They're one of Seattle's top drawing sporting events, attracting thousands of hard core fans to Key Arena. And as the Rat City Rollergirls enter their ninth season, the popular roller derby league is at a crossroads as it tries to break into the mainstream as a sport while still maintaining its unique identity.
"I think once somebody kind of dives into what's happening in the sport, you realize how much complexity there is to it, how much athleticism and talent it requires to be able to hit somebody full contact with your entire body on roller skates while remaining standing and in bounds," says Patricia Gray, a skater on the league's Derby Liberation Front team who goes by the moniker Slamburger Patty.
The names, like Betty Ford Galaxy, Katarina Whip and Sheeza Brickhouse, are just part of what makes the sport so unique. But although the skaters take on outrageous personalities, colorful uniforms and a tongue in cheek punk rock spirit, they're as serious and dedicated as any other athlete. Perhaps more so.
Rat City, like many of the other derby leagues that have emerged in the last decade since the resurgence of the sport, is run entirely by the skaters. The women do everything from event production and management to marketing, making for what's essentially a second full time job where the only pay is a black eye or painful bruise, and a whole lot of satisfaction.
"I'm skating at minimum three to four nights a week, cross training, weightlifting three to four nights a week, doing yoga to maintain my flexibility," Patty says.
It's that way for all the members. Rat City is one of the premier leagues in the nation, with skaters competing fiercely for a coveted slot on one of the four teams, either the Derby Liberation Front, Grave Danger, the Throttle Rockets or Sockit Wenches.
They compete both amongst themselves and against other teams from around the country, with an all-star team that ranks seventh internationally in the World Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which now boasts over 170 leagues worldwide (Olympia's Oly Rollers rank first).
As derby continues to grow, the big challenge is getting more people to watch it, and the media to cover it as a legitimate sport, Patty says. Many still associate it with the contrived spectacle they saw on TV in the 70's, with choreographed violence and outrageous antics akin to pro wrestling.
But the sport is far more complex and nuanced, with elements of football, basketball or other team sports. It features set plays and strategies to create scoring opportunities, leverages specialized skills at different positions and comes complete with a 45-page rule book. It can often be confusing for a newcomer watching their first bout to truly appreciate.
"We're trying to educate people a lot more about the game, incorporate sounds and graphics when major plays happen to draw people's attention what's happening," Patty says.
One of the things propelling the growth of the league and the sport is younger skaters. An increasing number of school-aged girls are flocking to youth derby leagues like the Seattle Derby Brats and the Tilted Thunder Peeps. As they graduate to the adult leagues, the popularity, speed and skill of the game continues to increase exponentially.
"Right now, the average age of our skaters is late 20's, early 30's. But now we're starting to see these younger kids coming up who've been skating and hitting since they were 10," Patty says.
Backers hope that eventually it will translate into derby leagues popping up in high school and college, further fueling its legitimacy. For Patty and many others, it's an attractive alternative for girls and women seeking an athletic outlet that aren't drawn to traditional sports.
"We see this as like the third wave of femininity that girls can be tough and be beautiful at the same time. It was not until I saw roller derby that I had this visceral reaction of like roller skates and full contact and aggression and the grace and toughness of it all combined, I just fell in love in with that."
The hope is as more people get exposed to their sport, they'll fall in love with it too, and derby will continue gaining in popularity and eventually find a place in the local sports pages, on TV and in arenas nationwide. If the popularity of the Rat City Rollergirls is any indication, they're well on their way.
The Rat City Rollergirls open their 2013 season Saturday night at Key Arena. Opening ceremonies at 5:30 pm.