I'm a journalist-turned-copywriter at an advertising agency, and in my spare time I own a roller derby team.
Trust me, it's not as glamorous as it sounds. I make zero dollars a year from something that started out as a hobby and soon became an indelible part of my identity. But it's impossible to put a price on the experiences I've had and the lessons I've learned from this sport.
I started playing roller derby with the Cincinnati Rollergirls in 2006. Today's roller derby is very different from the 1970s version of the game, which was more of a scripted spectacle than the highly skilled amateur sport it would become.
Most roller derby teams are made up entirely of volunteers who have day jobs, families, and various other demands on their time. It's a labor of love, and there's a lot of labor, well beyond the intensive training required to play this strategic, complex, and fiercely competitive full-contact sport on roller skates.
The Cincinnati Rollergirls is now one of more than 400 members of the international Women's Flat Track Derby Association, and there are many more teams than that worldwide, including men's, all-gender, and junior teams. It's not just a sport — it's a movement. And being a part of it has taught me more about how to be a part of a team, how to be a leader, and how to run a business, than any other experience in my life.
In 2006, the Cincinnati Rollergirls started out as a rag-tag group of skaters playing at local rinks. Four years later, we found ourselves playing in front of crowds of 4,000-plus people at a historic local arena and making it to the playoffs almost every season. We celebrated our success with lavish end-of-season parties and thought our crowds and good fortune would only continue to grow.
We were wrong.
Cincinnati was one of many teams that enjoyed increased attendance at games and tryouts after the release of the 2009 movie "Whip It." But the novelty soon wore off, and over the next few years so did the crowds. But as time went on, we maintained our commitment to growing our fan base and remaining an internationally competitive team.
In 2016, we celebrated our 10th anniversary with a triumphant return to the playoffs after a two-year absence — only to find out that our beloved arena had been sold. Following a frantic search for a new venue, we found one in the form of a much smaller but much more affordable old field house at a local university.
We learned the hard way that you should never take your team members, your fans, or your venue for granted, and that you need to budget and plan as if it could all change tomorrow.
In 2013, I decided to step away from being the team's PR and marketing director after three years in the role but opted to stay on as a team owner. Amid this transition for me away from the daily operations of the team, I learned that player complaints were growing about a "mean girl" culture and bullying from some of our leadership. Morale was plummeting. A large group of skaters threatened to quit unless things changed.
After a series of tense team meetings, the women on the leadership team who had been perpetuating the toxic culture quit and took several other skaters with them. This left me as the team's sole owner. That turnover contributed to an 18-game losing streak that began at the end of 2013 and continued for our entire 2014 season.
As painful as those losses were, as a team, we realized we had to fix what had gone wrong off the track before we could fix what was happening on it.
We formed a task force that drew up new bylaws and policies, and moved to elect our leadership team rather than appoint them. With those changes in place, we had the head space to focus on developing our skaters' fundamental skills, and playing against teams who would raise our game — and help us climb the rankings again.
Now when problems do arise, we have procedures in place to solve them.
In any business or organization, you can't allow rumblings of discontent to go unchecked — you have to address them. Once you do, it gives you the freedom to accomplish big goals and put time and care into the personal and professional development of the people around you.
When power belongs to only a small group of people, it can lead not only to burnout but to a dangerous inability to monitor the pulse of your organization and recognize when it is struggling. Failure to delegate almost spelled the death of our team.
For many years, most of the major responsibility fell to the people on our leadership team, which included me. But our sport's governing body was founded with the motto "by the skater, for the skater," and after our 2014 restructuring, we wanted to make sure that everything we were doing for our skaters, officials, and other volunteers was in the spirit of that idea.
When we wrote those new bylaws, we created a system of checks and balances. Today, this helps us more effectively divide up the work required to keep the team running. That includes everything from budgeting and fundraising to planning events, to scheduling home and away games and setting up and cleaning up on game days. And while I still advise the leadership team and help out with PR and marketing, the decision-making power now falls to our elected leaders.
Since 2014, every year we make sure to assess what's working and what's not, and we add or change positions as needed. If not enough people are volunteering to run for elected positions or sign up for other jobs, we ask them directly. Not everyone is a hand-raiser. Sometimes, all it takes is some encouraging words from the right person for someone to rise to the occasion.
Don't be afraid to delegate and give people a chance.
Roller derby games don't air on national television, and the sport doesn't have billionaire investors or big corporate sponsors. Most of our revenue comes from ticket and merchandise sales, followed by player dues and sponsorships from small local businesses. That money helps us pay for practice space and venue rental, keeps player dues low, and offsets the cost of travel to away games and tournaments.
We believe that our fans and volunteers are a part of our team, and we know that they are critical to our success. Their opinions matter, because their dollars directly impact how affordable and accessible the sport is to our players. So we regularly survey and engage with fans on social media to find out how we can make game days as exciting, inspiring, and memorable as we can, with the resources we have.
Fans told us recently that they want more opportunities to talk to our skaters, take photos, and get autographs. So next season, we're planning to have skaters walk through the stands to talk to fans after some of our games. Low-effort, high-impact changes like this show your fans — or clients and customers — that you're listening and could go a long way toward ensuring they return.
Ultimately, what I want is for our fans to fall in love with roller derby.
It's entirely possible that I may never make a cent from this sport, but that's OK. I'm playing the long game. I want this team and this sport to have a future, and with these lessons, I know that I can help make that happen.
Lauren Bishop is a Cincinnati-based writer, the owner of the Cincinnati Rollergirls and a cofounder of the Cincinnati Junior Rollergirls. As the former pop culture reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer, she blogged regularly about roller derby and was featured twice on ESPN. Follow her on Twitter @missprint95.
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