Creating Derby Fans (Part 4)

Derby fans can be grown. We just have to figure out how

     The psychology of sports fans and how we as humans become fans of a particular team is well documented and very consistent. There is a weird concoction of parts social and parts emotional that go in to the mix of a fan garden.

    The difficulty for the derby community is we have to find the right conditions for growth. As a sport arguably still in its infancy there hasn’t been that much time for a lot of people to become superfans. As a sport dominated by women it further bucks the norm as it doesn’t fit a lot of the societal expectations; which, rather than being a weakness, is where its strength lies.

     Most of the research into this area puts a lot of focus on boys becoming sports fans. Initially I wasn’t sure how that was going to fit with trying to grow derby fans. There were some very interesting tidbits I found along the way that I think we could put our focus on.

     Celebrity journalist Robert Krulwich writes an article “How We Become Sports Fans: The Tyranny of our Fathers” in which he shares with the reader the results of a study from Daniel Wann about the influences young people report as most important in choosing their sports team. The number one influence? Dads. Fathers dwarf all other influences. Does this mean Dad’s are the key to planting more derby fans? Probably not as I’ll explain below.

Males Females
My father



My mother



My grandfathers



My grandmothers



My husbands



My wives



My son(s)



My daughter(s)



My brother(s)



My sister(s)



My uncle(s)



My aunt(s)



My friends (no gender noted)



My boyfriend(s)



My girlfriend(s)



My school



My coach






From <>

     According to a 2010 WFTDA study, 59% of fans that had attended a bout were female while 41% were male. The largest age demographic was 25-34 years old representing 41% of all derby fans. Within this age bracket 63% of the fans are female.

If I look closer to home, NERDerby’s page is liked by 77% women to 22% men. The largest age bracket is the same 25-34 year old and represents 44% of our fans.

     I dont think that any of this comes as a surprise to anyone. So if there are more female fans, does that mean there are fewer dads to encourage kids to become fans of your team? Well, based on a cursory glance at the numbers I’d say “probably” but there is a lot more to it than that.

     How many of those 25-34 year olds would have had kids that are 8 years old at the time (2010)? I would dare guess some but not many. The WFTDA report was compiled six years ago. Now ask yourself , how many more 8-12 year olds do you think are around now from that initial 41%? Probably more eh? Could there now be a generation of kids ready to become fans? Perhaps!

     In derby, the traditional model of patriarchal formation of a child’s favorite team likely does not exist and may not ever until a child can be assured of “couch time” with dad. Therefore, I hypothesize that every reason for following a sports team below “My father” in the above spreadsheet has a chance to be a larger impact on encouraging the creation of a fan in the case of roller derby.

What we chose to do to engage with young fans in our world potentially has a bigger impact than other sports and therefore more of the responsibility lies with the skaters.

Sheilia TeKillya spends time with a fan.

Image © Justin Russell

     After their games, Central Maine Derby has often spent time signing autographs for kids. Girls and boys all come down to the track and for a few minutes get to  have an experience with the players. I can attest that these kids are excited and maybe even a little nervous at meeting the players. This is a good thing. It’s not hard to imagine that these kids are sizing you up to be a role model. Maybe you have already impacted someone’s life! With more of the burden falling on the participants–and we know time is often limited–see what you can do to reach out to young people. Roller derby is one of the few remaining sports where a young person can meet their role model face-to-face without purchasing a special pass. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to overlook

     We all know that whether youre a kid or an adult, you tend to follow the “big leagues” of whatever your sport happens to be. It just goes hand in hand. As a little leaguer you probably follow major league baseball. You have a team you like and players you cheer for.

In 2010, there were over 40 junior roller derby programs. According to the JRDA website there are now 112 across the globe. We may now be in the perfect time for starting junior derby programs.

     One of the byproducts of a junior derby program is the fostering of newly sprouted derby fans. I say byproduct because you don’t create a junior derby program to fill seats at your “A” teams games. It doesn’t work that way. It’s an article for another time on why teams seek to create junior teams.

I had the chance recently to send a few questions over to Boston Junior Derby and Maya Mangleyou was kind enough to spend some time answering them.

I asked “Did kids want to play derby because they watched the Boston teams or did they find junior derby first and then become fans”.

It’s kind of all over the place to be honest. We had one skater in BJD that had been a fan and coming to bouts since she was really tiny, and then did junior derby with us for our first two sessions.

Largely though, they become more hardcore fans once they’re in our league. It’s multifaceted:

1.) juniors in our league get in for free, so almost all of them come to every game. And they tend to sit together, since they’re friends.

2.) they understand the game more and begin to think critically.

3.) their coaches are the players, and they cheer for us!

After our juniors saw me play for the first time, a league-mate of mine said, “I know why you started this juniors league, to build your own personal fan club!” They really enjoy watching the adults play. They’re really cute though, and tend to make signs, and get pictures taken with their coaches/other skaters at the bout. – Maya Mangleyou

I asked gave follow up statement, “I think everyone agrees that ‘Jr Derby is great for the sport’ but don’t fully understand “why” it’s good for the sport. “

Agreed, I’m not sure people have thought critically about it. Mostly the very surface appeal is like “aww! babies in skates!”

Which is true, AND adorable. But the next level of this is thinking about how juniors as fans changes your fan base and how you do bouts. Like for example, making sure your language (promotional/derby names/announcers) is family friendly but also building up the skaters in your promotional material. Since we’ve had more and more kids at our games too, we do games (wheel toss!) at half time instead of always some kind of act/show.

We haven’t had any skaters age up yet — the earliest that might happen is this mid-season draft. So we haven’t seen THAT aspect of junior derby affecting the adult league just yet. Mostly it’s been a change in how kids in our audience engage with skaters. -Maya Mangleyou

Thanks to Maya for taking the time. Her personal experience serves to underscore the fact that the traditional model of when a child becomes a fan is kind of out the window with derby. Your outreach and engagement has now become the number one influence in developing the fertile soil of fandom for our youth.