After a multi-decade hiatus from the public eye, roller derby is finally popular again, with new leagues and fan communities cropping up each year. Though derby has shed its former theatrical flourishes in favor of a more serious, professional model, there are still plenty of reasons for folks not won over by football or tennis to flock to it. It’s one of the few woman-dominated team sports. There’s a place for bodies of all sizes and abilities. Ellen Page is adorable in Whip It (even if her romantic interest should have been Drew Barrymore’s character instead of the dude who sang “Falling in Love at a Coffee Shop”). Skaters can ditch their boring everyday names and start answering to Pumpkin Smash-Her or Katpiss Neverclean.
I initially joined a local league because I was lonely and because the gameplay dazzled me — a well-executed roller derby bout is an exhibition of athleticism, grace, and intricate strategy. (Less than two years later, I understand the amount of work that goes into making the rink magic happen. As a teammate pointed out: how many adult sports require you to practice two to three times a week, eleven months of the year, with practically no off-season?) I’ve found plenty more to appreciate about it since, including the fact that I can now touch my toes for the first time in my life (!!).
Anyone involved in a niche recreational activity will know that talking about it with not-in-the-know friends and family involves a lot of debunking of common misconceptions. Yes, I’ll explain, roller derby is an international sport with tournaments and playoffs and international championships. No, the bouts aren’t staged. And every time someone asks me if we get paid to play, I want to laugh and weep simultaneously.
Like many of the extracurricular activities touted as being “empowering” and “badass,” roller derby costs a significant amount of money. It’s a financial commitment akin to an annual Aspen vacation or Frappuccino addiction. I’m not saying that derby isn’t worth it — there are skaters from a broad range of economic situations who happily work their budgets around the expenses, myself included — but it’s important to acknowledge the price tag that comes with the punny name.
What follows is a breakdown of the money I’ve spent over my first year of roller derby. I’m hoping that being financially transparent will encourage discussion about what it costs to maintain a high-energy, high-commitment extracurricular activity. Since my experience is not reflective of every skater’s, I also included a list of common derby-related expenses that don’t apply to my budget.
What I Buy
Dues: $600 ($50/month)
Like most roller derby leagues, my league is a nonprofit organization. Along with ticket sales, fundraisers, and merch sales, we rely on member dues to cover the rent we pay for our practice space and other league costs. We have a hardship policy that allows skaters to waive dues for a month if they need to.
Our trainers, coaches, board members, on-site EMTs, and bout photographers are not paid. While a handful of the Division 1 leagues bring enough money through sponsorships to have salaried employees, smaller leagues like mine are run entirely by volunteers.
WFTDA Insurance: $75
My league is a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. This means that we skate competitively and have an international ranking. It also means that at the beginning of every year, each skater is required to pay a flat fee of $75 to help cover insurance costs we may accrue from being injured in a WFTDA-sanctioned game.
I started out with a pair of skates priced at $200, which is at the midrange level for derby players. I bought them new from a skate shop because I thought that getting fitted in person would ensure that they were the proper size. Wrong! After a couple of months, it became evident that they were too big and threw me off balance. This is a common occurrence for first-time skate purchasers.
Amazingly, I didn’t have to buy replacements. One of my teammates dug an ownerless pair of skates in my size out of our spare gear bin, fixed them up, and dropped them in my lap on a particularly fortuitous Tuesday. I’ve used them ever since, with the addition of a $40 set of wheels that I bought to replace the lower-quality wheels that came with my first pair.
Luxury brands like Motas or Chayas can run up to $500. Many derby players own multiple pairs of skates, and almost everyone who’s not a total newbie has several sets of wheels for different types of floors.
My helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, and wrist guards totaled $125 when I bought them online. I also splurged on a $35 custom-molded mouth guard instead of buying one of the cheaper one-size-fits-all options. It was worth every cent — I like being able to yell at my teammates without sounding like I’m choking on an apple.
Take note that new recruits are required to have their own skates and gear when they show up for their first training session. This means that I dropped $360 on equipment before I even knew how to skate in a straight line. Some leagues are able to offer loaner skates or pads to new skaters, but these function more as a temporary solution than a permanent one.
After I passed my WFTDA skills test, I was allowed to pick my derby name and place an order for jerseys. At the time, we were using a brand that cost $22 per jersey.
My league has since voted to put in an order for higher-quality jerseys priced around $60 apiece. I have not included that cost in the total, since they fell outside the yearlong window I’m using for this article. However, it serves as a good example of how few derby expenses are one-and-done deals. With jerseys, with gear, and with equipment, the goal is to replace or upgrade every few years.
Other Equipment: $50
I bought a single pair of black athletic pants for $40. Besides that, I’ve relied on previously owned shirts and gym shorts for practices.
The absolute best non-essential purchase I’ve made is my $10 half-gallon water bottle from Dick’s Sporting Goods. It’s insulated and ugly and perfect for summer practices in our windowless warehouse space. (I weep for any skaters who are trying to make do with a twelve-ounce floral number from Target. Y’all are not hydrating adequately.)
League Merchandise: $80
I worked my ass off to become a member of the league, so of course I want logoed tank tops with my name on them. By last count, I have a jacket, tote bag, and five or six shirts.
Since I don’t own a car, I ride with teammates or use public transportation to travel to practices and bouts. This reflects my best estimate of what I spend annually on bus fare and gas money donations. Conveniently, our practice space is only a ten-minute drive from my home — some of my teammates commute over an hour.
