On Track to Power Women’s Roller Derby Into Mainstream

A niche sport with Southern roots, defined by speed and strategy on an oval track and known for its colorful characters and high-impact collisions, is making a mainstream comeback. Instead of flashy automobiles, though, these athletes come equipped with skates, helmets, and plenty of attitude.

This isn’t NASCAR. It’s women’s flat-track roller derby.

A WFTDA official looks on as skaters break before the next 'jam'.

The Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the sport’s international governing body, plans to celebrate its passionate fan base and expand its audience by streaming derby bouts live through a new online broadcast Website. A joint venture between WFTDA, its member leagues, and production partner Blaze Streaming Media, will launch tomorrow.

“It’s the fastest-growing women’s sport in the world,” says Erica Vanstone, director of broadcast operations, WFTDA. “There are 147 member leagues and growing right now around the world, and each of those leagues has up to, and over, 100 members. We really have a vision for wanting to show the world what this sport is about and to really act as the creative force behind the project, because we understand better than anybody how to explain roller derby to people who have never seen roller derby before.”

Delivering Derby to the Fans
Founded in 2005, WFTDA joined forces with Blaze Streaming Media three years ago to produce the sport’s West Region Playoffs. Last year, the two produced the Big 5 Tournament, during which each of the WFTDA’s four regions — Eastern, Western, North Central, and South Central — hosts a Region Playoffs to determine which teams compete in the WFTDA Championships. The Big 5 Tournament netted 108,000 online viewers; an average of 30,000 per tournament.

A lockdown camera covers the announcers as they provide pre- and post-bout commentary.

WFTDA and Blaze Streaming Media plan to generally deploy five Sony NX5U cameras to cover each bout: two up high (similar to a basketball setup), one at turn one, one at turn four, and a lockdown camera on the announcers.

To bring the action from track to desktop, Blaze Streaming Media will use Blackmagic ATEM camera converters and will alternate switching via a NewTek TriCaster and Blackmagic ATEM 1M/E broadcast panel. Instant replay will be delivered via a three-channel NewTek 3play system, and graphics will be built using Adobe Photoshop. Rinxter software will track derby statistics in real time.

Rather than work out of a production truck, Christensen plans to transport his production equipment to each bout and operate from within the venue.

Blaze Streaming Media captures the live action of a WFTDA bout.

“I built out the design of our work for the WFTDA around a truck at first, because that’s the traditional method of bringing in this much equipment. [But] we just couldn’t be nimble enough on a truck,” says Christensen. “We actually pack in, fly in, and fly out the entire show. We’re able to do that with standard luggage through air carriers.”

Between Blaze Streaming Media and the WFTDA, six or seven crewmembers will be on-site to produce a single bout. That number will expand to 15-20 for the ECDX, a three-day tournament with two tracks going simultaneously.

Two cameras up high provide wide shots of the flat track.

WFTDA’s broadcasts will be switched and cut live on-site and streamed live to the Website. The live stream will be re-encoded and archived for on-demand viewing, all of which will be available free of charge. Live streaming of the Big 5 Tournament will be pay-per-view; however, audio podcasts and on-demand archives during the tournament will continue to be available for free.

“When we first came into the sport, the fans were upset that we were even cutting cameras because they were so used to a single camera in the rafter,” says Christensen. “Then we came in and started applying production [techniques], and, honestly, we put cameras in the wrong place; we didn’t understand the flow of the game. [But] the fans stuck through it while we cultivated a look that tells the story. What’s been really fun is, we now feel the trust of the audience for our director team to tell them the story.”

Taking Derby to the Next Level
Looking forward to 2013 and beyond, WFTDA hopes to further cultivate the DIY mentality that defines derby culture by tapping into the multiple leagues already producing bouts for their fans and driving broadcasts further into the mainstream. In addition, the league plans to expand its online interactive promotions, written content, photos, and stats and turn into a digital asset to educate fans on roller derby.

“[What’s] really notable about this project, and the WFTDA, is that it is skater-owned and operated, and you’ll see that in a lot of our materials,” says Vanstone. “But the real heart behind this project is to take something that’s our own and show it to the world, instead of having somebody come in and tell us how we should be showing our heart to the world. That’s what Blaze [Streaming Media] is really allowing us to do.”

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