Roller Derby promoter
says game will return
Last incarnation succeeded, then crumbled from within

Skaters wait before a capacity crowd for their Roller Derby contest to begin during a visit to the Memorial Auditorium. The Derby frequented the Sacramento facility on a regular basis in the 1970s and 80s and even held its championship playoffs there one year. IRSL Photo
(This is the third of a series of articles I wrote on Roller Derby while working for a weekly paper in the Sacramento, California area. This appeared in print Aug. 28, 1991)

    After Roller Derby migrated from the East Coast to the West Coast in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the game began to thrive again in its new environment.
    The early 1960s saw three different organizations running Roller Derby on the West Coast, each competing within itself and also sharing "visiting" teams with the others.
    The L.A. Braves were located in the Los Angeles area, the Bay Bombers in the San Francisco area (run by Jerry Seltzer), and the Portland/Seattle/Spokane Westerners (run by Derby founder Leo Seltzer) all operated under the Roller Derby banner.
    The Jerry Seltzer-run Derby, of course, was the only organization to survive into the late 60s and early 70s, but even in finally succumbed, driven out of business by rising prices and restrictions brought on by the gas crunch of the 70s.
    In its Northern California prime, the Roller Derby enjoyed a great deal of prosperity.
    The skaters took pride in their skating and athletic ability and visibly bristled when anyone tried to cast a shadow over Roller Derby as not being a real sport.
    "It bothered them a lot," said one former skating employee who preferred not to be identified because of his current position with another sports group.
    "They really cared about what people thought and got angry at not being considered athletes.
    "At times there was a lot of showmanship involved, but the skating was always fast and furious. The veteran skaters learned quickly how to sell themselves to the crowd."
    The skaters were said to get very defensive anytime anyone would knock their game, but at the same time they realized the need to be showy in order to draw fans.
    Anyone doubting the validity of the game probably never took notice of the long list of injuries that followed many of the skaters around.
    Charlie O'Connell had so many breaks in his arms toward the end of his career he was forced to skate with braces on them or face loss of movement should another break occur.
    Ann Calvello was sidelined with a knee injury so serious that doctors said she'd never skate again - although after surgery she eventually did return.
    Many skaters rolled around the track nightly with injuries that probably would have put many people in the hospital.
    Toward the latter part of the Seltzer-owned Derby, Roller Derby began skating games against its Southern California rival, the Roller Games.
    "That was always interesting," said the former Derby employee. "There was a lot of animosity between the two groups.
    "Many of the Roller Games skaters didn't like to skate against the Roller Derby skaters because O'Connell and some of the others would really slam them around.
    "And the Roller Derby skaters just didn't like Roller Games in general - because of their skating style. They didn't like the excessive showmanship, shouting matches and pies in the face."
    Between 1971 and 1973 Roller Derby went nationwide with "home" teams placed in different regions. Each team skated a season of 120 games - with home games in its own local area.
    The gas crisis of the early 70s brought an end to that, however, and the International Roller Derby League skated its last game on Dec. 6, 1973.
    It wasn't until 1977 that a new Roller Derby organization emerged - the International Roller skating League.
    Several skaters had tried to get a new league going without much success. David Lipschultz, then a producer at Channel 20 in San Francisco, came into the picture and got it back on its feet.
    Lipschultz originally had only been interested in putting the Derby back on television. "The skaters were trying to organize themselves in that first season," he said, "but they weren't too good at it. I wound up taking over the whole league."
    The IRSL was in business for just over 10 years. "In that time," said Lipschultz, "we were continually evolving. We would have gone national again, but ran into several problems."
    Lipschultz relates that one of the biggest problems was getting quality female skaters on the banked track. "If we went national, we were going to need female skaters. The training school was turning out a lot of good men skaters, but no women."
    The Derby did test the waters in 1984 after skating primarily in Northern California, but according to Lipschultz, "We took a beating financially."
    Roller Derby toured the midwest, flopping in Chicago after good advance sales.
    "We were up against a baseball team that had just moved into first place for the first time in 20 years - and a sellout crowd at the Bears football game that allowed it to be shown on TV."     Moving on to Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Derby did no better, playing a date on a hot, rain-soaked Sunday afternoon that kept the crowd to a minimum.
    "That was a booking error," said Lipschultz. "They told me the weather would be great, but that type of weather was normal for that time of year. I found out later that no one had ever booked the arena in August before."
    Indeed, those were only the start of some of the problems that would plague the Derby in coming years, most of which were overcome by the determination of Lipschultz to make Roller Derby a success.
