DNN Retrospective, 2009: Dawn of the Deathmarch

DNN Retrospective, 2009: Dawn of the Deathmarch Hurt & Justice in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 2009 North Central Regional. Photo: Brad Baldonado.

We’re revisiting DNN’s history this week, one year each day, as we approach our 5th Anniversary on Sunday. This is the third article in the series; for the full historical perspective, you might wish to start with 2007 and 2008.

Hats.

So many hats. So many damn hats you have to wear in the course of doing roller derby. Most of you, if you’re current skaters, and especially if you were lucky/unfortunate enough to be a founding member of a league, already know this. You’ve got your skater hat and your PR hat and your coach hat, maybe your committee hat and your captain hat, perhaps even a representative hat, and this doesn’t even get into the hats you wear by day that inevitably overlap with the hats you wear by night. By the time we got into 2009, I’d long since hit critical hat mass.

DNN gets a little rank

The year started with a major structural change looming in derby. The WFTDA had decided in 2008 to split into 4 regions for 2009, and in doing so would cease releasing a single quarterly ranking of all leagues as it had done for the previous two years. Additionally, it was continuing a policy that had led to a great deal of confusion among fans for those two years: leagues that had failed to meet certain organization requirements were declared “inactive” and hence not ranked at all during the “inactive” quarter, which consistently skewed the ranking reality as a few top-level teams were always missing.

The opaque nature of the voting process also consistently led to gripes among skaters and fans alike that the ranking process was (at best) hobbled by inertia or (at worst) a “popularity contest” where big-name teams or historically successful teams could expect to always get the benefit of the doubt while smaller teams could put up good results that would be overlooked or ignored as irrelevant, making it harder for them to increase their standing.

And there was, of course, the issue that there were some very good derby teams out there that either weren’t in the WFTDA yet, were structurally ineligible to qualify, or did not want to apply — but whose caliber of play was such that they deserved recognition for excellence.

At the time, the only other ranking method was Flat Track Stats, which was national, but was even more opaque in its mathematical algorithm and also included WFTDA leagues only. (It’s important to note here that FTS’ algorithm was quite a bit less refined in those days as well; that, added to the relatively light data set it was working with back then, made it a considerably less reliable predictor of performance than it has been since its relaunch in 2011).

Talking about all this in between the 2008 and 2009 season, Hurt, Gnosis and I realized that we had an excellent opportunity to do something great on many levels. If we came out with our own monthly Top 25, we could effectively promote the sport as a whole, those 25 teams specifically, and the site as a discussion destination; we’d also be able to produce an inclusive list unencumbered by the organizational issues that kept the WFTDA one incomplete. As I said in my 2007 chapter, the goal from the start with DNN was to play up the “sport” aspect of roller derby, and there is nothing that sports fans love more than arguing, in excruciating detail, about why their favorite team can beat your favorite team.

It was very important for us, too, to “show our work” — to make clear why we ranked in the way we did, to make logical and defensible cases from top to bottom, and to encourage thoughtful fan analysis — all with the primary goal of reinforcing that sport frame to increase fan engagement.

While we were excited by the opportunities this new feature would open up, we’d been around derby long enough by this point to recognize that we were probably opening up a can of worms in the process. We tried to head off as many concerns as we could in our Power Rankings FAQ. As we often did at that time, we sent the WFTDA Board of Directors a courtesy heads-up before launching; we’d hoped they’d find the effort worthy of support, but the only response we received at the time was an unofficial expression of concern about exactly what we considered to be the biggest positive of the plan — the creating of a space for the public to discuss why teams had earned (or not earned) their ranks — and a further concern that the existence of independent rankings would unduly affect the WFTDA’s official ones.

We launched the first Power Rankings article in February 2009. Comments for the first few months were, sadly, lost during the DNN2/3 update, but we can assure you that Reverend Norb was outraged from the very first month. Very quickly, the Power Rankings became one of our most popular features, and we think they’ve primarily played exactly the role we hoped they would in stoking conversation, increasing interest and providing context that’s uniquely difficult to come by in roller derby due to its lack of a standardized season.

But… you know… as always, Roller Derby is Feelings. We knew we were getting into some uncharted territory in a sport that is notoriously territorial, and that it was likely to result in some rough patches ahead. Working through the decision process did help us to crystalize one important principle:

DNN’s first loyalty is to the growth of modern roller derby as a sport, as a whole.

Hanging up the stripes

On a personal level, by 2009 I was getting more and more opportunities to Actually Play Roller Derby, which was turning out to be, as I’d expected, about 1 billion more times more fun and rewarding than being a referee. (For a couple of years I genuinely believed that the only defensible reason to keep men out of derby was because if they found out how much fun it was, there would be nobody left in the whole world to officiate! Fortunately it turns out that there are some weirdos out there who actually prefer to ref. The story of the pushback on early men’s derby is a long and complex one that’s way outside the scope of this DNN retrospective, but fortunately a couple of friends of mine made a whole damn movie about it.)

But I was also finding that the increasingly high profile of DNN in the community was directly making reffing less fun as well; without fail, whenever I’d ref a game that involved a team in the rankings, the after party would always have at least one fan or skater who would make a joke about how my officiating calls were “defending the rankings” — biased towards whichever team was currently ranked higher. Occasionally the jokes were, shall we say, rather pointed. This became really frustrating, really fast.

