Texas and White Center Roots
The idea came from Texas. Women in the free-thinking state capital of Austin in 2001 revived the sport of roller derby, which had its roots in the Great Depression and was widely televised in the 1970s before fading from view. The original version was co-ed, with men and women bruisers in helmets and tight-fitting uniforms belting each other as they raced around a banked track. Points were scored by a skater called a jammer passing skaters from the opposing team. The Texas women moved the sport to a flat track and made it more of a spectacle. They kept the helmets and knee- and elbow pads, and added punk-rocker elements like loud music, outrageous names, torn fishnet stockings, and occasional face paint. Fights were part of the show.
A Seattle woman, Lilly Warner (b. 1976), heard about it in 2003 when she was in Austin for South By Southwest, the city’s annual alternative music festival. She and two Seattle friends -- Rahel Cook (b. 1971) and Katie Merrell (b. 1972) -- decided to start a league of their own. In March 2004 they began compiling an email list of women who wanted to join. They put an ad in The Stranger, one of the city’s free weekly papers, announcing tryouts. In April, they filed for a state business license. Turnouts at their weekly meetings kept growing. They soon had 40 skaters and were organized into committees to handle things such as fundraising and marketing. "It encompasses everything I believe in -- tough strong women and feminism, and rock and roll," Warner said. "Roller derby's kind of the only thing Seattle doesn’t have" (Dizon).
They called themselves "Rat City" because they practiced at South Gate Roller Rink in White Center, which had that nickname. "It's the place we chose to put our roots down," said Brandy Rettig, an early member who lived near the rink. "We could have been the Emerald City Rollergirls, but we wanted to be part of a community that reflected us -- a little bit edgy, a little bit tough and rough around the edges. It was the perfect spot for us" (Langston). Their logo, created by tattoo artist Scott Ego, reflected that image. It showed a sexy, tough-looking woman with a black eye.
They could have called themselves Rollerwomen, but "Rollergirls just sounds better," said Sue Schmitz, aka Darth Skater, co-captain of Rat City’s first all-star team. "And I think probably deep down we're all kind of kids at heart and we all like to think of ourselves as girlie girls regardless of whether we're out there with pads and hitting the crap out of each other" (Broom, February 23, 2006).
Off and Brawling
The league was divided into four teams -- Grave Danger, Throttle Rockets, Derby Liberation Front, and Sockit Wenches. Grave Danger’s motto was "Rest in Pieces." The skaters adopted menacing aliases such as Rae’s Hell, Kim Reaper, Shovey Chase, and Drew Blood. "I was terrified of everybody," said Meredith Slota, aka Kitty Kamikaze, remembering an early tryout. "They were way cooler than I was, had more tattoos. But it didn’t take long [to realize] this is an amazing community. It really is a fun game to play, and now I couldn’t live without it" (Yanity).
After months of practices, the first Rat City Rollergirls bout was March 26, 2005, at South Gate Roller Rink. Nobody, fans or skaters, knew what to expect. Fearful that there would be hardly any crowd, the league advertised free beer. Tickets sold out within 24 hours and, on bout night, the line of people waiting to get in wrapped around the rink. An overflow crowd of about 600 saw Derby Liberation Front and Throttle Rockets emerge as the winners, but the night was at least as much about entertainment as competition. The skaters, tough-looking even in their mini-dress uniforms, were introduced under whirling lights. Mascots pranced, an announcer provided amped up commentary, and the skaters shoved, swore, and occasionally fought while the beer-fueled crowd cheered for more.
Overnight, the Rat City Rollergirls were one of Seattle’s hottest tickets. Two more bouts in White Center quickly sold out, prompting a move to a bigger building. For the rest of that season and well into 2008, they competed at Hangar 27 in Magnuson Park, where they drew crowds of up to 3,000. They also tested themselves against other leagues. Their first appearance in a national tournament came in February 2006 when a Rat City all-star team finished fifth at the Dust Devil tournament in Arizona. The next year the Rat City team won that tournament, even beating a Texas team considered best in the nation. That led to their biggest hometown exposure, as hosts of Bumberbout, a tournament staged as part of Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot celebration on Labor Day weekend in 2006. Attendance, as measured by the number of people passing through the entrance during the competition, was reported as "about 20,000 door clicks" (Yanity).
