experience or the skater experience. That’s not to say one is forgotten about, but there can be only one priority. If you want full stands, you’ve got to adjust your strategy to that, and unfortunately, it doesn’t align with many of the strategies you’d use if the focus was on the skater experience. There’s nothing wrong with picking one priority over the other – but to expect to have both is setting ourselves up for disappointment on both front.

  • Desert rat

    I’m working on a plan to have the venue host the event, not the league. We have a great venue that is owned by a for profit university that has a business program (including marketing). I am trying to suggest to them that they could use this opportunity to challenge their students to put on a successful event, paying the teams to participate based on the success of the event.

  • Nick Cushing

    This is similar to what I’ve been trying to get across in my posts on but I go a step further, only a complete overhaul of the rules and gameplay will make a difference. As a cameraman I’ve had to invent a device, the ‘DerbyCam 360’ overhead camera array, to deal with the terrible sightlines, and as an editor I routinely chop up to 40% of the recorded footage to make the games watchable. All the while the gameplay gets slower and slower. I went to an outdoor demonstration game last year, I was filming behind a couple of old-timers, one said to the other “It didn’t used to be like this in the old days, those girls used to fly, this is more like rugby on roller skates!” – he had a point, and BTW rugby isn’t a popular spectator sport around here. – Anyway, for those interested check out my FB filming roller derby posts and maybe watch some DerbyCam 360 footage!

  • Kimberly Martin

    As a retired derby player who used to attend most derby events and competitions here in Australia and overseas I used to be vocal about this issue. When I joined in Jan 2011 I was watching and part of the growth of Roller Derby with in some venues seeing sellout crowds but as the years went on these crowds peeked then started to disappear.
    When I asked my family why they stopped coming (my mum never missed a game initially) she said the game was slow and boring to watch and the jams went to fast. Other people have said they missed all the stockings and big hits, some mentioned they couldn’t see what was going on, especially here on the east coast of Australia where the officials decided the jammer and pivot lines should be setup on the opposite side of the track and not on the side closest to the crowd, which meant the crowd had to try and look past the inside officials, whiteboard etc.
    Also when I still meet people and talk about Roller Derby, many still have no idea what it is or they think it’s the same game that was played in the 60’s and 70’s on a banked track. I guess because this event was very theatrical and such got air time on national tv, and if they come see a game they are disappointed it’s more sport than spectacle.
    Now as a player, I much preferrred the sport than the spectacle aspect but understood the need for both.
    One suggestion I put forward on deaf ears was to play games like Queen of the track at half time where lots of big hits (the crowds love this) took place.
    Another thing I noticed is that as the leagues got older the excitement to promote the sport within the community died down. Initially we would all get dressed up and promote, letterbox drop etc but as time went on and we all started living in our own derby bubble this stuff tended to be forgotten. Now some leagues still do a great job at promotion, but that’s becoming rare and well as the leagues are run by skaters, not all skaters have marketing experience.
    I thought instead of leagues being run by the players, they should approach the community and use retired volunteers who had the experience needed but weren’t inside the bubble.

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  • Adrienne Miller

    Athleticism on some leagues has decreased greatly with the slower play and beer league mentality for drafts. I’ve seen very athletic players turned away because they were “too aggressive” and I’ve seen skaters be drafted because they were good at playing the political game. Often new drafts stopped putting the skating effort in as soon as they secured a spot on a team. Or they play one season and leave. A lot of teams vote new players on and the bottom of the roster usually doesn’t want to vote a player on that will bump them off the roster. Probably more reasons than this, but I’ve seen way too many bouts where the players are tired at the half and not willing to commit to aggressive play. Many players lack basic skate skill after years of playing. It’s been the main complaint I’ve heard from fans of both the leagues I skated with. Some of them had been watching for 10 years. It’s also why so many teams consider themselves “second half teams”. They don’t have endurance and so they’re afraid to do a real warm up. They’re not actually warmed up until after the half. You have to play hard to sell tickets and that takes hard practice and drafting people willing to commit, not just your friends. Also, pretty sure this is a hard pill to swallow. I mentioned it once to a team (I was on) that a fan said we seemed tired at the half and got yelled at by 3 people simultaneously. Some teams are better than others about drafts and keeping it athletic and having good skate skill. Those teams murder the others. Huge point spreads every game aren’t good for fans either.

  • Meghan Beaulieu

    Was there ever the follow-up to this article (part 2- retention solutions?) If so, can someone please link? Found it:

  • Costa Ladeas

    and here’s the best part, pretty much all the leagues in the USA are 501(c)(3) which makes them a (cough) charity case (cough) and no one would DARE close it down because that would make you a scumbag. See if these leagues & WFTDA as a whole was like a pro league or a pro org, WFTDA IS SOL and you know what that means……