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The business of roller derby: Where do my dues go?

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When is the last time anything worth doing was free? Going for a walk doesn't have a cost of admission but you will need a pair of shoes. Writing in a journal can’t be done without pen and paper and the most inexpensive DIY project still has a cost in supplies. Even kids can’t play sports without hundreds of dollars in fees, equipment, travel, uniforms, and dozens of fundraisers. Why is it then that some women show up for roller derby flabbergasted that they have to pay dues? Are we living in an alternate universe?

Roller derby isn't as underground as it once was, with leagues popping up all over the world, but it is still misunderstood. Perhaps worse in smaller communities but still the question of why dues or why such expensive dues seems to be one causing trouble and creating surprise. More than once the phrase, “I thought roller derby was free,” has been uttered to which the response has to be, “What do you think makes all this happen?”

Roller derby costs

There’s no way around it. Roller derby is a grass roots effort empowering the women of the world but that doesn't make it free. Far from it in fact. Empowering women, with or without roller skates, is both a costly and worthwhile endeavor.

Roller derby: to roll. Roller derby is a sport played on roller skates and roller skates aren't free. In fact, many a derby girl can say that the most expensive (and most important) thing she owns is her personal pair of roller skates. And it’s safe to say that most derby girls spend their disposable income on new and improved roller derby gear.

Why should a girl spend so much money on her skates? For one thing, if they aren't the right pair they will be too hard to skate in. Playing roller derby in artistic skates, for example, is extremely difficult. Without the right pair of skates, success on the track is extremely difficult. Certain financial obligations will limit a person form having a $1,000 pair of skate plates, for example, but a dedicated skater will find a way to afford a modest plate. Why? Because a modest plate is what must be had in order to skate. If it's worth it to you, you will pay for it. If willing to invest in her set up, what derby girl wouldn't want to invest in her league?

What costs does a league have?

RENT: The first thing a league needs to provide is a space to skate. WFTDA standards say 10,000 square feet of smooth, flat surface is required, though many leagues make do with much less. This will require rent. Sure, some outlier somewhere may have access to a great skating space that is free but that just isn't likely for the average derby league. Rent varies from venue to venue but the majority of just about any league’s dues goes towards paying rent. That is the first and largest cost of a league. But it’s not the only cost.

RECRUITMENT: A single skater, no matter what sort of skill she is practicing, is not a derby girl. Derby cannot be played without a team of 14 girls (well, WFTDA requires a team to forfeit with less than 5 girls, technically) and it is impossible to practice the sport alone. That is where a league comes in. A league can only do so much as it poised financially to do.

INSURANCE: Insurance and safety come next. When renting, most renters require a large insurance policy that covers major injury or damage. Derby leagues can choose between WFTDA and USARS for this league insurance and they are the lowest priced competitive options available to derby leagues. Beyond this a league should stock and maintain an emergency kit, i.e. a medical bag with ace bandages, ice packs, wound cleaner and anything else that could come in handy; and it needs to be immediately accessible in the event someone gets hurt. When someone has to use this bag, what’s used needs to be immediately replaced. The best way to guarantee an injury is not to have a properly stocked medical bag.

VENUE: If you are a member of a league that doesn't compete then you are not a derby league and this does not apply to you. The goal of any derby league is to play roller derby. Playing derby in front of fans for ticket sales is ideal so that one day league members don’t have to pay as much in dues or so that the league can be financially solvent during the slow winter months.

The home bout facility is a place where the community pays to come watch the home team play roller derby against other leagues. Once established, home bouts can become the bread and butter of a league. Getting them established on the other hand is challenging and expensive. You've got to spend money to make money. The league will need to pay rent on the home venue, buy a liquor license, spend a lot of money advertising the event and advertising expense will continue all year long so the community doesn't forget about roller derby.

The question of 'why dues' is still valid

The better question is “Where do my dues go?” or “What am I paying for?” because what your league spends your dues money on is of the utmost importance. If your league isn't telling you where your dues are going then you have a problem. Any time you are dealing with money, transparency is an issue. Never be afraid to ask questions.

If your league isn't in the business of competing then very plainly, they aren't in the business of roller derby. On the other hand, not every league is poised to be a WFTDA league competing on a National/International level and that is a perfectly acceptable pursuit, so long as the dues payers agree with said pursuit. Even a rec league will have expenses for home bouts and travel bouts because they will still want to play the sport of roller derby which must be played against other roller derby leagues. A rec league may not, however, want to spend their dues on expensive coaching clinics or extra practice days depending on their level of competition.

Where does all of this comes from?

Don’t think of paying dues as an expense, think of it as an opportunity to invest in the people and organization you believe in. The success of a league is dependent upon its available capital, as is any business. What kind of things do you value in life? Are those things free? Is your dues payment so large that it makes other areas of your life suffer? Would you want to spend your money on something else? You pay for a gym membership, right?

For example, is your league large and established or still an upstart trying to establish itself? Large leagues can often offer lower dues because their home bouts are earning income or because the numbers make costs per skater lower. Upstart leagues don't have the benefit of any income and often rely exclusively on dues to make ends meet. All derby leagues should be engaged in fundraisers to cover costs but fundraisers don't necessarily offset the costs a league faces on a monthly or annual basis. Find this out about your league so you have a good idea what your money is going towards. If the goals of your league matches your goals then you should feel good about fundraising and paying dues because you are supporting a worthy cause. If your league isn't forthcoming with this information or you don't agree with the direction the league is going, maybe you should find a different league with a philosophy you can get behind. After all, it's your money.

Think of your league as an investment

In the early years of a league, most of the money will go towards rent with things like uniforms and travel coming out of member's pockets. The league you belong to is an extension of you. Does your league have a 5 year plan? Does shouldering an added expense now help your league get to where it's going later? Many derby girls put a lot more into their leagues than just dues. They donate goods, skills, man hours, emotional energy, and positive thinking, all because they want the league to succeed. A skater's league should be an extension of themselves and should represent their goals as a skater. When posited this way, dues are a small price to pay to further the league. If your league is merely an expense in your checkbook maybe it's not the league for you or maybe you're missing the point.

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