From roller derby's highest profile days in the 1970s, when it featured both men and women on a banked track and was televised on more than 100 stations, the sport had faded from sight. But in the early 2000s, a group of Texas women created a flat-track version with loud music, fierce aliases, a little face paint, and lots of female-on-female shoving. A Seattle woman, Lilly Warner (b. 1976), learned about it in 2003 when she met one of the Texas Rollergirls in Austin, and decided to bring the sport to the Northwest. Warner and two friends, Rahel Cook (b. 1971) and Katie Merrell (b. 1972), became the founders of the Rat City Rollergirls.
They began recruiting members in late March 2004, and soon had enough to form committees to handle tasks such as marketing and scheduling. They added a logo featuring a tough- and sexy-looking woman with a black eye. They filed for a state business license and started selling merchandise. Their members paid monthly dues. Some had to learn to skate. Most needed to learn the rules of roller derby. And all needed to practice, which they did at Southgate Roller Rink in White Center.
Before they had appeared in public, a story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described the Rat City Rollergirls as "a little bit punky, a little bit naughty and a good bit athletic," and quoted Warner as saying they planned to have bands play at their bouts and expected to generate crossover appeal for musicians and artists (Dizon). On February 20, 2005, they staged an exhibition bout. They were divided among four teams -- Derby Liberation Front, Grave Danger, Sockit Wenches, and Throttle Rockets -- and were, as a boxing announcer might say, ready to rumble.
They didn't know what to expect in terms of a crowd for their first real bout. To help boost the gate, they advertised free beer. Tickets sold out within 24 hours, and the line waiting to get inside wrapped around the rink. Attendance was reported as 600. The crowd witnessed an unconventional delivery of the national anthem, fist-pumping team introductions, six striped-shirted referees in helmets and knee and elbow pads just like the skaters, a statistics crew, and an announcer offering exuberant play-by-play commentary. Fans were loud and close to the action.
The Seattle P-I covered the event with a story and two photos on its front page, the story continuing on an inside page with five more photos. The headline was "Female Hellions on Wheels: Rollergirls’ First Wild Rumble Wins Hearts of Fans." Reporter Athima Chansanchai described the scene:
"Under whirling red and blue lights, a legion of helmeted hellions on wheels rolled out Saturday night to a sold-out audience that eagerly anticipated the Rat City Rollergirls’ opening-season rumble at Southgate Roller Rink.
"They weren't disappointed.
"Clad in outrageous outfits, accompanied by marching mascots and a pulsating soundtrack, the queens of rollerama shoved, blocked and skated their way into the hearts of fans" (Chansanchai)
Points in roller derby are scored by a skater designated as the jammer passing the opposing team's skaters during a series of two-minute jams. On that opening night, Derby Liberation Front beat the Sockit Wenches 86-37 and the Throttle Rockets beat Grave Danger 74-26. But points were almost beside the point. The crowd loved the campy theatrics and rough play.
Benjimen "Silvia O'Stay for More" Blair, a brawny figure with pompons and what looked like a fuzzy wig, sang the national anthem. Derby Liberation Front mascot "Rocketman Houllahan," wearing sunglasses and an Elvis-style jump suit, ran around waving a flag that said "Intergalactic Domination." About the Throttle Rockets-Grave Danger matchup, announcer Ricky Pajamas intoned, "They may come from the cold depths of outer space and the cold grave, but they've got a fire inside." Skaters caught breaking the rules were sent to an area inside the track where they had to hoist a sign saying "I’ve been a bad girl" (Chansanchai).
The skaters wore short skirts, some adding torn fishnet pantyhose or garish makeup. All participants, including the officials, had nicknames. Coach Pam Stockman was Farrah Toss-It. The Derby Liberation Front’s Sue Schmitz was Darth Skater. "There are so many awesome personalities," Schmitz said. "We’re all a bunch of sisters having fun kicking butt. ... I feel like I was meant to rollerderby" (Chansanchai).
The Rat City Rollergirls staged two more bouts at Southgate Roller Rink, both of them sellouts. For the rest of that 2005 inaugural season and through 2007, their bouts were at Hangar 27 at Magnuson Park, where they drew crowds of up to 3,000. After a forced relocation to smaller Hangar 30, in 2009 they landed at Seattle Center’s KeyArena. They averaged more than 4,000 fans for their first five seasons there and in 2010 set a national attendance record of 6,800.
The Seattle league was one of five founding members of the national Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, and for its first nine years one of the highest-ranked by the nation’s skaters. There were hundreds of women’s roller derby leagues in late 2013, when the Rat City Rollergirls were preparing for their 10th season. Most of their original skaters had retired, but the league’s boisterous appeal continued with a growing roll of names such as Morning Gory, Drew Blood, Punchin’ Judy, and Lady Die.