Today’s post comes at the suggestion of Dylan Powell over on our Facebook page. “Love your passion for the sport. Would love to see you reach out and do interviews with leagues who have either had consistently large fan bases, or massive peaks – thinking Minnesota and Seattle mostly. It would be great to get perspective from people within leagues who have been successful in building fan bases over the years as to what has worked and hasn’t worked for them.”
Thanks for the suggestion Dylan. That was a great call. Madame de Stompadour from MNRG took the time to answer some questions. Enjoy!
It was suggested that I reach out to you folks to talk about your fan base. I’m hoping I can ask a few questions and then share your answers with some of our readers here.
Hello, I’m Madame de Stompadour and I have been skating with the Minnesota RollerGirls (MNRG) since 2009. In that time, I have served as a Co-Director of the Marketing Committee, a 2015 International WFTDA Championships Tournament Host Liaison, event organizer, home team member and All-Star, and as a home team captain. Our league was founded in 2004, so I was not around for the tremendous amount of hard work that our early league members and founders put in. They laid the strong foundation we rely on. But I’ve been lucky to meet and work with many of them, and enjoy their stories of the olden days.
First, I’m sure your group started with a similar fan base as most any other team.
The first thing I want to say is that no roller derby league is an island. We are proud to be skater owned and operated, but building a fan base is most successful with the help of local partners.
Do you recall when the fan base started to grow?
As you might have heard, roller derby was this totally exciting oddball punk thing in 2004. Our league founders, the Donnelly sisters, heard about roller derby and flew down to Texas to visit the Texas Rollergirls and learn how they could start a Minnesota league. We skated our first season in a roller rink before the combination of the 2004-05 NHL lockout and a new sponsorship agreement with Pabst Blue Ribbon convinced the Saint Paul RiverCentre to give us a chance and let us rent the Roy Wilkins Auditorium, which has been our home ever since.
Also, Whip It’s release in 2009 gave all leagues – including ours – a huge bump in local buzz and ticket sales. Tons of people still say that they heard of modern roller derby from Whip It.
Were there direct actions you took during this time?
We dreamed big. Of course we flyered and Myspaced and texted friends on our flip phones. But we also made strong connections with local sponsors who fit the demographic of fans we were trying to attract at the time: the most popular local pizza chain, ”affordable” beer, a cool ad agency, and a public radio music station geared toward college students and young professionals. Many of these connections were made by leveraging our skaters’ connections through their own jobs, friends, and family. We also worked with the staff of the Saint Paul RiverCentre’s Roy Wilkins Auditorium to create a unique fan experience once we got fans in the door. But one of the main things we did and have always done is prioritize our fans and sponsors, and work hard to form and maintain those relationships.
What role has “Educating the community” around you played?
If you want to move beyond whatever picture national TV has painted of roller derby – staged fights, elbows, high-top roller skates, murder most foul (stenched) – then you need to talk to people in your community. Our league members are required to work a set number of events each season, which include things like our sponsors’ block parties, huge local women’s marathons, TV and radio news segments, hockey tournaments, being special guests at charity events, “celebrity” judges at local contests, and our most successful: a booth at the annual Minnesota State Fair. We also use our social media accounts to talk about the game when we can, but talking about derby in person is better. It’s important to make sure that everyone on the league who will be interacting with the public has their roller derby spiel down. We send out talking points before participating in big events, and provide new members with a list of facts for their edification. Things like: what is roller derby, where we skate, when we were founded, when our next game is, what time our bouts start, what our teams are, who we play, how much we have donated to charity, the fact that league is volunteer owned and operated, et cetera.
On bout night, we are lucky to have great announcers who know roller derby and can accurately talk strategy in real time. We also encourage league members to interact with fans on bout night by skating around and doing things like handing out programs or dancing with kids at halftime. In 2013 we worked with a local animator to create this Derby 101 video, which we continue to play at all of our bouts and promotional events where we bring a TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYjquN50Rf4
I’m sure there isn’t just one single thing that’s led to your success in building a great fanbase.
Nope. Lots of hard work and relationship management. And league members who didn’t let things fall through the cracks.
What are some of the key things you always suggest?
Honestly we don’t get asked that often! See the list below for my suggestions. But also value your own league members’ suggestions – your league knows your fans and your city best (it is to be hoped).
What is the low hanging fruit that you think some leagues are not taking advantage of?
First of all, your league needs to decide what you want. Yeah you want more fans, but are you willing to dedicate the time and resources to do it? Are your league members and volunteers on board? Or does your league favor more of a club set-up, where everything is financed by and geared toward the members’ wishes? Hey man, some of our league members hate doing promotional events, getting their photo taken for the website, or having a drafting system that discourages the formation of home team superteams – but the trade-off is worth it to us, and we are incredibly proud of what we’ve built in the past 12 years. So if you want to build a bigger fan base, step zero is to get your league on board. Here are the rest of my suggestions:
- Take stock of your assets. Where do your league members work? Who are they related to? What kind of talents do your league members have?
- Get organized. What’s your league’s mission statement? What are your priorities? What do you want to accomplish – not paying dues, moving to a better venue, financing team travels, landing bigger sponsors, donating to charity? What’s your demographic and what do they like? Who’s in charge of what on your league? Who’s following up to make sure things are getting done?
- Make a plan. A realistic plan.
- Be professional. The venues and sponsors you are working with are professionals. This is their job. So it’s important to present yourself and your league as a great partner for their business. Sure, many love the edgy side of derby, and understand that we are all volunteers – but they also want to work with a group who will answer their emails and support their bottom line.
- See what your venue can do for you. Are they willing to help you with marketing? Do they have connections to local organizations you can leverage? Can their staff work with you to improve the lighting, sound, food or beverage options, or comfort of your fans on game night?
- Website and social media. Make sure your online presence is easy to find and up to date.
- Relationship management. This is super key, and goes back to “be professional.” The best and most reliable salespeople on your league should be your sponsorship and venue go-tos. Another aspect of this is within the league itself. League members should treat officials, volunteers, and each other with respect. Value everyone’s time and work. We’re all in this together, and we all work incredibly hard – but a little conversation, a check-in or a high five can go a long way.
- Yearly review. At the end of the season, it’s good to take a look at the numbers and discuss as a league what worked, what didn’t, and what you want to accomplish or implement the next year.
- Prioritize your fans. If you want fans, you have to prioritize your fans – within reason, and as long as it fits your league’s mission. What can you do to make bout night more exciting and engaging? Is there kid friendly stuff? Food? Drinks? Sponsor giveaways? Games? Music? Do skaters spend time with fans?
- Have fun. Seriously. Roller derby can be stressful, but people can tell when you’re having fun, and then you sweep them up on your wave of fun and they’ll think to themselves “well this looks fun… maybe I can volunteer and have fun too!!” and then together you can take over the world. Or at least the city.
Thanks a TON to Madame de Stompadour for sharing such great insight. Now…Take this article back to your teams and discuss. We’ll talk more next week.