As early leaders in their sport, the Rat City Rollergirls helped found the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, a governing body established to set rules and standards. National rankings were determined quarterly by vote of the group’s member skaters. Rat City Rollergirls consistently were near the top of those rankings.
Hanger 27 became a hipster hangout on bout nights, which regularly drew capacity crowds. The Texas Rollergirls had helped the Rat City skaters get started, but the fledgling Seattle league exceeded expectations from the start. Lacey Attuso, a member of the Texas Rollergirls, explained the sport's fan appeal: "You have athleticism, you have beauty, you have girls kicking the crap out of each other, and you have rock and roll and beer. That's pretty much the recipe for success"(Jenniges). The skaters liked it for their own reasons. "It's irreverent. It's do-it-yourself. It's that punk-rock, counter-culture ethic. But we get to do it in short skirts and fishnets, fake eyelashes and big red lipstick," said Rollergirl Rani Khan (Tellford).
The Rat City Rollergirls numbered anywhere from 60 to 80. Their average age was about 30. They came from all kinds of backgrounds and had all kinds of jobs. Mary McIntyre, aka Burnett Down, was a talented painter who tended bar. Sue Schmitz, aka Darth Skater, was a public-relations account executive. Jessica Howe, aka Miss Fortune, had a master's degree in robotics and was a project manager for a communications company. Some of the skaters were entrepreneurs. Some were waitresses. Some had been athletes in high school. Derby Liberation Front jammer Monique Zampera, aka Ann R. Kissed, played basketball at Portland State University.
They bought their own equipment and paid monthly dues to help the league cover expenses such as rink rentals and travel. They spent nine or more hours a week practicing and were expected to spend at least another six hours a week on chores such as marketing, maintaining the league website, putting out a newsletter, and scheduling practices. They had bruises everywhere. In Blood on the Flat Track, a 2007 documentary film about the league, skaters spoke of their injuries with a mixture of pride and amusement. Howe, an all-star who was among those featured in the film, broke one collarbone during the 2008 season and broke the other one just before the 2009 season.
Offsetting the sacrifices and physical pain was a sense of empowerment. "Women don't usually have a chance to work out this kind of aggression," said Schmitz, captain of the Throttle Rockets. "Sports in general is very male-dominated, and this is something we can call our own. We skate hard and we hit hard and we can be very aggressive, but at the same time we can still be sexy and we can be flirty and we can have fun" (Broom, October 10, 2005).
Bumps on the Track
Powered by healthy ticket sales, the league was making money in 2007. A centerpiece photo on the front page of the August 17 Seattle Post-Intelligencer captured the sport’s rebel image. It showed the Throttle Rockets' "Betty Ford Galaxy" skating toward the camera, her face painted with bold jagged lines, her tongue out, her hands palms up in front of her, with a middle finger extended. The league was flying high and full of swagger. Then came some bumps on the track.
After the 2007 season, the Rollergirls were forced to leave their beloved Hangar 27 because the building, which was owned by Seattle Parks and Recreation, was privatized. Rat City bouts were moved to Magnuson Park’s Hangar 30, starting with Rust Riot, an eight-team Northwest tournament on February 2, 2008, followed by the season’s first regular-season bout on March 22. Hangar 30 was about half the size of Hangar 27, so the move meant regularly turning away fans. Hangar 30 also had a much smaller no-alcohol area, so fewer families and youth skaters could attend. The league had developed three age-group leagues for girls -- Tootsie Rollers, ages 6-8; Derby Brats, 8-14; and Galaxy Girls, 14-17. With a growing fan and skater base, Rat City Rollergirls needed a bigger venue.Also in 2008, Rat City Rollergirls filed for a trademark on their logo. Starbucks, the global coffee company headquartered in Seattle protested, contending that the Rollergirls’ logo was too much like its own, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office held up the process to give Starbucks time to consider whether to oppose the move. Undeniably there were similarities between the logos. Both were round, with a border of two concentric circles, and had all-capital letters in a sans serif font, two stars, and a female figure in the middle. But the Starbucks mermaid and the black-eyed Rollergirl were dramatically different, and the idea of a gigantic corporation menacing a small, local group of dues-paying volunteers earned Starbucks some public scorn. As a Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial put it, "This struck us and a lot of readers as somewhere between crazy and overboard" (May 29, 2008).
