Roller Derby: Getting Involved Creatively
So, you want to get involved with your local roller derby team? That's FANTASTIC! But you don't want to skate and rules or numbers aren't your thing, you'd rather donate your time in a creative capacity? Perfect! Leagues all over the world are always looking for creatives for various reasons.
Probably the biggest creative asset that derby teams are almost always in need of are photographers. This is due largely to the fact that all teams (at least those skating under the WFTDA) are skater owned and operated which means that their marketing and graphics are usually done 'in house.' (That's my position on the team as well as being a skater.) But my background is in design and I don't have nearly the photography chops to create really marketable photographs of anything moving (at least in my opinion). Also, I can't be skating in a bout and photograph it at the same time - no one can do that. So, because my experiences have largely been regarding league involvement of photographers this post will largely be aimed at those wanting to step into sports/journalist (bouts or events) or creative (head shots and similar) photography with their local roller derby team. However, these methods can be applied to almost any volunteer opportunity that your local league may be in need of, and how your league may most appreciate your wanting to help them!
First...You outta to know.
These opportunities with your local league are all volunteer. Skaters do not get paid to skate or to run their league (it is a business after all) and many leagues are ran as non-profits that work to raise money for other charities. In fact, skaters have to pay dues and for extra insurance to even be able to play. Only in very few cases will you even get the chance to be paid for your services. Most cases you'll be trading your services, talents, and time for either a free or discounted sponsorship/advertisement/mention in their bout program and at their games or other outlets.
How to get involved & approach your local roller derby league.
A personal note about this step: I fast tracked this step for myself. I was able to do that because I wanted to skate for the team. I went to one game then tried out at their next recruitment night probably a week later. Like many women there, I was a stranger to the sport. But because teams are owned and operated by their skaters I had to eventually choose a committee to be apart of and my design background led me fluidly into the marketing and PR committee.
If you're reading this you're probably thinking about volunteering for your local roller derby league in some fashion which also means you're more than likely already a fan! If so, great! You've already got a good portion of this step down. If not, become one. Attend bouts on a regular basis, even if it's only home games. Take selfies with your favorite skaters and tag the leagues social media accounts with your photos, post or comment on their pages that you had a good time, show your support. Roller Derby is grassroots - we get to know our regular fans who interact with us! To continue with this goal of being a volunteer the team doesn't need to necessarily know you by name, being a familiar face just helps.
Part two of this is to reach out in a professional sense on your leagues website or official social media profiles! Like any relationship you have to build on it with time. When you initially reach out let your league know exactly where your talents lie and what you think you can do for them. Many times the first step for a volunteer photographer is photographing bouts (your team needs this more often than any other form of photography); if you can't do this let them know they might have something else for you to do. Maybe headshots are coming up? Or maybe they'll need photos for bout and recruiting posters done? Headshots and poster photos are generally done at the beginning of a teams playing season which will vary from league to league.
Anyone wanting to work with a roller derby league will almost always have to go through some sort of approval from the leagues Board of Directors (BOD) in relation to any project big or small, especially if that person has reached out without having any kind of credibility among or within the league. Unless a photographer comes highly recommended by someone already trusted as apart of the league, it's more likely that they'll go with someone they already trust. This is because there is an unfortunate fact within the world of roller derby that because of our alternative, grassroots, DIY, underground, [generally] all-female, full-contact sport and the often equally unique range of participants leagues and individual skaters are often targeted for exploitation whether intentionally or not. Keep in mind that even simple requests can be met with some sort of needed approval from the leagues highest members in order to protect the growing integrity and sincerity of modern roller derby as a real, up-and-coming, mainstream sport and more importantly to protect the skaters and other individuals that are apart of the league.
As always, a portfolio of proven work is always helpful.
A great example that I was happy to be apart of was during the Derby City Rollergirls (DCRG) participation in The Rollergirl Project: Body by Derby series entirely executed by Cory Layman. The project aimed to photograph the many different kinds of women (LGBT, short, tall, skinny, large, muscular, and everything in between) that played roller derby. It showed that there was no wrong person for the sport - anyone could play - and, for me, became a symbol of body positivity. I was apart of the marketing committee and just did what I could, I was not in charge of anything by any means so I don't fully know what kind of official history Cory has had with DCRG. All I know is that Cory has photographed roller derby regularly for several teams in Southern Indiana since 2008 and built up his reputation through them eventually bringing his reputation as a derby photographer through The Rollergirl Project, which he still continues today with a new series called Gravity.
At the time of DCRGs Body By Derby photoshoot I knew of several photographers that the league regularly worked with. I had never heard of Cory and can only assume that DCRG trusted him because A) He already had a reputation as a wonderful roller derby photographer to work with. And B) Derby City is from Louisville, KY and had definitely skated against several teams from Southern Indiana.
