25 ways to attract more fans to roller derby

Roller derby is awesome, obvs, but are as many people enjoying the sport as there ought to be? 

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Action shots like this, by Steven Lilley, better depict the game.

This post is born out of an impromptu conversation with Big Cat Merv, former announcer with the London Rollergirls, after we bumped into each other in a Hull cafe.

Dave, as he’s known by his family, expressed a frustration with the “by the skater, for the skater” approach that focuses on providing a game day experience for the skater, not the fan.

It’s a line of thinking that resonates with some of my own feelings. In Hull match day attendances have been down on their initial high numbers for a while, which we often (partly) explain through there being more derby than ever.

However if the majority of fans that we can attract is other skaters then we are holding ourselves back when it comes to expanding our audience.

I should preface these ideas by saying that they’re not about changing the DIY, voluntary, self-organised ethos of much of roller derby: that is still important and one of the things that attracted me, like many others, to the sport in the first place. 

Neither is this another post on “necessary” rules changes. I like them, actually. Good job, WFTDA/MRDA! 

Rather, it’s some thinking out loud that “for the skater” roller derby often unconsciously limits itself when it comes to getting people through the door, by thinking within a “roller derby bubble”. 

Here are some ideas then – that many teams will already be doing – that vary between easy-to-implement and more resource-intensive, but which are generally low cost. Those marked with an asterisk are Marv’s ideas, though not his words. 

Scheduling

1) Single headers*

Double headers are great if you already like roller derby, but if you’ve never been before would you want to spend four or five hours in a cold sports hall? A single header only takes up a couple of hours in the day, so it’s less of a risk to new fans.

It’s also less of a commitment to long-time fans who maybe pause for thought before taking three or four hours out of their day. A drawback of that is whether you will attract fans from further afield to single games, however I’d argue it’s more important to build a fanbase at home who regularly attend games and get behind your team.

To take the point further, leagues could alternate months between A and B home team games. One fewer game would knock two hours of hall time off the cost of hosting. Run a season of single headers and throw a double header season finale once the audience has been built.

2) Timing*

This depends a lot on availability, granted, but give consideration to what time of the day games start. First whistle at midday works: the game can be over before 2pm and people have the rest of the day to themselves.

3) Midweek games

I’d also look at midweek, evening games. This wouldn’t work for teams travelling from far away, but nearby teams or even intraleague might work midweek. If the University of Hull Ice Hogs ice hockey team, of similar-ish size, can attract some 200 odd fans to a game late on a Thursday night, what’s to say a roller derby team couldn’t do the same, (eventually)?

4) Intraleague games

In the absence of games against other teams throw intraleague games to keep the interest going for local fans.

As an aside I wonder if the “league” vernacular is relevant and possibly a hindrance to marketing UK roller derby as the concept is different to that in America, where there may be greater distances between leagues.

Ticketing

5) Season tickets

Reward loyalty and fans will see that you want them to return. If home fixtures have been set for the season, or another period of time, offer significant discounts to people who buy in advance. Or even a basic loyalty card scheme, eg: come to three games, get into the fourth for free. This only works, though, if you treat your fans well and give them reason to want to return again and again.

6) Family tickets

Let’s say we charge £5 per adult/£3 concessions as standard pricing. How about then offering family tickets (2x adults, 2x concessions) for £12? Imagine that, taking your whole family to a women’s sporting event for less than the cost of a cinema ticket and popcorn.

7) Extra value*

This is another marketing buzz term that, actually, roller derby does quite well, in terms of selling merch and raffles, but there is more that could be done to add to game day beyond just what happens on track.

Give young fans a chance to meet the skaters and have a photo with them after the game, or even before if that fits in with your game preparation.

Arrange offers with other popular venues and organisations, such as discount admission to a popular club night later that evening (after parties…).

Design programmes with extra content, such as captain’s notes, activities for children, recent match reports etc.

And other things, that I can’t think of at the moment, but you get the gist…

During the game

8) Music*

Get rid of it. What purpose does it serve to the audience, aside from the novelty? It conflicts with the sporting essence and it might give space for more vocal crowds. Gothenburg turned the music down during jams at HARD’s recent visit and the crowd sang chants, making for a much better atmosphere.

I’d stick to only playing music between jams or stoppages, then use music to build/ease tension, ramp up the atmosphere and so on, with a DJ who can work a crowd. Play records that reflect the course of the game and that favour/hype up the home fans before each jam start whistle.

Also be mindful of what you play before games. You might like screamo or black metal, but does your audience?

9) Announcers*

Do away with the the running commentary, which often disappears in the background, and use announcers to help engage the audience as MCs for the day – to announce timings, do the skate outs, explain stoppages/official reviews etc, hype up the crowd beforehand or keep them entertained during those seemingly endless stoppages.

10) Half-time entertainment*

Football clubs do this all the time with penalty shoot-outs or children’s kickabouts, giving fans an opportunity to tread foot on the hallowed turf that their idols play on. We could do the same, with prize-winning games that make use of the track. Races suit the space and relate to the nature of derby: sack, three-legged, space hopper, ‘egg’ and spoon etc.

11) Awards*

Replace skater awards, which are usually a sweaty afterthought, with a crowd MVP award. Bout crew can collect in voting slips five minutes before the end or people could vote via their phones. This will help to build familiarity and fandom.

The arena

12) Clear the infield

Derby is an unusual arena sport as the crowd don’t have a clear view of the entire field, so we should try to make the view to the other side as clear as possible. It’s tough having to peek through a team of officials just to see the action. Put whiteboards and track fixers outside the track, if possible.

