While many people still think of roller derby as a sport that originated in the 1970s, the real history of the sport actually dates back to the last decades of the 1880s, when endurance skating races became popular across the United States. In 1885, this form of popular entertainment became an organized athletic competition, when Madison Square Garden in New York City hosted the first formal competition for roller derby.
By the first years of the 20th century, early versions of the current form of roller derby began to appear. Professional players began to compete with teams, and violence in the form of pushing and shoving began to be popular, threatening the reputation of the sport. In 1907, the International Sporting Union of America formed as a way to organize formal competitions, enforce rules and discourage violent behavior.
From there, roller derby really began to take off. There were day-long endurance races in places like Milwaukee, and New York City hosted the first-ever banked track races in 1914. In 1922, the Chicago Tribune became the first-ever media publication to use the “derby” to describe the fast-paced action happening on flat tracks across Chicago.
In 1929, at the very beginning of the Great Depression, Leo Seltzer came up with the idea of roller skating as a sport to engage the unemployed masses. Since crowds were willing to pay anywhere from $0.10 to $0.25 for an admission ticket, they expected to see some physical contact at the skating tracks. In August 1935, the first-ever Transcontinental Roller Derby took place, featuring 25 two-member teams (one man, one woman).
As new forms of media took off, roller derby became even more popular nationally. In 1939, a Los Angeles radio station broadcasted the first-ever game of roller derby on the radio. And in 1946, the Polo Grounds in New York City became the site of the first-ever televised broadcast of a roller derby. By the 1950s, roller derby had become a sport with a national cult following. Roller derby stars appeared, and in 1952, the sport launched a Roller Derby Hall of Fame with annual inductions of star performers.
However, by the early 1970s, the sport of roller derby was in deep decline. Costs were skyrocketing, and the skaters even went on strike. December 1973 saw the demise of the most popular roller derby league. Just five years later, though, rock and roll promoter David Lipshultz came up with the idea of televising the games on TV and dramatizing the action to attract viewers. The popularity of roller derby began to grow again.
By the early 2000s, all-female roller derby leagues began to form, first in the U.S. and Canada, and then all around the world, including Australia and New Zealand. A reality TV show, “Rollergirls,” dramatized the sport for millions, and that led to the popularity of the sport as a sort of female version of professional wrestling. Jammers and blockers took on funny or clever stage names, and violence and drama were added to the mix.
And that brings us to the modern era, where roller derby is a sport and entertainment spectacle that is enjoyed all over the world. There is now very real hope that roller derby will make it into the 2020 Summer Olympics. From its early origins in turn-of-the-century America, roller derby has certainly come a long way.