I had the pleasure of interviewing one of Hull’s rising grime and hip hop artists, Chiedu Oraka, for the first 2017 issue of Browse Magazine.
Chiedu Oraka is a man who commands attention: not just his physical stature, all six feet and seven inches of him, with a booming voice to boot, but also his carefully articulated observations of working class life that he’s been spitting for the past seven years. In 2015 he came to wider attention in Hull with his video for I’m From A City, a brutally honest yet hopeful paean to a flawed hometown with its refrain, “I love my city, if you do too, just spread the message with me.”
The first Men’s Roller Derby World Cup in Birmingham in 2014 will be remembered as much for its remarkable underdogs as the inevitable progression of sides such as England, Canada and the eventual winners, USA.
Argentina surprised everybody to reach the knockout stages with some fantastic performances throughout the weekend, despite taking only eight skaters to the tournament.
Their off-skates stories, including a marriage proposal during the final and a surprise fundraising appeal, further helped to write the team into roller derby folklore.
Even before the tournament started there was a palpable hype around the team, from the curiosity around Roller Game to the rumours that they’d shipped body armour to England.
And who can forget the opening ceremony? A riotous entrance with leg whips galore that had the entire crowd bouncing and left Umesan with a pair of broken skates.
Come the tournament proper it seemed that every fan in Futsal cheered every point won by Japan.
“The entire crowd is on their side, even our fans are on their side; I think even our bench coach was on their side!” exclaimed Ireland’s Lt. Damn at the time.
Then there was the impromptu coaching behind the scenes from other skaters and a noticeable improvement in each of their five games, on top of the fevered rush to bag their merchandise, which sold out in thirty minutes.
Now the Ninjapan Rollers are preparing to do it all over again at the 2016 World Cup in Calgary next month, so what better time than now to catch up on their story with skater Keisuke Otsuki (#99)?
Life after 2014
“We are so glad to inform you that all of us are still going strong,” Kei reveals. “In fact, we also have an additional six new members to our team.”
“After the World Cup we held a lot of promotional activities, training and bouts to keep up our motivation and increase our exposure, and this led to the increase in number of our supporters and team members,” he continues.
Looking back on that first tournament in 2014, Kei explains that: “We experienced and felt the excitement that we couldn’t even imagine in Japan.
“We were so touched by the supportive and dedicated, warm attitude of the organisers, supporting staff, audience and the participating team members [from other nations].
“In addition to that [attitude] making a lasting impression on us, our participation also inspired and deeply motivated each one of us to keep going strong and to continue to play and promote roller derby in Japan, where this sport hasn’t gained mass recognition yet.”
Kei goes on: “Not only did the skaters that were selected for the World Cup develop personally, but their experiences also helped to prepare the new members that follow the sport and decided to join the team and help them train them for their next participation.”
It’s not all been plain sailing though, as can often be the way with minority sports, but the internet has helped to fill in some of the gaps created by the lack of direct learning opportunities.
“Unfortunately, in the absence of another men’s team in the country, to build up tactics from practice sessions has been difficult.
“However each member has carefully observed and learnt new tactics from watching videos of trainings and bouts from other countries and improvised and built their tactics accordingly.”
Growth in Japan
While roller derby fans responded to Japan’s appearance in England with an outpouring of love and respect, it didn’t quite catapult the sport into the limelight back home.
However the experience two years ago did set them up to make slow and steady progress, armed with new skills and knowledge acquired from skating with the world’s best in Birmingham.
“There wasn’t an overnight change in the mass perception of roller derby after our participation,” says Kei, “but we surely managed to steadily increase the number of people interested in the game.
“We have been constantly engaged and focused on promotional activities and have managed to make our presence felt on several occasions in Japanese media, apart from the dedicated viewership on the social networking sites.
“Also recently the women’s tournament was held in Japan, which further increased the media presence of derby in Japan.”
That was the Japan Open in Okinawa in March 2016; not only Japan’s first roller derby tournament but also the first in Asia.
It featured 10 women’s teams, including six from Japan, plus sides from Adelaide (Aus), Auckland (NZ), Alaska (USA) and Copenhagen (Den), and officials from around the world.
Although a women’s tournament, it still benefited the men’s game by helping to forge links between the men’s and women’s teams.
“It was really a big deal for us that the women’s tournament was held here in Japan,” remarks Kei.
“As the men’s team we couldn’t do much directly during the time of the tournament.
“However after the tournament we were able to bond with them and organise a bout between Ninjapan Rollers and the women’s mixed team.
“It was a really meaningful and an overall great experience for both the teams. We now aim to hold a men’s tournament in the same way as the women’s tournament soon.”
2016 World Cup
Before they can think about holding a men’s tournament in Japan though there is the small matter of the World Cup in Calgary, which starts on 21 July with a game between hosts Canada and Germany.
With all 15 of the teams who appeared in 2014 returning to the World Cup in Calgary – alongside six new teams – this year’s tournament will prove a great opportunity to assess their progress.
The Ninjapan Rollers are understandably excited and they look forward to testing themselves against the rest of the world in a group that includes Finland, Ireland, Mexico, Scotland and the defending champions, USA.
When questioned about how they feel ahead of the World Cup, Kei is quick to add that: “I want to share the pride we feel of being the only representatives from Asia in this World Cup.
“We want to focus on our objective this time to win as many games as we can, with the teamwork that has evolved since the last tournament two years ago, and also become a team that is well loved by everyone in the World Cup.
“For this purpose, all the team members are united and practising as one.”
There’s little doubt that Japan will have a legion of followers at this tournament.
They recently revealed their line-up for the World Cup with a video on Facebook which, at the time of writing, had amassed over 15,000 views and 160 shares.
Kei and his teammates will look to marry the energy and support of the crowd in Calgary with their own strengthened roster.
In their previous outing the Rollers lost their five games with only 11 skaters, but will be taking a bigger squad this time, along with a number of support staff.
“We are a big and strong 23 member contingent, comprised of 15 skaters, five supporting staff members and three permanent staff members” says Kei.
Another theme that ran throughout the 2014 World Cup was of it being the first global coming together of men’s roller derby teams and the legacy that it would leave for many of those teams who were still in their infancy.
It was essentially a three day, hyper-intense boot camp and the Calgary edition is also seen by Kei as an opportunity for Ninjapan Rollers to develop further, take ideas and contacts back to Japan and point the game in the right direction for the future.
“We are really excited to learn and build our knowledge and skills related to roller derby in addition to communicating and building stronger bonds with all the participating countries,” he explains.
“We also think that our participation in this tournament is a big step towards our future goal of association with the MRDA.”
And this is the beauty of these international gatherings, where superstars mix with debutants, where officials can also learn from each other and where fans can meet other likeminded souls; a global melting pot that fires dozens more little derby revolutions.
“We think that it will eventually influence the overall growth of roller derby in Japan,” concludes Kei, “and it will drive us to create a niche for ourselves and this beautiful sport.”
Based on interviews with four DJs and MCs involved in various pirate radio stations in Hull during the ’90s and early ’00s, this oral history pulls together stories about the station’s origins, the tunes they played and their run-ins with the law.
You can buy a copy in Hull from Ground Gallery (Beverley Road), Sound System Records (Bowl Alley Lane) and The English Muse (Newland Avenue).
Roller derby is awesome, obvs, but are as many people enjoying the sport as there ought to be?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.