    "Television stations looked on us as an entertainment attraction rather than a sport," said Lipschultz. "They wanted us to pay to put our games on the air. Religion and wrestling pay television to carry its programming. I was determined not to do that. I didn't feel that we should pay a station to put on a program that brought them good ratings."
    Lipschultz would often have to settle for a No. 2 or No. 3 station in a particular area to get his way.
    "We were giving them free programming," said Lipschultz. "But stations were continually trying to get money out of us."
    Between 1985-87, Roller Derby finally looked as if it was going to take off into the big time. "A lot happened during that period," said Lipschultz. "We established an east coast team - the Eastern Express - which played its games around the New York area. We entered into a contract with Madison Square Garden for both live and television games; had a contract with ESPN to produce a series of telecasts; and we entered into a partnership with the most successful rock and roll promoter in the New York area."
    Lipschultz also said that the wheels were turning on a licensing program for merchandise, including home video tapes, Halloween costumes and video games. "There was a real serious effort at merchandising at this point," he said.
    "What we were trying to do was to create a pool of money for the league and also give our skaters a percentage of it." Lipschultz said that there was also talk of a rock and roll or celebrity tie in, to which end a talent agency called International Creative Management was brought in.
    Talks with the USA Network for weekly games were under way, as were negotiations for a European tour.
    Then the bottom fell out.
    The IRSL skated its last game at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 1987. Lipschultz invited everyone who was important to the Derby to that game and asked them for their suggestions on how to improve it.
    "Everyone was so busy with ideas that we decided to shut down the league and make fundamental changes to the rules to make it easier to understand and give it more mass appeal. In going back to the drawing board, we shot a video tape with the skaters from the musical "Starlight Express," said Lipschultz. "These skaters were really good and would have easily adapted to Roller Derby. We wanted to blend them in with the talent that was already there. We needed larger than life personalities - Roller Derby didn't have a Hulk Hogan and we needed one."
    Unfortunately, Lipschultz soon realized the bitter truth about a business such as Roller Derby. "Once you shut down," he said, "it isn't very easy to start up again." Lipschultz said that skaters balked at the changes he had in mind for the game - including the development of "personalities" and more showy interviews like those found in wrestling programs. "None of it would have hurt the game. It would have just made it more appealing to the fans. It put our final game in jeopardy of not being played at all," he said.
    To make matters worse, ESPN had just paid a huge sum to the NFL to start showing football and as such, was no longer interested in paying the IRSL for its weekly programming. "Lack of television revenue, coupled with in-fighting among the partners and skaters led to the decision to shut down the league."
    Lipschultz was trying to put the pieces back together when a whole new "Roller Games" show appeared on TV - complete with a figure eight track and a pit with an alligator.
    "Its ultimate failure helped poison TV to any kind of roller skating," said Lipschultz.
    So what's in the future for Roller Derby? "Eventually I will start it up again," said Lipschultz. "But the time isn't right for it right now." Lipschultz also said that the game will probably change from its last incarnation, but will still be recognizable as Roller Derby.
    "We may go to roller blades rather than the standard roller skates," he said. "The track might be a different size or shape. The possibilities are numerous." Lipschultz also said that the new game may only be 50 percent "old" Roller derby, with new innovations added. "Television will dictate what Roller Derby becomes," said Lipschultz.
    But at the same time, Lipschultz believes that the game mustn't become all theatrics and must stay legitimate in order to succeed. "I'd like to see it stay as a legitimate game," said Lipschultz. "If it is to have any chance of growing into a world-wide sport it would have to be that way."
    Lipschultz also envisions a much different business structure for the Derby of the future. "It's going to have many owners with lots of money," he said. "television almost certainly would play a part in the ownership. We'd need more training schools too, rather than just one in California."
    Lipschultz said that Roller Derby is too popular a sport to remain dormant for very long and predicts its ultimate return within a few years - perhaps expanding world-wide before the end of the decade. "The time isn't right though," he said. "The disastrous failure of Roller Games with their alligator pit is still too big on everyone's mind.
    Lipschultz's plan for bringing the Derby back to prominance will involve merging the old with the new. "Older skaters from the past will merge with the new skaters and teach them. There will be recognizable figureheads as well as new, rising stars."
    Having gone from the top to the bottom with the IRSL, Lipschultz has learned his lesson well. "When the time is right and the right people become involved, Roller Derby will return. I really love the game and want to see it done right. This time it will take investors who are willing to spend millions of dollars on it rather than just one person trying to keep it alive."
© 1991/2000 by Joe Blenkle
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