I assumed I would love modern "flat track" roller derby. I was vaguely aware of its previous incarnation (of the 1940s through 1970s) and it seemed pretty exciting. When I heard it was back and that it had come back led by women and free any ugly sexism, that was supposed to have been a part of it before, I thought, "Great!" A few years ago when I was in Los Angeles some friends were going and I had planned to go along, but at the last minute I couldn't. Without any roller derby near me, and without any friends who go, it just slipped from my attention. And then the other night as a tangent to searching for roller skating videos on YouTube (after watching the so-bad-it's-good Roller Boogie movie) I clicked over to see just what a modern roller derby match looked like.
Ugh. It was awful. I had no idea what the rules were. I tried figuring it out by watching, but it made little sense. And it was just quite possibly the most boring sport I've ever tried to watch (arguably worse than curling, snooker, and sheep herding). Any strategy or logic in flat track roller derby seemed so subtle as to be irrelevant, and despite little of interest seeming to happen the score incomprehensibly climbed faster than any sport I have ever seen (almost 2 points/minute).
Here's what I observed (my impressions before subsequently reading the rules)...
A person or two standing like they were at a starting line. A few clumps of people in front of them, one clump five feet or so ahead, another clump ten feet or so ahead. And then the single people run at the group of people, get caught up, and very likely get pushed out of bounds, at which point they go back to where they started. And this just repeats itself ad infinitum. Occasionally the single people do get past a clump of people, but instead of zooming super fast away or this being the start of something dramatic, the person goes just a few feet and then slows down and returns to the starting line. Whoopie?
The biggest thing I don't understand about modern flat track roller derby is, they've gotten rid of speed, they've gotten rid of a feeling of motion and dynamism, so why have they bothered to keep the players on roller skates? It feels unnecessary and forced. If the argument is that skates make the game harder, well, sure, but why not just play on a slippery surface or wear slippery socks? Roller skates are made to allow people to go fast, to be graceful, to be able to go big distances. The old roller derby clearly understood the purpose of roller skates. But this modern flat track derby requires none of these roller skate features.
I ended up glancing at the rules of scoring, and learned that all points are earned by a team's designated "jammer" passing members of the opposing team (not including their jammer); and both jammers I gather are active on the track at the same time.
And so I wondered, what happened? Why was I expecting this to be exciting? Had I misunderstood what roller derby used to be? I clicked on a YouTube video of a 1950 New Jersey vs. Philadelphia roller derby match (separate male and female matches) and wow, it was as I thought, that game made sense, that game was much more fun to watch, stuff actually happened! The people were constantly in motion circling the track, which is somewhat enjoyable to watch in and of itself, and because everyone is already at speed they can then do a great many interesting things to try to move the jammer forward, like one or more people sacrificing their own speed/energy to propel their jammer forward, by whipping them forward with their arms. Also because they were at speed and the track is banked people can quickly fly to the inside or outside of the track to try and get by, akin to auto racing. And because there was an outside railing the jammers are not constantly going out of bounds every two seconds and needing to restart.
I assume that the primary reason the sport has become so insufferably boring is because of the elimination of the banked track. Moved out of the velodrome, speed is severely limited. At speed the centrifugal force would fling anyone not paying attention out of bounds. With a flat track you could not have people smoothly loop the track because every turn would be a chaotic mess. No doubt they moved the sport out of the velodrome because velodromes are hard to find, and they were able to broaden the sport as a result. But, having gotten rid of the banked track they had to get rid of the constant circling motion of the teams, and having gotten rid of that, well, everyone is mostly just standing around in slippery shoes. Maybe some rule changes could have compensated, made the sport still interesting, but I don't know.