The term roller derby dates at least as far back as 1922, when the Chicago Tribune used it to describe multi-day, flat-track roller skating races, similar to banked-track marathons reported on by The New York Times in 1885 (a six-day race) and 1914 (a 24-hour championship), among others.
Promoter Leo Seltzer and sportswriter Damon Runyon are credited with modifying these endurance competitions in the 1930s by emphasizing the physical contact and teamwork—and thus the more spectacular aspects of the sport. Seltzer trademarked the name Roller Derby, reserving it for use by his traveling troupe of professional skaters. Roller Derby took root as an icon of popular culture as matches were held in numerous cities throughout the U.S. and sometimes broadcast on radio and, eventually, on television.
Rival organizations such as Roller Games (featuring the Los Angeles Thunderbirds) came and went as the sport/spectacle endured several boom-and-bust cycles throughout the second half of the 20th century. The initial business model of roller derby finally collapsed in the mid-1970s, but the sport underwent several professional, on-and-off TV revivals which were spearheaded by veteran skaters, including a continuation of Roller Games under new management, a 10-year International Roller Skating League (IRSL), and the short-lived, TV-only spectacles RollerGames and RollerJam.
A large number of contemporary roller derby leagues are all-female and self-organized, and were formed in an indie, DIY spirit by relatively new roller derby enthusiasts.These leagues deploy traditional quad roller skates, and a punk aesthetic and/or ethic is often prominent. Many, if not most, are legally incorporated as limited liability companies, and a few are non-profit organizations. Most compete on flat tracks, though several leagues skate on banked tracks, with more in the planning stages.
Each league typically features two or more local teams which compete in public matches, called bouts, for a diverse fan base. Members of fledgling leagues often practice and strategize together, regardless of team affiliation, between bouts. Moreover, as the business and infrastructure of the sport matures, successful local leagues form travel teams to compete with the roller derby leagues of other cities and regions.
Most players in these leagues skate under an alias, also called a derby name, many of which are creative examples of word play with satirical, mock-violent or sexual puns, alliteration, and allusions to pop culture. Examples include Sandra Day O’Clobber (Sandra Day O’Connor), Scariett Tubman (Harriet Tubman), Skid’n Nancy (Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen), Goldie Knoxx (Goldilocks, Fort Knox), and Anna Mosity (animosity). New players are often encouraged to check their name against an international roster to ensure novelity and uniqueness of the alias before officially using it. Some players claim their names represent alter egos which they adopt whilst skating. Referees may also choose to use derby names as well.
By the 2009 season, however, a small number of players on at least three leagues had started skating under their real names. The names of the bouts themselves are typically as sardonic and convoluted.
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