Like everyone else in the late ’90s, I was hooked on professional wrestling. I had been a fan going back to 1989 or ’90 when I was 5 years old and had found WCW on Saturday evenings at my Grandparents’ house. Like many others though I was utterly OBSESSED during the wrestling boom of the “Monday Night War.” It was in my high school cafeteria one day when my friend Joe asked if I was going to watch “RollerJam”? I asked what that was and he explained in colorful detail the new wrestling-on-roller blades commercial he saw during WWF’s RAW. I must have been over on the other channel watching WCW’s Nitro and missed it. Our other wrestling friend Andrew then mentioned it was a new version of roller derby.
Roller derby? What is that? All I knew of roller derby at that time was from that one episode of Clarissa Explains it All when best friend Sam’s Mom ran off to join the roller derby.
It’s like a traveling circus with fighting on roller skates… or something like that, I thought.
So, what is roller derby? Roller derby has been around for over 100 years. Wikipedia defines it as “a contact sport played by two teams of five roller skating counter-clockwise around a track.” The game consists of several short match-ups (called jams) during which each team designates a “jammer.” The jammer scores by lapping skaters on the opposing team. The goal is to help your own jammer get past the other team while simultaneously stopping the other team’s jammer. You have to play offense and defense at the same time.
The sport traces it’s origins back to the roller skating marathons of the 1930s. Leo Seltzer is the man credited with taking the sport into its modern competitive form. During the 1940s roller derby became extremely popular as a true sport but in the ensuing decades, however, it predominantly became a form of “sports entertainment.”
Sports entertainment is a term modern WWE fans are very familiar with that means theatrical elements and scripted results overshadow the actual athletic performance. Scripted matches became the norm and eventually, popularity in roller derby began to decline. Professional roller derby was considered near death after the moderate success of the late 80’s tv show “RollerGames” and the flop of 1996’s “Roller Derby USA”.
Today, roller derby still exists at a mostly amateur level and it has abandoned the scripted theatrics in favor of being a pure sport. Roller Derby does retain some of its entertainment aspects today as colorful uniforms, catchy team names, and outlandish player nicknames still exist.
In 1997, childhood derby fans Ross Bagwell and Stephen Land were inspired to revive the game after reading the obituary for roller derby legend Joan Weston. Weston appeared in the pilot (and only) episode of “Roller Derby USA” at age 62 as she tried to help revive the sport. Under the name PageBoy Entertainment, Bagwell and Land pitched their idea for an exciting and modern version of roller derby using the trendy new inline rollerblades to television networks. A successful pitch to The Nashville Network (TNN) was made and a deal was signed. TNN would later become “The National Network”, then “Spike TV” and is currently called “The Paramount Network.”
When TNN agreed to the deal they wanted it on air as soon as possible to capitalize on the rising popularity of pro wrestling. This forced the producers to create a league, build a track, hire skaters, create teams with logos and uniforms, and film the show in less than 7 months. One of the first things they did was hire Jerry Seltzer, son of roller derby creator Leo Seltzer, to be commissioner of the new league. This not only created some continuity between RollerJam and previous television versions of roller derby but gave the new venture a sense of credibility.
The first episode was taped in November of 1998 and RollerJam was on its way! Originally airing a preview episode in December of 1998, TNN debuted RollerJam on January 15, 1999. In another pro wrestling connection, the first and later part of the second season was filmed at Universal Studio’s Stage 21 in Orlando, Florida. RollerJam called it the “RollerJam Arena” but today pro wrestling fans know it as the “TNA Impact Zone.” The show would temporarily move to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas for the first half of the second season and film in the former American Gladiators studio at CBS Studio Center in Hollywood for the show’s final season.
Meanwhile, in August of 1999 the third-largest pro wrestling promotion in the US, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), was beginning it’s own Friday Night program on TNN simply titled “ECW on TNN.” TNN would use this opportunity to create the “FRIDAY NIGHT THRILL ZONE” programming block pairing its new ECW show and RollerJam for an action-based Friday night.
RollerJam featured 6 teams competing in the fictional World Skating League (WSL). The New York Enforcers, California Quakes, Florida Sundogs, Nevada Hot Dice, Texas Rustlers, and Illinois Riot each consisted of 7 men and 7 women, a manager, and some assistant coaches.