Working outside of your league.
Sometimes you'll have a creative idea that you'll want your local league to participate in and sometimes due to many different reasons (community involvement, non-profit status, family friendly attitude) your league may not be on board. These are the projects that you'll definitely want to have some rapport with your local team when you pitch them, and when you pitch them give all the details that you can upfront, in the very first message you send that way you don't confuse or help to cause a misunderstanding as to what you're wanting to accomplish.
Any creative art/photography project is certainly doable - just not with certain people or organizations. However, individuals who trust you are always game (again, rapport) especially when you want to know that you used people who are apart of and familiar with the sport even if you can't do the project in conjunction with your league.
The thing with these types of projects is that you may still have to reach out to the league as a whole to let them know that you are looking for individuals. Even if you're not wanting to work with your local roller derby as a league and you just want derby girls the BOD may still have to decide if the project or person seems safe to disseminate the information to individual skaters. That's why it's so important you invest the time to get to know your league and to make sure that they know you!
Another example I have here comes through my derby wife (i.e. best friend on the team), Spooky Lil' Ghoul (Yes, she's also in the Body By Derby Series), and a photographer named Larry Green (Larry also worked with me on a couple photos for my Narcotics Anonymous project). Spooky had modeled for Larry previously and because of their photographer-model relationship and the professional reputation we all had with each other it led him to be able to work more closely with Derby City and and other DCRG skaters. Spooky even modeled for him in her skates as an individual outside of the league for several projects and even though Spooky and I no longer skate for Derby City he continues to occasionally shoot home games and events for them!
What not to do...
I know the feeling, when you want to get involved with roller derby your want to throw all of yourself into it and you want to go, go, go, now, now, now! It's a wonderful cause to get into, but even if your heart is in the right place keep in mind some things that you should not do.
Don't pester your league about a project, especially if it's being worked on outside of the league. It's not that your project isn't great. And it's not that they don't want to participate necessarily. It's a business you're working with and things take time. The person or people you're in contact with may not have all the answers and may need to seek approval from within the league. Yes, you are dealing with a business when getting involved with roller derby. However, it's run on volunteer power. Volunteers and skaters have lives and jobs outside of roller derby so things may move more slowly because we all do what we can for the league in between work and family life. Between our day jobs, other hobbies, school, kids and family needs it's a wonder any of us find time to make time for roller derby.
Even if you don't think you need approval from the BOD, when you contact the team your request is likely going to go through the BOD for approval. That's why it's imperative that you lay all your cards out on the table when coming to your league about an idea within the first shot. The league member you're speaking with will be able to better understand what you're after and can tell you right there if it is something they will be able to do for you. If you don't it can lead to confusion and misunderstanding. No one likes backing out of a project or saying "Yes, we can consider that." then having to turn around when they get more information from you and say "Well, because you want to include/do ___ the league might actually not be in favor of participating in this." We don't like disappointing people who want to work with us or get their hopes up either. Roller derby leagues want to get involved in your community/creative projects just as much as you want to get involved with them!
This is probably the most important thing that you will need to remember. At any point do not 'friend'/add/message, etc. a rollergirl or other league member via any of their personal social accounts - including LinkedIn. If a skater is like me and has an Athlete Facebook page, go ahead and follow that all day long and message them there. Even if they don't and you find out their real name don't go adding them because, frankly, it's creepy when someone you don't know knows you and you've never introduced yourself. It will not get you in better with the league and it will not make any decision happen any faster, it will likely make them weary as to how you found out their real name. The exception is if you ask or they allow you to add them on their personal pages. More and more people are using their real names when joining roller derby but the quirky names have been apart of the culture since modern roller derby's conception and they allow skaters to have an alternate persona on the track and to interact with fans. It's pretty easy to find me in derby and vice versa because my social handles are my derby name, I use them to talk about everything from design to derby to how my pet snake is the cutest thing on the planet (she is, see.) My exception is Facebook where I have a separate skater page so I can interact with fans as Wyld Kat instead of Katelyn.
Getting involved in any way with your local roller derby league is both exciting and rewarding for everyone involved. Being an enthusiastic fan gets you major cool points as you progress into a more professional relationship with the team. You'll work hard and have a lot of fun doing it and it allows you to pursue a somewhat alternative creative path. Just be patient and understanding when you feel like you may have hit a wall or when something doesn't go how you'd like. And always, no matter what your league will appreciate you for just being a fan.
Kat has been playing roller derby as a volunteer skater since 2014. She has skated for non-profit Derby City Rollergirls from 2014 thru 2015 and served on the marketing committed during her time with them. In mid 2016 she moved to Pennsylvania where she began skating for Harrisburg Area Roller Derby and was voted to be the marketing/PR committee chair for the 2017 season.