On April 29th, 1961, ABC debuted a brand new program aimed at presenting the American television audience with sporting competitions rarely, if ever, broadcast to a mass audience. While Wide World of Sports was only planned for a summer stop-gap role, the show took off in popularity with an audience that had grown accustomed over the last decade to turn to the TV for their primary information and media consumption. Fascinated viewers were exposed to such niche sports such as powerlifting, surfing, cliff jumping, or in the case of one 1964 episode, the finals of the Oklahoma Rattlesnake Hunt championships. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s the average American’s mental encyclopedia of sport began growing seemingly exponentially with each airing, expanding beyond simply the most mainstream of athletic competition at the time: football, baseball, and to a lesser extent basketball.
When preparing to write this piece, I met for awhile with John Pappadopoulos, host of the Sports Lead on ESPN La Crosse, to ask him about any memories he had watching the show, as well as Spanning the Globe, the five-minute segment on WNBC-TV of New York hosted by Len Berman which narrowed the scope of WWoS down to just the bloopers and slip-ups. In retrospect, John noted that shows such as these formed the framework for the 24/7 contemporary coverage of sport on social media and cable tv. Simultaneously, they gave athletes of obscure sports the opportunity to be discovered and have a chance to be remembered for even just a fleeting moment. It was like a collage of potential viral moments delivered to you in your home decades before the term would become common knowledge.
Among the “out-there” offerings provided, one of the more notable examples was roller derby, a sport with televised bouts beginning back in the late 1940s and 50s, but also a noted attendance decline throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In order to revive the sport nationwide, a general consensus amongst clubs was reached early in the 2000’s to largely negate most of the “sports entertainment” aspects of roller derby, namely the scripting of bout finishes and storylines. With these elements largely discarded, the athleticism and strategy of the sport became the focal point and has propelled it to a respected, if still largely understood, status.
My experience prior to the May 11th bout at the Omni Center in this world of bouts, jammers, and roller skates was about as expansive as the limit in the 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls: it did not exist. I had only ever vaguely heard of its place in the Coulee Region as an entertainment option thanks to a former employer serving as a sponsor. The team’s marketing director Anna Jahns, who on the rink goes by Ticks-n-Axe, explained to me most people who attend their first Mayhem bout are in the same boat. “It can seem kind of confusing, to try and understand the sport” she explained to me in our meet-up the week before the bout. “If you’re literally just coming and watching it, things might not make sense”. Thankfully, the arena will almost certainly have someone who can get you up to speed. “If you see the ticket taker cheering on the team” Jahns continued, “go right up and say ‘Hey, you understand what’s going on here, explain it to me’, and our fans are really good at that because everyone here saw it for the first time once”.
Seated on the concrete flooring rink-side, I had a great view of the bleacher seats. One thing I will give the Mayhem fans, is that even for a bout which was non-sanctioned by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, they had end-to-end turnout in the wooden seats. About fifty percent of the floor area around the track has basic metal foldout seats, and save for a few empties here and there, they were largely occupied as well. I’d be more surprised, but I knew coming in that the team has been firmly established in the area since August of 2008. And in this area, any amateur or semi-professional team that can stick around the same spot for more than a handful of years more than likely has done so thanks at least in part to a loyal ticket-buying following.
Unfortunately, on this particular night, there wasn’t much for the Mayhem faithful to cheer for. The visiting Electric Sliders out of the Twin Cities made virtual mincemeat of the hosts, gliding with seeming ease through the Mayhem blockers for a 405-19 schlacking. In particular, the two primary jammers for the Sliders, Special Sauce and McTrouble, were able to slide (pun very much intended) in between every wall the Mayhem attempted to set, aided in part by the hard-hitting steel arm shoves from Whopper, I Barely Know Her (one trait that has carried over from the ‘sports entertainment’ era are the pseudonyms for each skater).
Still, from what I was able to gather, I don’t think anybody who came to root on the team gave much thought to the final outcome. The fans, many of whom it seemed had close relationships with the skaters given how passionate the cheers would be whenever their preferred athlete rolled by, knew which way the odds were stacked coming in. The night seemed to serve more as a preview for the year ahead, and even if the night was an indication of the Mayhem’s 2019 trajectory, many in the crowd I talked to say they’d still be there if the team never scored a single point.
And that mentality was proven towards the end of the evening, when during a Sliders’ power jam, the Mayhem’s “Happy Feet” was sandwiched hard between two Slider blockers, and sent barreling to the track floor. The injury was serious enough that Feet stayed down for several minutes after impact. Once it became apparent this was beyond just a typical bruiser moment, the Omni Center fell to a concerned silence, from all parties, only broken the moment she was helped off the floor and over to the medical area. I’ve experienced several injury moments up close across many different sports at all levels from high school up to the pros, and in my coverage I don’t know if I’ve heard an indoor arena more still than in that moment. In those critical minutes of medical care, it appeared as though everyone there was a concerned parent, watching helplessly as their child lays battle-worn and in pain.
I drew comparisons throughout my time prepping for the bout to professional wrestling, an area company for which I had an amazing opportunity to call matches for a year ago. And in that moment Happy Feet went down, my comparisons were validated. I from experience know that a unique “next-door neighbor” environment exists at local indie matches, with time between matches often spent by fans socializing and developing a relationship with the wrestlers. This clearly is also the case with amateur roller derby, as these conversations occurred during halftime of the bout as well, with other evidence being mentioned in previous paragraphs.
It remains to be seen if the Mayhem will be able to right the ship following a rough first bout, but to those reading this far (nice work, by the way. I know long articles are quite passé in the world of shortened attention spans.) I highly recommend using your free Saturday evening checking things out at the Omni Center this weekend. Leave any pre-conceived notions you have about the sport from yester-year at the door and keep an open mind. Talk to the fan sitting next to you, it’s the best way to learn about the sport. Maybe you’ll return and maybe you won’t, but those that do will quickly be welcomed into the derby family; inclusivity is a hallmark of the modern sport. As viewers were reminded every time WWoS went on the air, one must span the globe to understand the constant variety of sport, and if variety is the spice of life, you’ll only do yourself a favor by giving roller derby a chance.
For more information on the Mayhem or how to join the team, visit http://mississippivalleymayhem.com/
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