Open borders for Roller Derby

Being a member of a sports federation would greatly benefit the development of Finnish roller derby as a whole.  However, the prevailing foundation of federations and associations is Finland is so solid and old fashioned that it will take time and persistence to break through it.

Difficulties booking practice time at local sports halls since traditional sports take up the best practice times? Complaints of marks left on the floor and a ban on using tape to mark the track? Constant questions on what kind of sport it is and whether bats and balls are used? This is what a roller derby aficionado typically keeps hearing.

The situation is quite understandable since derby is, regardless of its continuous growth, a fairly unknown sport to the general public and also to administrators who decide on practice times. However, times are changing. Last autumn an umbrella organization for Finnish roller derby called Roller Derby Finland ry (RDF) was founded and they are working extra hard on improving derby’s position in societal debate. The aim is to gain a sturdier foundation for derby within the core of the sporting world.
RDF is currently undergoing negotiations with the Finnish Skating Association on whether roller derby could be a part of their range of sports. However, discussions with the Skating Associations Managing Director Sauli Pollari and with the different committees have been going for a long while now and have taken up a tremendous amount of time over the years, says RDF chairman Raisa Siivola.

Being a member of a  sports federation has been an aspiration for Finnish roller derby ever since it took its first steps. It all comes down to nothing less than the Olympics.

Who dictates the rules?

- The International Federation of Roller Sports has approached roller derby organizations with interest, keeping an eye out for the 2020 summer Olympics demonstration sports, Raisa Siivola says.

- Everyone is of course excited about it. Question is, which ruleset would be used.

Derby is played around the world with many different rules. In Europe, bouts are played according to the WFTDA's (Women's Flat Track Derby Association) rule set, which is also widely used in North America. In the US, however, there is also another influential association  USARS (USA Roller Sports), which has its own set of derby rules.

- The rules, which will be selected to the Olympic range of sports, define what rules the game will be played to in the future – thus the worst case scenario would be that the USARS rules might overrun all others, Siivola explains.

- WFTDA is a kind of a driving force for modern roller derby. Its members are associations and sports clubs, and it has been created to oversee that the primary decision-making power will always be in the hands of its members. USARS co-operates with businesses, and roller derby is just a roller sport for them.

Siivola points out that WFTDA updates and supplements their rules all the time.

- It reflects expertise and passion for the development of the sport. In addition, WFTDA seems to make a genuine effort to understand the varied field within sports club activities in Europe.
Thus RDF wants derby to be played with the WFTDA rules on both Olympic and international levels. And the Skating Association is the only party in Finland that has contacts in the matter with the decisive European umbrella organization, the International Federation of Roller Sports or FIRS (Fédération Internationale de Roller Sports).

Therefore RDF is so persistently aiming to become a part of the Skating Association's range of sports.

- When national sports federations have enough derby clubs in their league portfolios, FIRS will have to unify and formalize the derby rules used by its members. Naturally, RDF, as well as all the other national parties want in on this discussion, Siivola says.

As one of the Skating Association's sport committees, RDF would be able to join in on any decision making concerning roller derby. In other words, RDF would have a say to which rule set should become the official international standard.

- At the same time, all the clubs can benefit from using the Skating Association's brand in the work they put in for their club, Siivola points out.

Threshold questions about insurance

In practice, RDF has no choice but to set up their own sports federation or to be a part of the Finnish Skating Association. Being accepted in to the Skating Associations range of sports would bring many benefits.

- They have an existing organization, contacts and procedures. It’s a complete association set up, which already includes different roller sports, such as speed skating and marathon.

The licensing of players would be convenient on the basis of readily available models and thus derby actives would not have to embark on running a heavy structured organization. In addition, it would be possible to certify derby coaching and thus make it comparable with the coaching of other sports. This would increase the value of Finnish derby in the eyes of the world.

- Sport-specific coaching is also internationally comparable, if coach training is organized by the federation, Siivola summarized.

It would be difficult to establish our own sports federation. Everything would have to be built from scratch, and because operations vary and there are a lot of small clubs, the tools for completing such an enormous task are too few. Furthermore, the players' insurance base is very diverse: everyone has their own personal insurance. Lacking its own start-up capital,  the membership fees the roller derby federation would have to collect would be so high that the small clubs could not afford them.

So onwards to a Skating Association membership it is. The matter, however, is complicated by the association’s reluctant attitude, which in RDF’s point of view has been masked in the form of raising questions about insurances.

- The current situation, according to the Skating Association, is that roller derby is not wanted into their sports portfolio because derby insurance premiums would increase too much, Siivola says.

- This is not true from our point of view. If we would apply for full membership, insurance premiums may rise, but at the same time the association would get new members.
Siivola thinks that Finland could follow the example of our western neighbors. In Sweden, roller derby is a part of the Skating Association's range of sports.