As an aside, I don’t think anyone has really nailed the best way to film it yet, but that’s a debate for another time.

13) Use better tape

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a track repaired during a Champs game. It’s a tiresome stoppage and looks amateur when a huge gash appears in the track boundary. We should look at methods for laying a track that use bombproof tape, like the wrestling mat stuff, though I know cost can be prohibitive.

14) Better scoreboards

Use scoreboards that clearly tell the story of the game, on proper screens, not bedsheets or the like. Do we actually need to know who is jamming? Or who is lead? (The referee should be a clue, there.) All we need is score, period clock, jam clock and some dots for timeouts/reviews – in legible fonts.

I’d also probably avoid using team logos. Most of them are awful to identify from afar – just use text. And, if money/resource allows, double the screens up and have one at either end of the hall to make it easier for both audience and teams.  

15) Minimise suicide seating

Die hard fans and other skaters may like the trackside gym mats but not everyone should have to sit on the floor. Provide comfortable seating – preferably bleachers – with good views of the action. Suicide seating is still welcome and is “part of roller derby”, but it shouldn’t be the majority of seating.

16) Dress the arena

This is where some of the original DIY theatre of derby can come in. Make the space your own with handmade banners and flags, make it look special and unique, a place that people will remember visiting and feel more and more of a connection to as they attend more often. Encourage fans to bring their own ‘stuff’ and contribute to the atmosphere.

17) Cheerleaders

In lieu of announcers have a cheerleading squad that start chants in the crowd. They don’t have to be professionals, just some members of the league who aren’t skating or officiating. Pom poms can be made for cheap and they can wear team merch.

18) The venue

Is it even suitable? Most leagues don’t have a choice where they play, so it’s probably a non-point, but if you do have a choice and your venue has dated facilities or is in the back end of beyond off public transport routes, consider hosting games elsewhere as this could be off-putting to some people.

Marketing

19) Promote properly

You cannot attract audiences if you do not plan and promote properly. Write a proper marketing plan, with specific tactics for reaching particular audiences and key messages that should be apparent throughout your promotions. A few posters up in takeaways and a Facebook event isn’t enough, although Facebook advertising is dirt cheap and you can target specific people, so definitely do that. 

Also, a particular bug bear: skaters flyering in the town centre can be great but who is it that’s on skates? Enthusiastic but unsteady pre-mins skaters in legwarmers probably aren’t the best advert for a crunching, full-contact sport, though that enthusiasm could be used elsewhere, such as on game day to bring colour to the venue.

20) Target your audience(s)

Do you know who is coming to your games? Where do you face competition from in your town? Hull recently lost its ice hockey team so those fans would be worth targeting. Do your game days clash with big events elsewhere in your city? Hull is also a huge rugby city with two top flight teams. Hosting a game here on derby day would be a bad idea.

Tools exist for arts organisations to identify what are known as audience ‘segments’. They may not be applicable to roller derby but a similar way of segmenting – better understanding – your target audiences can help inform how you promote to them.

For example, at any game there will be people there with different motivations: family and friends supporting skaters, skaters from other teams catching another game or checking out the opposition, One Show/Whip It viewers who want to find out more about roller derby, sports purists checking out this new sport and so on. 

21) More on motivations

Why do people go to a football game? To feel and publicly identify as part of a ‘tribe’, to enjoy the thrills and spills of following a team through thick and thin, to discuss that in the pub before and after the game, to enjoy the roar of the crowd, the communal ecstacy when the ball hits the back of the net (or agony if it’s the other side).

Why, then, might people come to watch roller derby and your team specifically? This is a good exercise to get in the mind of your audience and think about how to promote to them.

22) Get audience data

Use box office/ticketing programmes that let you capture email addresses and postcodes of your audience so that you can stay in touch with them (with their permission!) and form a relationship that hopefully leads to return visits and maybe even new skaters, officials or volunteers. This data can also then be used to better understand who your audience is, including any segments and whether they’re the kinds of people you’re aiming to attract to games.

23) Students

I’ve noticed a dislike of engaging students in roller derby as they’re considered transitional, but even those who move on after three years are still in your town for three years (or more). Ignore at your peril! 

24) Images

Use high quality photography and video that tells the story of a game. Jammers coasting around a corner is old hat (in marketing terms – they still make for great photos) and don’t show the blood and thunder of the contest in the pack. And be sneaky: cherry-pick photos that show a healthy audience in the background so your games look like a popular event.

25) No more bout names

Thankfully there’s a big shift away from these already, but what does your bout poster look like it’s advertising? A sporting event, a fancy dress party or panto? Roller derby itself should sell. I mean, look at the words, roller what?! Lots of non-derby folk I’ve spoken to think it’s all staged from the way it’s currently marketed. OK, that’s anecdote, not data, but roller derby has a big ‘sports entertainment’ history that could potentially ‘taint’ its contemporary image.

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Roller derby has grown at a phenomenal rate in the past decade but it feels – in Yorkshire at least, where I’ve the most experience – that game day has very much focused on skaters during that growth.

Part of that will be the small scale of the sport, despite that growth, and a need to focus ultimately on the game itself, but many of the ideas above can be implemented with little more than some YouTube tutorials and plenty of time, nor do they contravene roller derby’s cooperative, democratic organising principles.

Alright, but who are you? 

I started skating with the Hulls Angels Roller Dames in early 2011 as a referee and am now their A team’s bench coach. I also play with The Inhuman League and have previously been their captain and vice-captain. 

Away from roller derby I juggle two jobs as communications manager for a theatre company and intranet officer for an anti-poverty charity.