One thing I *did* really still enjoy about reffing was the challenge of looking at high-speed sports action with a completely objective eye, and I took a lot of pride in that. Reffing takes a great deal of compartmentalization — refs usually have league pride and longstanding relationships with the skaters on that league and have to put all that in the Doesn’t Matter Anymore box when it’s game time. To me, the Power Rankings were just one more thing to put in that box — but over the course of 2009, it eventually became disappointingly clear that the reality of the situation was irrelevant in the face of its appearance.

In October of 2009, I retired for good as a referee at Charm City’s 4th local team’s championship after reffing somewhere around 150 games. It was a bit of a weird feeling, as the stripes were the primary way I’d experienced the sport for the my first four years. Fortunately for me, there were still a whole lot of other ways to experience it. There were many hats left.

Warming up the pipes

One of the hats that I started trying out in 2009 was announcing, something I’d had pretty much zero interest in before video streaming of bouts became a thing. In February 2009, at the Four Corner Feud, DNN tried out a little something new by providing a dedicated stream call instead of just taking the house call, with Dumptruck and Bob Noxious on the mic. We quickly discovered, to our satisfaction, that this instantly solved a few of the major structural problems that plagued derby announcing.

First, house announcers consistently have to both explain basic game concept for first-time fans and keep a crowd engaged in a blowout, which makes sense from a PR viewpoint but very quickly can get frustrating for a knowledgable fan. Secondly, most announcers have had it beaten into them that they should never “coach from the mic” since players can hear them and it can affect the game, which makes sense from a fairness viewpoint but also means that house announcers are handcuffed when it comes to discussing strategy … and very gun-shy when it comes to critical assessment. This generally forces them away from an analyst role and precariously close to a cheerleader role (if a bout is a 100-point blowout, rest assured that any announcer commentary will not be about why the game is a blowout, but rather about how both teams are Playing Their Hearts Out — and should the losing team pick up a couple of 10-0 jams in a row, you bet it will suddenly be Anybody’s Game).

Well-intentioned though it is, to me it occasionally felt borderline condescending to both skater and fan — as if neither were capable of enjoying a more candid assessment of what was actually happening on the track. With dedicated stream sportscasting freeing us from many of those concerns, we found that it was much easier to (again) focus on the sport aspect of derby and provide an experience more suited to knowledgable fans.

I’d grown up as a big fan of baseball on the radio, and while roller derby is pretty much as far away from baseball as you can get, I also really enjoyed the challenge — completely different from reffing — of attempting to accurately describe that chaos as if there was no visual component. My first turn on the mic was an audio-only call in Boston for a May 2009 Boston / Texas game — and from that moment on I was hooked. But in the three years since, I’ve still never once touched a house mic.

Derby Deathmarch

It didn’t really hit us until late in the summer that the new 4-region structure meant we were going to literally be on the road for a full month. A full month! Were we going to be able to live through so much roller derby? It’s instructive to remember that there was generally much less derby to cover in 2009 than there is now. Going into September 2009, there had been 109 top-25 games played since the beginning of the year; by way of comparison, there have been 171 played so far this year. We simply weren’t used to dealing with that much derby action, let alone four tournaments in a row of it.

That tournament cycle went through Carolina for Easterns, St. Paul for North Centrals, Atlanta for South Centrals and finally Denver for Westerns. As in 2008, the broadcast situation was a little different in each one; $3 Bill ran most of the production in Carolina and Atlanta (and again at Championships in Philly), Minnesota did an independent broadcast of North Centrals, and our friends at Hinckley did the Denver one.

Our role was basically to write the recaps, organize the textcasters and stream sportscasters and put it all together on the bout page. Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy, because … well, this is roller derby. We ran into trouble in Carolina, where we made some poor decisions about sportscaster staffing policy that left announcers feeling undervalued and disrespected, opening a rift that would not soon close. We ran into trouble in Atlanta, where we had what we thought was the brilliant idea of having a pre-teen super fan make her announcing debut as my partner, without stopping to consider that her team was going to be playing Texas. (Nicest kid in the world, but it’s hard to stay perky and spunky when your team is down 127-0 at the half. Texas, how could you do that to a little girl’s dreams?!) We also ran into a much different kind of trouble in Atlanta when I managed to get accused of shoplifting and nearly arrested for doing nothing other than wearing a heavy coat on a hot day. (Apparently “We just flew in from Minnesota” wasn’t a solid enough excuse).

On the track, of course, were plenty of moments that have already passed into derby legend — Philly’s 1-point, final-seconds defeat of Gotham in the Easterns, Rocky Mountain winning over Denver at Westerns with fans prematurely rushing the track, the infamous sucker punch at Nationals when Rocky Mountain faced Texas. It all ended with Oly finishing an undefeated season by handling Gotham and then routing Texas – conveniently, the only two teams in roller derby that had ever looked completely unbeatable. This, unsurprisingly, led to a general unspoken belief in the community that Roller Derby Had Changed Forever and Oly was completely unbeatable.

The first part was true, but on the other hand, it is always true, every year. As for the second part, spoiler alert … everybody’s beatable.

Tomorrow: 2010.