Amanda Thompson spends a day with the New Zealand men’s roller derby squad as they prepare for next year’s world champs in the US.
Let’s play a word game. Let’s list some contact sports and the top teams in those codes.
Say rugby. Are you thinking about the All Blacks yet? What about rugby league. Thinking about the Melbourne Storm? (not the Vodafone Warriors, for pity’s sake.)
And roller derby. How about now? If you wanted me to mention a men’s team you’re going to have to say so – because roller derby is a contact sport dominated by women, not men.
New Zealand is scattered with roller derby leagues, the majority of them established for those who identify as female, and playing by the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) ruleset. WFTDA lists 460 member leagues worldwide, compared to a scanty 60 for MRDA (Men’s Roller Derby Association) – and none at all are in New Zealand. That didn’t stop us sending a team – Kiwi Toa – to the MRDA world cup in Barcelona in 2018; a training squad was announced in February to prepare for the St. Louis competition in 2020. I hung around their training session last weekend to talk to the men of New Zealand roller derby about playing, as one commentator put it, “the niche sport within a niche sport”.
The Ron Hardie Recreation Centre in Kawerau is an unlikely venue for a national sports team training, but that’s only if you don’t know that K-Town, as the locals call it, sits in the middle of a roller derby golden triangle. Three women’s derby leagues in Rotorua, Tauranga and Whakatāne are less than a 45-minute drive away and those players are going to be pivotal in making this weekend successful. The men have travelled from all around New Zealand – and Australia – to be here too.
Head coach Diamond plays for Whakatāne Roller Derby League but right now she’s running the men through some defensive blocking drills. She’s keen to get them working as a cohesive quad and using better communication – the goals for the day. Although this is the last chance for players to impress her before the squad is cut to just 20 team members, nobody’s showing any pre-selection jitters. “These are laid-back guys,” she tells me. “We don’t have the testosterone issues you might get in some other teams.”
Long-time skater and laid-back guy The Mofia – Moff to his mates – tells me the Kiwi Toa squad is excited by the chance to practise against the women today, because women’s roller derby represents the toughest challenges and biggest opportunities for the guys to learn. He says the men have a distinctive, individualistic style of roller derby and he wants that to change.
“The theory is, we should be playing more like the women do. The women have got a lot more strategy and their skills are at a higher level. The men’s game play is…” he searches for the word “…. let’s say sporadic. We want to play like the girls.”
Moff regularly trains with his co-ed league, Hellmilton Roller Ghouls, and plays for Northern Gentlemen whenever he can. Northern Gentlemen Skate Club and No City Skaters are MRDA scratch teams and games are rare with players are spread out all around the country. Trainings are non-existent. Moff knows he’s one of the lucky ones, being able to train in Hamilton every week. With the vast majority of teams in New Zealand being WFTDA affiliated and focused on women, not all of the guys get the opportunity. He says there’s no South Island men’s team. “Men just aren’t encouraged there. Because there’s maybe one guy who plays there I think, the visibility just isn’t there. If guys don’t see other guys playing, how can they even know it’s an option?”
Visibility has long been an issue for men in roller derby. The first all-women teams started appearing in New Zealand in the mid-2000s but for the next decade it was rare for male players to see themselves represented at home, or overseas. If men were welcomed into this new sport it was nearly always with the expectation that they would referee or officiate at the women’s games, not play in their own. Roller derby’s rapid rise in popularity since has meant top level women’s teams in the U.S. and Europe now negotiate commercial deals to appear in ads for everything from travel magazines to insurance, allowing them to pay for the team travel and uniforms. WFTDA Championship Finals are huge events, broadcast live by ESPN in the US. Recognisable stars of the sport sell skate gear and sports drinks during ad breaks to the hundreds of thousands of fans who tune in – and pay – to watch them play. When one of the most bankable derby stars in the world right now is New Zealand’s own Lady Trample, it’s easy for Kiwi WFTDA players to picture themselves making it all the way to the top of their sport.
But in MRDA? Not so much. New Zealand Men’s Roller Derby was pulled together as an organisation a relatively short five years ago to get Kiwi Toa to the 2018 World Cup with only 16 players. Kiwi Toa won one game, lost four, and came in 20th out of 24 teams, and the team was pleased with getting that far. “Pretty much anyone who could afford to pay their own way ended up going in 2018,” says Diamond. “But it’s better this year. We’ve got about 26 players to choose from this time. It’s getting there.”