Floorball of the 2010’s

What if we would co-operate directly with the Finnish national umbrella organization for all sports and try to influence FIRS through them? Do we really need the Skating Association?

The Finnish Sports Confederation Valo's Secretary General Teemu Japisson has a clear opinion on the matter. He thinks that Valo’s membership should not be the starting point for RDF.

Japisson says that Valo is lobbying for sports in Finland and offers services to its member organizations. But a sports registry would surely be useful for RDF, right? Japisson’s view is that co-operation with the Skating Association would be more worthwhile. He seems to swear by sport specific co-operation.

- Running your own organization takes up an enormous amount of time and energy. Which should rather be used towards developing the sport and seeking visibility for it.

He believes that the Ministry of Education and Culture, which decides on financial aid for sports associations, would for example see working together with a sports federation more positive than establishing our own organization and then applying for state aid eligibility.

- It’s pure stupidity if the Finnish Skating Association doesn’t accept roller derby as part of their activities, he states.

- Derby is a bit like floorball in the turn of the 80’s. Floorball players were banned from using municipal halls, the excuse being that the sticks left marks on the floors. Those are the kind of answers you give when you’re a bit confused. And if you claim the facility shifts to be full booked – even though they actually usually aren'tsome reason must always be give to why a particular group cannot be accepted.

Japisson talks a lot about communication, influencing and new forms of practice. It sounds lofty, but what does Valo’s strategy mean in practice, i.e. in sports clubs?

- Yes, we can easily discuss on a general level one can't get a grip on, he says laughing.
In short, it is a fact that a cat is the only one that can lift its own tail.

- In Finland we have not been able to advertise the work that’s being done in Valo and sports clubs. This is something that needs to be actively brought up.

And from a lobbyist's view point, exposing the diversity of different sports is valuable, Japisson notes. Not everyone plays football or ice hockey.

Japisson seems genuinely interested in derby’s position, although the Secretary General doesn’t seem to have anything concrete to offer for the sport. But, but. Derby and its players have also attracted interest in others operating within the sports organization. It might in fact be that it is derby which has something to give – to the whole Finnish sports field.

Time to break the boundaries

- Roller derby is a counterforce to current atmosphere and may be of interest even to those young people and young adults who want “something more” out of their sports activity. The constant concern is that we need to get young people moving, but can we get them to join a sport which smells of sweatpants and rides on traditional values? wonders Katja Arpalo, who used to work in The Finnish Sport for All Association's organizational branch.

- I imagine that roller derby would also be of interest to those who don’t get enough exercise, which is the most difficult target group, she says.

Valo’s strategy focuses on children's and young people's exercising and succeeding in sports. In other words, it seems to be important to achieve success in international competitions.

Arpalo points out that The Finnish Sport for All Association had a good head start in adult recreational club activities, where derby could also have an important place.

- We had some good experiences. Would like to see the work continue with Valo, she says.
Valo is, however, going through a period of reorganization at the moment, and there won’t be enough energy for everything, at least not right away. It takes time until new policies become more clear.
Besides, sports organizations have long traditions.

- It may be a slow process to get a new voice heard, Arpalo thinks.

- Sports organizations also have certain structures which are difficult to break down. The foundation is old and a little stiff, but being affiliated may be the only way to get grants, and not to mention other support.

Financial aid for associations may be obtained from the Ministry of Education and Culture. It is no longer mandatory to be a member of a sports federation to receive a grant - for a sports club it is enough to be registered as an association. However, being a member of a sports federation increase the chances of getting grants because the giving party can be sure that the money goes to what it was applied for.

- If we wish to have viable club activity, it would be good to take new sports into account. There is more to derby than just exercise and sports. On an umbrella organization level, the emphasis is on community and this is considered as the foundation of club activities. Thus it would be great if a community oriented sport like roller derby would find its home base in a sports federation, if that is what they want, Arpalo sums up.

- Instead of keeping the borders closed, they should be opened, she says.

Fortunately, breaking the boundaries is not a strange thing for roller derby aficionados. So there is a ray of hope.

Skating Association’s decision in June

In June, The Finnish Skating Association's board will discuss accepting roller derby into the sports federation. According to the Skating Association's Managing Director Sauli Pollari, there have been a number of reasons why the case has not progressed yet.

- Our members usually consist of clubs and not individual sports. Another big issue were also the insurance premiums. They obviously are high in derby, and we have discussed whether it would raise other athletes' insurance fees.

In addition, the existing sports within the Skating Association’s are individual sports, and as a team sport derby would be an exception of a rule.

- But I do not find derby becoming a part of the sports range impossible. It would be a different solution, but it could be quite functional.

Pollari sees a bright future for derby at the moment, although he doesn’t speculate about the Skating Association's board's final decision. 

- By the way, I went to see the USA game last autumn. It was a fast paced, impressive happening.

Originally published in KARU 1/2013
Text: Maiju Ristkari
Translation: Adelle From Hell