Rollerjam’s rules were pretty similar to older versions of roller derby except new skaters wore inline skates (Roller Blades.) Some of the older skaters the show hired to keep continuity with derby history were allowed to wear regular quad skates. RollerJam tried some fan-friendly rule changes from the original to gain the viewer’s interest and attention. The games were cut down into four 6-minute periods from the eight 12-minute periods played in the past. In a similar move to ice hockey, the referee could also assign players to a “penalty box” for violating rules or face ejection from the game. Most often these dastardly acts were scripted in the storyline, whether it be a “bad call” from a crooked referee or a bad boy/girl skater (heel) that would rack up the penalty minutes and use them as a badge of honor. To prevent a match from going long, RollerJam created the “Tiebreaker Match Race” where one skater from each team would race 5 laps around the track and the first to cross the finish line won the game for their team in exciting sudden-death overtime.
To gain further fan interest, RollerJam held special events or matches much like pro wrestling gimmick matches or big “pay-per-view” events. The RollerJam All-Star Game was played by fan-voted all-star rosters of each team’s most popular skaters. The “Last Man Standing” was a tie-breaker event with no penalties and no time limit in a full-team version of a wrestling Battle Royale match. Skaters of both teams fought to eliminate the opposing players by knocking them over the rails or into the infield of the track until one skater was left standing.
Every television season climaxed with the most important event of the year, the WSL’s version of WrestleMania that they called The Demolition Derby. The Demolition Derby was RollerJam’s WrestleMania but was much more like the Royal Rumble match itself. Skaters competed in separate interval contests where each team started with 3 or 4 skaters and every 20 seconds a new skater would join the track. The match continued until all skaters had been knocked over the railing to the outside or into the track’s infield. The last skater standing was the winner of that year’s Demolition Derby.
Some other pro-wrestling type events that will sound familiar to wrestling fans of the 90’s would be the “Nightgown and Lingerie Race” (Bra and Panties match anyone?) or the Table Races (D’Von… get the tables!) Other similar events were “Fastest Skater” races or a “Quad Race.” The Quad Race was a good storyline where an old school racer would put his quad roller skates on the line against having to wear the newer inline rollerblades. The next few episodes would then concentrate on the difficulties of the racer switching to the new style of wheels and then eventually cover the redemption part of the story.
Fabricated storylines and made up characters became more heavily featured around season 2 and 3, especially after ECW joined the Friday lineup. This irritated many of the skaters and fans of true competitive roller derby causing the ratings and interest to begin declining. Jerry Seltzer quit the league after the first season citing his disgust with the scripted pro wrestling theatrics.
Seltzer’s departure allowed the producers to take the show even further into the sports entertainment arena hoping to bolster ratings. They began hiring actors and creating new characters to enhance the storylines. Veteran actor Tom Nowicki was hired to take over as commissioner under the name Kenneth Loge III. Loge’s main storyline throughout the show’s run was that he was a “moral crusader” and wouldn’t stand for unruly and “wicked” behavior from the skater’s in “his” WSL. Nowicki would eventually play a dual role on screen, playing not only Commissioner Kenneth Loge III but also Florida SunDogs manager Leonard Loge III.
Leo Seltzer’s fictional granddaughter “Lisa Seltzer” was soon added to the show, played by former Mouseketeer and actress Lindsey Alley. Another veteran actress, Cindy Maranne was also hired to play the manager of the Nevada Hot Dice under the name Amanda Hertz (get it?)
In one of the more pro wrestling type storylines, current CBS Sports Network play-by-play commentator James Bates was hired to play “the Prophet.” The Prophet was used as Kenneth Loge III’s lackey in the “crusade for morality” storyline. The Prophet eventually began interrupting the matches, fined players, and would often (in wrestling terms) cut a promo on certain skaters and occasionally the audience. He would later turn on Loge and “acquire” the Florida SunDogs, along with his minions Canine and Disable. Canine and Disable went by “The Moral Authority” in what sounds like a perfect tag team name for pro wrestling.