Hotel Costs: $30
Out-of-state bouts often require us to stay overnight in a hotel or Airbnb. We share rooms and split the bill to make it more affordable. It’s tricky to walk the line between “barely good enough for one night but not gross” and “totally gross,” as I learned after a few league members had a bad encounter with a surprise bedbug infestation in Rome, New York.
Afterparties/Food on the Road: $70
Afterparties are as canonical to the derby experience as taking a skate to the crotch. They’re where we hang out with friends and fans, suck in some much-needed calories, and relieve the bout that just happened in sweaty, play-by-play glory.
To save costs, we’ll cut a deal with a local business that provides food with the expectation that our drink purchases will make up the difference. Since skating in bouts mostly leaves me too exhausted to chug anything but water, I probably spend less at afterparties than the average attendee.
I do spend a lot on food during away bouts. Road trips do things to my self-control. $15 for a grilled veggie sandwich and eight tater tots from the venue food truck? Sounds good. When we played in Canada earlier this year, the people in my car cleaned out a whole gas station’s supply of ketchup chips and Kinder eggs.
Training Clinics: $10
Talented derby players can earn money on the side by hosting training clinics. I’ve attended two, each of which charged $5 for entry.
Many of these skaters are raising travel funds. It’s vital to mention here that there is virtually no way to make a career out of playing roller derby. Although playing on a Division 1 team requires the same level of training commitment as other sports, high-profile bouts are lucky to make it to ESPN3. Even the world’s best derby players have “real life” jobs. Sometimes top-ranked leagues and skaters have to turn down offers to skate in championship bouts because they can’t afford the plane tickets.
If you take away anything from this article, it should be that the benefits of playing roller derby can pretty much only be measured in non-financial ways, no matter how good of a skater you are.
Total Annual Cost: $1,509 ($125.75/month)
What I Don’t Buy
These are some common expenditures for roller derby players that aren’t part of my budget.
Special food or energy supplements. Some skaters use protein shakes or powders to meet their nutritional goals. As a graduate student with an annual income that technically puts me below the poverty line, I just try to buy more beans and less dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s. Altogether, my food budget is roughly the same as it was pre-derby — give or take a few Clif bars.
A gym membership. Our A-level skaters balance derby practice with other types of workout routines, such as yoga classes, weightlifting, CrossFit, and biking. Since I’m a student, I have free access to campus gyms. Mostly, though, I rely on running or at-home bodyweight exercises to build strength and endurance off the rink.
Non-essential skate or gear enhancements. I haven’t sprung for helmet stickers, wrist guard covers, colorful shoelaces, or porcelain bearings. I also don’t own my own skate tools — I use the ones that we keep in our practice space.
Cleaning supplies made specifically for skates and gear. I wash everything with soap, water, and a vinegar solution. Fun fact: if you go too long without cleaning your gear, it starts to smell like rotten corn chips. Everything that it touches will also smell like rotten corn chips. Google “roller derby Fritos” if you doubt me.
Medical bills. We make light of the injuries, but the physical and financial risk is real. Breaking a bone or getting a concussion can go far beyond hospital bills. It can mean being out of work for a few weeks, or even a few months. It can mean a bunch of follow-up physical therapy sessions. I’ve avoided injuries apart from the usual bruises and Velcro burns…so far, anyway.
Babysitters. Since a lot of roller derby players are women, a lot of roller derby players rely on paid childcare during practice nights or other derby events. My league allows skaters to bring their kids to practice as long as they stay away from the track. However, this often isn’t an option for people with infants or kids in need of special care.
The growing popularity of roller derby has led to an explosion of related lifestyle products, making it easier than ever to funnel a paycheck straight into exerting your identity as a derby player. There are derby-themed subscription boxes. Derby-centered training programs. Tina Belcher stickers emblazoned with I’M A STRONG, SMART ROLLERSKATING WOMAN. Many of these products come out of small businesses that are owned and operated by skaters, and it’s cool that derby is finally big enough to facilitate these kinds of enterprises.
At the same time, there’s an ongoing conversation about how our community can break down the financial barriers that prevent people from participating at the most basic level. For a grassroots sport with a strong queer presence and official policies of inclusion for transgender, intersex, and gender-expansive skaters, roller derby still has a lot of room to grow in terms of inclusiveness. We need more efforts to provide financial assistance to those who want to play but can’t afford to pay a couple hundred dollars a month for it.
For those who are willing and able to pay for an intense fitness regime, $1,500 may be reasonable. It’s on par with, say, weekly attendance at a SoulCycle class. But what isn’t apparent from this number is the many unpaid hours of work that each of us performs on behalf of the league. Beyond the three-hour practices, we do a metric ton of work for our committees, pitch in to train new recruit classes, and attend events to represent our league. It’s a labor of love — heavy emphasis on the labor.
Roller derby has been one of the best decisions I’ve made for myself. It keeps me healthier than ever, both physically and mentally. I’m part of a supportive community. I spend less time worrying about dying in a nuclear apocalypse, and more time figuring out how to send people spinning to the floor. Sometimes I even well up when “We Are the Champions” comes up on my Pandora station. After being an uncoordinated nerd for as far back as I can remember, I’m slowly becoming an emotionally vulnerable jock — and I am happy to pay for it.
Anna is pursuing a creative writing MFA at Syracuse University. She teaches entry-level writing courses, reads for Salt Hill Journal, and moonlights as a skater for Assault City Roller Derby.
Image via Whip It