It’s not cheap to pay your own way in this sport. NZMRD sells t-shirts and runs raffles to support Kiwi Toa, but it hardly makes a dent when most of the games happen overseas. Players already provide all their own skates and safety gear which can range into the thousands of dollars. Along with the cost of travel, getting regular training opportunities remains one of the biggest barriers to keeping men in this minority sport once they join. All of the guys agree it’s a bit of a privilege to be allowed into local women’s league trainings when they don’t have a co-ed team nearby, but they’re not always welcome.
Local boy IKKI has flown home to Kawerau for this training from his adopted home in Sydney, where he has been playing with a fully MRDA affiliated league, Sydney City SMASH Roller Derby.
“I used to play co-ed but I left because of dramas about guys being in there. It took away my option to train locally. They said it was because they wanted WFTDA accreditation but I knew it was because they didn’t want men. Some of them would say ‘oh but this sport is for empowering women’, blah blah blah. The hostility from women is still there, we men know it’s an issue. We feel like we’re on probation, they let us play but if someone gets hurt then suddenly everybody gets shitty.”
X-Ray agrees. The most senior squad member at 52 years old (“I wanna do this thing before I have to get out my walking frame”), X-Ray has been coaching and reffing WFTDA derby for over a decade but he doesn’t train with local leagues anymore. “Nah. I only want to skate with the guys now. Nobody else likes it when we hit them at a hundy per cent. The sport does belong to women, but we’re not the beastly men that they make us out to be.”
Moff is more considered. “This is always going to be a women’s sport, in my opinion. And okay I get it, when men first came into it the women pushed back. But you can’t say, yeah I want equality in all other sports but then not let the men into yours, that doesn’t work.” He shrugs. “But I don’t really want to get involved in the politics. I just want to keep my head down and skate.”
Not everyone is comfortable with this conversation. Wreck-it Rob from co-ed league Kapiti Coast Derby Collective skates over in the middle of a drill to ask me to please not make this story about “the boys versus the girls, because it’s not like that”. When I ask him whether he thinks the women have anything to worry about – that the men’s physicality will be too great a challenge to the women players, he stares at me for a minute like I just spoke in Russian. “Disagree. Absolutely disagree. Once you put those skates on it’s a totally level playing field, you can’t just be bigger and faster. You need that strategy and skill as well. Being a man is no advantage here.”
I run my theory that the men’s game might end up being the more appealing to fans and sponsors past Katchawhaea, another of the Whakatāne players who has turned out to help. Again, I’m getting that look like I’m speaking a foreign language. You know, I say. More like it is in rugby.
“Well that’s fucking bullshit, by the way,” she snaps back. Katchawhaea is a massive Black Ferns fan. “And nah. It’s never gonna happen. Women’s derby has got the established pathways. We’re the more revolutionary sport. Girls are just more appealing for the viewer – and we’re always going to be.”
And the Kiwi Toa players are quick to point out that even while they’re still getting pushback from some women who don’t understand why they should play at all, the women of roller derby have also been their best friends and allies. WFTDA leagues around the country have been generous in their support of Kiwi Toa, supplying coaches, executive committee members, fundraising. The Ron Hardie Rec Centre has now filled up with local league players while we’ve been talking, volunteering on a rainy Saturday to referee drills, teach skills and scrimmage against the men later on.
And they’re also part of the Kiwi Toa Squad. Possibly unique in men’s contact sport, MRDA has a gender policy of total inclusion – anyone with the basic derby skillset who wants to play is welcome to play, even at the World Cup.
One of the women trying out for a Kiwi Toa spot is Meat Train, who’s with Kapiti Coast Derby Collective and previously skated for high level WFTDA teams. “Why do I want to be in Kiwi Toa now? Because men aren’t bitches, that’s why. If I make it into this team, I’ll be making it in on my own merits and if I don’t, my own merits will be the only reason I don’t. There’s no other drama going on here. With guys, if I’m being a twat they’ll tell me I’m being a twat over a beer later. And I’ve never had anyone come up and say this is a men’s team, what are you doing here? Never.”
Meat Train’s KCDC team mate Wreck-it Rob stops by to give her a hug and she laughs, then screws up her face.
“The only downside is that they sweat so much.”
The Kiwi Toa roller derby team to represent New Zealand in the MRDA World Championships St. Louis 2020 will be announced on the 24th September