In 1935, sports promoter Leo A. Seltzer held a roller skating endurance race similar to bicycle races that had become popular during the Great Depression. Seltzer's contest involved 25 teams, each with one male and one female skater. The goal was to complete 57,000 laps around the rink -- approximately the distance across the continental United States. Sports historians mark this as the first roller derby.
Seltzer organized these races until 1937, when sportswriter Damon Runyon noted that the most exciting moments were the collisions between skaters. Then, the competition changed from an endurance event to game with defensive and offensive skaters. Teams played on a banked track, and women and men played in alternating periods.
Roller derby's popularity grew during the 1940s and '50s. The sport gained a reputation for being rough and aggressive, and players developed intense rivalries. In the early 1970s, the slowing economy and rising fuel costs led to the sport's decline. Televised bouts, some with theatrical elements similar to professional wrestling, could not revive people's interest.
The current roller derby revival started in 2001. New leagues have kept the same general structure of the game but with distinctive, all-female teams. Former Atlanta Rollergirl Lola Lixxx told Howstuffworks.com, "Women really have not had enough of a presence or place in physical sports, save for boxing. I think derby is appealing to women because we get to showcase strength, agility and speed like men."
Next, we'll look at how the roller derby leagues have developed and what makes them popular.