RollerJam would employ several wrestling staples to try and make each episode exciting and action-packed in hopes to draw viewers. Skaters would use the microphone and cut a promo on their opponents. They’d use colorful nicknames and “gimmicks” such as Devo, the escaped convict who skated for the Nevada Hot Dice, or El Numero, a luchador who was a member of the New York Enforcers.
RollerJam producers would even use “heel turns” such as the case of Lindsey Francis, who skated as a “good girl character” with the Florida SunDogs. Francis would turn manipulative and cunning, cheating her way to a victory by secretly joining the rival New York Enforcers. A clear cut heel turn, if I ever saw one.
The WSL also employed some familiar faces to pro wrestling fans. The main play-by-play commentator was former AWA and WWF announcer Ken Resnick. Former American Gladiator “Hawk” was brought in as a color commentator to portray a tough guy heel commentator alongside Resnick. In another wrestling connection, Marc Lloyd was a trackside commentator who would go on to a brief stint as an interviewer in WWE during the Ruthless Aggression era.
Despite strong funding and four seasons of broadcasts on TNN, RollerJam never became a “live” attraction. Much like pro wrestling organizations that go on tour to increase audience interest and revenues, the hopes for taking RollerJam on the road never materialized. Also, much like early WCW and TNA/Impact! the rotating audience at Universal Studios that came in to watch the show taping often was just trying to beat the heat of the Florida sun rather than be a fan of the product. They would often be confused at the storylines and characters and tended to seem disinterested on camera.
As roller derby fans grew unhappy with the turn towards a more entertaining show than sport, the real pro wrestlers weren’t happy either. Paul Heyman, the owner of ECW, wasn’t happy that (in his opinion) TNN was heavily advertising RollerJam over ECW despite ECW getting higher ratings. TNN network executives began to request ECW wrestlers appear on RollerJam to cross-promote the show and Tommy Dreamer and Axl Rotten would make appearances as “special enforcers” on a handful of episodes. Many ECW wrestlers and fans felt that TNN was only using ECW to bring audiences to a “stupid roller blading show” as ECW producer Rick Buffone once publicly called it.
Wrestling fans know Paul Heyman as a genius when it comes to promotion and wrestling storylines. Seizing the opportunity, he created one of ECW’s most memorable storylines using TNN and RollerJam as the punchline. Angry at TNN, Heyman created the character “Cyrus” played by wrestler Don Callis as the voice of “The Network.” Cyrus was an annoying killjoy heel who would ruin matches and interviews all in the name of “The Network.” Fans grew to resent “the Network” and, just as Heymen intended, fans began to direct that anger at TNN itself.
In 2000, the Monday Night War had been won as WWF was the clear winner in the weekly ratings. As the competition cooled off the viewers began tuning out of pro wrestling as the industry headed for a down period. As the ratings declined for both ECW and RollerJam TNN decided to pull the plug.
TNN attempted to rebrand itself as “TNN-The National Network” after it acquired WWF’s flagship show Monday Night RAW. RAW debuted on TNN on September 25, 2000, and despite the rumors that ECW and WWF would coexist, ECW was canceled just two weeks later. RollerJam continued on for a few more months, likely only because the episodes were already filmed, before airing its final episode on January 19, 2001. RollerJam closed out it’s run with their version of Wrestlemania called “Demolition Derby 2001.” After a total of 101 episodes over 4 seasons and just days over 2 years on the air, RollerJam’s run had come to an end.
In 2002, a year after the show ended “Rollersport” was formed as an attempt to revive the sport as a true athletic competition by acquiring former RollerJam skaters using their inline skates and a new track. Without the scripted sports entertainment, and the nation’s changing interests following 9-11, the fan following just wasn’t there and in 2003 the project collapsed.
In one final wrestling connection to RollerJam, two skaters Brian Gamble and Tim Washington went on to moderate success as pro wrestlers themselves in the mid-2000s. Gamble appeared with WWE a handful of times as enhancement talent or a background actor.
This show updated the sport for a new generation and was able to seize on pro wrestling’s major popularity of the ’90s. RollerJam used ingredients to attract the youth of the ’90s that would make me watch all over again today given the opportunity. Using high flying stunts, brute physicality, beautiful women, muscular male athletes, compelling storylines, bright colors, and outlandish characters made RollerJam perfect for its time and a wonderful addition to my teenage memories.