Save the Zebras!

Attention derby leagues across the Canadian prairies! Something has come to my attention over the past few months, something both wonderful AND threatening: there is a hell of a lot of derby happening every week. At first glance you may think “Well… so what? That’s great!”, and in some way’s you would be right. It IS great that there are so many bouts, tournaments, bootcamps, and invitationals’ happening every weekend all around us, because it means the sport is growing, more and more people are playing it, and we’re all getting a lot more exposure. Problem is… leagues are growing but officiating crews are not. In fact, in some cases they are shrinking! Dedicated stripe bearers are on the decline and while Freshmeat training programs are filling up, less and less are fully dedicating themselves to the crucial role of a ref or NSO.

Sure, some leagues are sitting pretty with full crews but they are few and far between and even the crews of five or more skating officials are not REALLY dedicated crews because a few of those “officials” are also players. Simply put, we are spread thin and more and more leagues have to call in help from two or three provinces over just to make things work. So, what’s going on?

Who WOULDN'T want to see more of this?

Who WOULDN’T want to see more crews like this?

Explanation #1: Your refs are starting to play, even the men now! In fact, I know of several officials that have this year spent more time on the track than they have been off the track officiating. They’re going to men’s scrimmages, co-ed invitationals, and their league or team practices more often than they are going around officiating games. If there is a nearby tournament with a co-ed or men’s scrim, their stripes are off and they want in. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing! Men’s derby means more derby and it means more growth for the sport. But I’m starting to see more and more of my officiating friends and contacts “retire” from officiating so that they can play instead… and that’s not good. If the players are practicing and playing and the referees are practicing and playing… then who is officiating?

Reason #2: Your refs are growing, improving, and branching out; which is awesome! They’re going to bootcamps, they’re getting experience in tournaments, and they’re traveling farther and farther away to gain invaluable insight from other derby communities. This is certainly incredible BUT it also means that when all of the most experienced officials are out of province perfecting their craft this leads to problems staffing things on the home front. Again, I am NOT condemning refs that travel outside their province to officiate. Not at all. In fact, it is essential to your improvement in this sport and it will make you a much better official all around. However, this harkens back to the “spread to thin” issue again. What are leagues to do when everybody is playing and the few dedicated officials you have in your province are spread all over western and central Canada?

Here’s my suggestion: DEVELOP AN OFFICIATING BASED ADVERTISING CAMPAIGN! Everybody, and that means all of us, needs to push the ad-campaigns for refs and NSOs. Support the crew you have now, no matter what their size is, by getting their faces out there on posters and sharing some of your league’s funds to advertise officiating. This should be especially true for the larger leagues of 30+ skaters. If you have like two or three house teams, an A team, a B team, a travel A team, etc. then you don’t need more Freshmeat right now… you need officials! We need posters with Dev Null, Sweet Plea, Kurz So Good, Dolly Pardon, etc. Pick a respected, knowledgeable zebra and NSO from your league and make a fricken badass poster of them, then get that out there and start a dialogue with your community about it!

Part of the problem going on now is that officiating is an after-thought. Many people treat it as something to beg the boyfriend or brother to do. They also treat it as something that skaters can do if they didn’t roster or if they are injured. This is the WRONG mentality to have… officiating shouldn’t be an “oh well, I can’t play so guess I’ll do it” sort of job, it should be something you strive to excel in and it should be something all leagues promote as a professional, fulfilling role; which is IS by the way! Have you ever taken a moment to watch a great officiating crew at work? It truly is a beautiful, inspiring sight to behold seventeen skating and non-skating individuals, with a profound knowledge of the game, work a track. It’s kind of breathtaking actually, like you’re watching a new galaxy form from an exploding star.

" you're watching a new galaxy form from an exploding star."

“…like you’re watching a new galaxy form from an exploding star.”

If you are one of those leagues that never seem to have problems staffing games, then count your blessings and take the time to thoroughly thank your officials whenever you can because you are luckier than you know! Furthermore, those of you amazing officials out there now, step up your mentoring! Don’t be afraid to get excited about officiating and share that excitement with the community in your city, as well as the communities in OTHER cities!

All photos are courtesy of Anthony Canada! Check out Anthony’s Facebook page for the complete 2012 RDAC National Tournament galleries as well as photo sets from Flat Track Fever 2013 and E-Ville Roller Derby’s home bouts.

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Kevlar 2Written by Kevin ‘Kevlar’ Dennison

Are zebras going extinct?



  1. I want to start out by saying that this is not a criticism by any means, because I’m far too knew to criticize or applaud anyone in reffing OR derby, but I will say that learning to Ref is a lot harder than learning how to play roller derby for the simple fact that there is a huge community for players. Beginner’s practice, events, etc. I feel like Reffing is this outside world that’s hard to break into and trying to learn the rules, the game, the skills, what to watch for, get to know the people, etc is extremely overwhelming and almost feels more solo simply because I only get to really learn once a week (and if I’m sick, not at all). As a player, when you need help with anything, there are usually around 20 girls ready to help. As a ref, there are maybe 5 and since I’m still extremely new, I don’t feel comfortable asking a million freaking questions out of fear of annoying the crap out of them. Lets face it, they all have lives and as officials, are traveling a huge portion of the time. There is never going to be a huge demand for refs if there isn’t a community of support to help train you. Derby is a very complex support and trying to learn how to spot penalties solely by watching helmet cams on YouTube is nauseating (literally!!!). I think our refs are awesome and amazing and I want to be one when I grow up, but if its something I have to learn on my own, I think I’ll stick to learning how to play.

  2. I am an American, but we face the same problem South of the border. In fact, I would dare to say everyone in RD faces the same issue when it comes to recruiting and keeping Zeebs.

    The first step in recruiting Refs, though, is to recruit Fans (with a Capital F). Without Fans coming to bouts on a regular basis, we have no audience for a Referee recruiting campaign. You cannot advertize that “We Want YOU to REF Roller Derby” to a public that doesn’t know Roller Derby.

    I currently live in The South, which has the fewest numbers of active leagues, and consequently the fewest number of Officials for the sport, so my perspective may be slightly skewed, but most bouts I go to as an officiant have fewer than 250 people watching the bout….often much fewer! My home team plays in our city arena, which can hold more than 5,000 fans, and the team is ecstatic when attendance tops 2,000. I think they should be, but whether the crowd is 50 fans or 500 I see the same demographics in the crowd: People who know someone on the one of the teams, or people who are already part of “the Derby Community” in some way.

    I don’t see “Joe Six Pack and his four noisy kids,” you don’t see people who just want to watch a great sporting event, played by people they don’t personally know already, and who don’t harbor thoughts of playing the game themselves.

    Bottom Line is this: before we can recruit Refs, we need to learn how to recruit more pure fans to the sport towards whom we can direct an “officiating-based recruiting program.”

    That’s my two pennies worth.

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