A Starbucks spokesperson took pains to explain that the company hoped to avoid formally opposing the Rollergirls’ trademark bid. A settlement was reached -- "We agreed we would never sell coffee and never change our logo to their color of green," Rat City Rollergirls Chief Marketing Officer Jessica Ivey said (Drosendahl interview) -- and the skaters got their trademark.
Reaching New Heights
In 2009, Rat City Rollergirls began renting KeyArena for their home bouts. Competing regularly in a building that served as home for the Seattle Storm of the Women’s National Basketball Association and formerly housed the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association came with benefits. For the first time the skaters had locker rooms, showers, and a big four-sided video screen suspended over their track. And even though they were renting only the venue’s lower bowl, the Rollergirls had many more seats to sell. Attendance for their first bout at "The Key" was about 4,000, a league record. Caught off guard, the KeyArena concession stands ran out of beer. Fans were told that if they wanted to leave the building to buy beer elsewhere and bring it back in, that was okay.
During that first season in KeyArena, with attendance already rising, a movie gave women’s roller derby a major boost. Whip It, starring Ellen Page and directed by Drew Barrymore, told the story of a 17-year-old Texas misfit who finds her passion and a welcoming community as jammer for a women’s roller derby team. The popularity of the movie sparked interest in the sport nationally and brought new people to the bouts at KeyArena and more girls into the Rat City youth leagues.
For their bout on March 6, 2010, the Rat City Rollergirls drew a crowd of about 4,800. On April 10, they drew about 5,900. On May 1, they drew about 6,800. Each figure was a new league and national record. Attendance for that season was highest in league history and "a direct perk from Whip It," marketing director Ivey said (Drosendahl interview). Chief Operating Officer Alyssa Hoppe credited the movie for a major increase in the number of skaters too. From the original league in Texas in 2001, women’s roller derby had grown to hundreds of leagues nationally, with a big jump between 2009 and 2011. "Teenaged girls are a huge part of our demographic," Hoppe said. "We’re the role models that never existed" (Brodeur).
In less than 10 years, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association had grown from five to 212 full member leagues and 111 apprentice leagues. Washington leagues included Bellingham Roller Betties, Dockyard Derby Dames in Tacoma, Jet City Rollergirls in Everett, Lilac City Rollergirls in Spokane, Oly Rollers in Olympia, Port Scandalous Derby in Port Angeles, Rainy City Roller Dolls in Centralia, and Slaughter Country Roller Vixens in Kitsap County.
Grappling with Image
Almost from their beginning, the Rat City Rollergirls had waged an internal debate that could be summed up as spectacle versus sport. The spectacle part, including fighting, appealed to their sense of fun and helped them build their fan base. The sport part, represented by better athletes, increased regulation, and a big-league venue, was the path they were traveling. Fighting was outlawed in 2007. The mini-dress uniforms were replaced by more athletic-looking, knee-length stretch pants in 2010."We are a full-contact women’s sport. Our athletes are training year-round, and aggressively. And that’s one of the missions. To raise the bar, athletically," Hoppe said at the start of the 2013 season (Brodeur).
It wasn’t as if the Rollergirls had banned outrageousness. They still had a league mascot called Rat Bastard, loud music, rowdy player introductions, and an announcer providing commentary, including an invitation to boo the refs. But as the league approached its 10th season, some questioned whether more emphasis on athleticism and less on spectacle was the way to go. After peaking with crowds of 4,000 to 6,800 in 2010, the annual range of attendance began to drift slightly downward -- 3,700 to 6,200 in 2011, and 3,000 to 5,300 in 2012. "It’s a direct result of us being less kitschy and more of a sport," Ivey said. "I used to say this is a blue-collar sorority. It has a lot of very gritty, rough, outspoken, hungry women who needed something in their lives that no other sport could provide. We were more theatrical in concept because we were having fun with it. It wasn’t strategic." But, she added, "we can only leverage this hipness so far" (Drosendahl interview).
One measure of the Rollergirls’ mainstream acceptance was that in October 2013 they were filmed skating around the observation deck of the city’s iconic Space Needle for Visit Seattle, the city’s tourism bureau. Another was that they were outdrawing KeyArena's other prime tenant, the Storm. Still, such success was accompanied by a measure of wistfulness for the days when skaters took smoke breaks during practice and battled in a worn-down rink or no-frills hangar. To keep growing, the league was seeking more sports-minded fans to offset the loss of those who missed the decade’s rougher, bawdier bouts.