Minnesota loves its RollerGirls

The Minnesota RollerGirls won the opening bout of the season Saturday, supported by a throng of roller derby fans that has grown year after year.

Alex Lacey, right, and her Minnesota RollerGirl All Star League teammates compete against the Carolina Rollergirls at Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Saturday. The team of all-female roller derby players kicked off their sixth season with a win.

Alex Lacey, right, and her Minnesota RollerGirl All Star League teammates compete against the Carolina Rollergirls at Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Saturday. The team of all-female roller derby players kicked off their sixth season with a win.

Briana Bierschbach

Heather Tufton was the only woman in the room not wearing skates. Tufton, a former member of the original Minnesota RollerGirls team, sat among strewn clothes and gear watching her old team scrimmage in the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul on Tuesday night, four days before the teamâÄôs season opener. She looked out for players who were still left from the original team, and could easily spot the new ones. âÄúIs that a baby?âÄù she asked a player after Ashley Peterson, a University of Minnesota junior and architecture major skated by. Tufton also reflected on how much things have changed since the early roller derby days as the sport has become increasingly popular in Minnesota and across the nation. The team, now in its sixth season, has seen steadily growing ticket sales and fan base over the last few years. And with the recent release of âÄúWhip It,âÄù a movie about roller derby, this could be the teamâÄôs biggest season yet. The team of all-female roller derby players kicked off its sixth season at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul Saturday with a victory over the Carolina Rollergirls, a team based out of Raleigh, N.C. Peterson, a University student and one of the teamâÄôs newest members, was looking for a summer sport and tried out for the RollerGirls last June. After a four-hour tryout and eight weeks of boot camp, she officially became a member of the league. âÄúWe pretty much got our butts kicked,âÄù Peterson said of boot camp. But after settling into the team and practice routines, Peterson said itâÄôs a good fit. âÄúI like the cute outfits and hitting people and girl comradery,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs just what I was looking for.âÄù Alex Lacey, a recent graduate of the University and a member of the Minnesota R ollerGirls All Star Team, which plays leagues from all over the country, was introduced to the sport by attending bouts with her fiancé. Lacey, known as LâÄôexi Cuter on the track, played rugby prior to her time with roller derby. But when the time came to try out a new contact sport, derby seemed liked a fun option, she said. To join the team, players must be at least 21, but there is no age limit to being a Minnesota RollerGirl. At 56, Benita Warns is the oldest person in the league. Warns, a referee for the team, goes by the derby name BatterinâÄô Gram. âÄúI have eight grandkids and they think IâÄôm cool because IâÄôm on the team,âÄù she said. Warns, who just retired from owning a small bike shop, said she prefers to spend her time off hanging out with a younger crowd, particularly one made up of almost all females. âÄúIâÄôd rather hang out with young people,âÄù she said. âÄúIt beats hanging out with geezers who talk about their diseases.âÄù A strong Minnesota following The Minnesota RollerGirls has grown from six original members to the current roster of 80 skaters, eight referees and coaches and a slew of volunteers. Their venue also changed from the early days in a small cheap skate in Coon Rapids to the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. They were the first league in the country to have a professional space for practices and bouts. âÄúThe Minnesota league is in an environment that is very sports positive and their metro area is really supportive of the team,âÄù Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the WomenâÄôs Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) said, adding that it helps that the RollerGirls season is primarily during the winter months when indoor sporting activities are more popular. Growing popularity The number of leagues in WFTDA has more than doubled since its inception in 2004, Gonzales said, and ticket sales to the Minnesota RollerGirls have steadily increased over the last few years. In 2006, the league was selling about 1,000 tickets per game, but ticket sales shot up after the airing of a reality television show called âÄúRollergirls .âÄù Sales have risen steadily since, Brian Macke, spokesman for the team said. On average, bouts sell between 2,500 and 3,000 tickets, but the facility has been close to reaching its maximum of 3,800 in past. And some wonder if the new roller derby movie âÄúWhip It,âÄù starring Ellen Page and Drew Barrymore, will draw some extra crowds. âÄúItâÄôs probably going to help us, but what we do is very different than what they do on the movie,âÄù RollerGirl Rachel Montague said. âÄúThey do a lot of the punching and hitting and thatâÄôs illegal for us.âÄù More than anything the fan base will grow by people spreading the word, Ying fah Thao, a member of the team, said. âÄúPeople come to the show, have a great time and bring someone else, thatâÄôs how our fan base builds,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs all about someone who brings someone who brings someone else, because no matter what, youâÄôre going to have a good time.âÄù The game, the history A roller derby bout consists of five players from each team on the track at a time âÄî three blockers and a pivot on defense, and one jammer who scores points. In order to earn points, the jammer must lap the pack while her teammates defend her from opposing players. After passing the pack the first time, jammers earn one point each time they pass defense from the opposing team. The rules of the game are set by WFTDA , which issues a 36-page guide book to its 78 leagues. Breaking the rules, which includes fighting during a bout, can result in a trip to the penalty box or expulsion from the game. Fights, however, were once the centerpiece of roller derby. âÄúThe rules are a lot stricter now to really make it a serious sport,âÄù said Bridget Donnelly , who formed the Minnesota RollerGirls in August 2004 with her sister. âÄúWe used to sit and plan out fights before a bout, but now if you see a fight, itâÄôs real and you get ejected.âÄù Staging brawls aligns more with the old way of derby, which, in the 1960s and 70s had a circus-wrestling approach complete with checking, elbowing and fighting, Donnelly said. During that time, roller derby events were filmed and aired on television regularly. Popularity of the sport peaked in the 70s, but dropped off for the next several decades. Attempts were made to revive roller derby in the late 70s through the 90s, but the sport didnâÄôt really revive until 2001, when a group of women in Texas created a women-only league. This time around, the focus was on the sport, not the spectacle. âÄúPart of the thing that drew people into roller derby was short skirts and fish nets, but we want to make it more about athleticism,âÄù Donnelly said. The RollerGirls still aim to put on a good show, but seek to accomplish this now via skill on the track, halftime band performances and crowd interaction, Donnelly said.