The true cost of competing in championship level roller derby from Australia
How much are you willing to sacrifice to play the sport your love competitively?
Roller derby and in particular playing the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFDTA) rule set has the beginning steps to bring many communities and cultures together regardless of geographic location. However, when you begin to play at high level competition the barrier for competing at a balanced playing field is challenging.
While I acknowledge that each country has its own barriers to entry. There are some systemic and infrastructural controls that create more complexity for geographically isolated competitive leagues. Here I would like to share with you the limitations that I have witnessed, experienced, am aware of through my career with the Victorian Roller Derby League (VRDL) in an effort to raise awareness of how more geographically isolated areas in the roller derby community have barriers to compete for both high level individual skaters and teams which may not be present for more local or American based teams.
Travelling when you’re in the VRDL All Star team is something you sign up for when you make the team. To enter and compete in sanctioned games and/or international recognised playoffs/championships as an All Star your games are all outside of Australia. Flights and accommodation are a sunk cost regardless of how well the team does in the tournament or playoff/championship.
Flights for each individual player can cost between $1,200 to $2,900 $AUD ($880-$2,100 USD) return for one tournament. Costs are dependent on; market price by airlines, airline loyalty programmes and dates of travel that are available close to the tournament. Almost always with geographically diverse teams there is at least one to two stopovers. I have even had some teammates include up to 4 stopovers on a one way trip. The cost to get 20 team members on one airline can result in spending more money than if you pay individually. With that in mind, we normally all chose our own paths and the team only chooses skaters to go who have a chance of game time. With the monetary cost of flights added there is also the time zone changes and lost time from travelling. The flight time to travel can be between 18 and 35 hours depending on route and commuting between locations.
Costs aside, international and long haul flying (which are presently VRDL’s only option for similar competitors) have additional risks that are not apparent when flying domestically. In Australia travelling with roller skates as carry on can be considered a flight risk. So you’re very likely to ‘voluntarily’ check in your skate bag. There have been more than a few occurrences where team mates have arrived, but their bags have not. On most occurrences their bags have arrived 2 days later than their arrival date. Resulting in a delayed number of bags being delivered on our doorstep just in time to actually play on game day. When I farewell my skate bag on the conveyor belt I make a little wish and wave “see you later” in hopes that I am not one who is left empty handed on the over side. However, your bag going missing does always cross your mind that the airline may never get them there and you’ll have to skate on whatever gear you can find from generous locals. Keep in mind you have to account for these 2 days in addition to your travelling time.
With the pandemic front of mind, illness is another challenge. Being in the air with hundreds of other people most likely crammed in together introduces other bugs and germs to be spread around. It’s not uncommon for team mates to get sick after landing due to being in the air for a long time and catching a cold or a nasty bug from someone else on the plane. The team are all hoping that they will recover in time for your first game. While I acknowledge this risk is present for all travellers the exposure rate is higher when you’re travelling long haul.
Lastly, all of this travel is visa dependent. Some other leagues struggle to get visas to be permitted in roller derby locations due to their home country and/or background. Particularly with America’s borders having stricter rules and restrictions over the years. Even if your skates arrived, you’ve passed the long commute and you’re not sick. You could be denied at the border for answering a question wrong or have your visa denied mid-flight. Although I have not experienced this myself, I have had some skaters forget and have their visas permitted last minute and another skater that was questioned extensively to consider whether they’re a paid athlete.
The additional costs for accommodation add up. Since this is more likely to be a week instead of a weekend, the cost for international travellers is around 5+ nights of accommodation. Where possible, the team try to get AirBnbs closer to the area as hotels are either poor quality or good quality at higher prices. On average accommodation has cost us $300 AUD ($220 USD) per person if we shared with 8 people. If we went alone it’d cost around $2,000 AUD ($1,500 USD). The additional consideration is some hotels also don’t allow you to cook or make your own food. Some hotels don’t even have cooking supplies either which AirBnb does have.
Regardless of which location the tournament is in, assuming it’s in America or Canada (All WFTDA Championships have been held in America since 2006. The only exclusion to this is Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2019) our costs are between $1,500 and $4,900 AUD ($1,100- $3,600 USD) for one trip on flights and accommodation only per skater.
Additionally, there is the cost of the dollar exchange for spending on food or amenities in the country. Presently on average for every $10 USD food item we spend it costs us $15.00 AUD. This excludes if you want to use your credit card or don’t have cash on hand which could then cost additional fees and there are the fees for getting cash out/exchanged. To keep costs down some skaters only eat out once or twice for the trip. The remaining amount is kept on supermarket shopping where they cook at the AirBnb.
Up until the pandemic hit globally I would have said that time is the most valuable resource all of us have. With the ability to spend more time at home (like writing this article) the lost time from being far away from other high level competing teams adds commuting time. There are some roller derby participants that travel hours each way to play with their team in their league of choice. However, with more time being taken away from people the energy which could have been spent invested in their league or development is needing to be focused on travelling.
When you consider the commute for a geographically isolated team to compete at a high level, once they have travelled 18–35 hours the time zone then changes their clock time by around a day (I call this going back in time to your visiting country) only to steal that day away from you when returning home again (going back forward in time for your home country). These days are quickly taken away from you which for most of us would be money earning days working at our regular employment roles. Every day that you take off work is another day that you can’t earn money to play the sport you love. On average I take about 7 to 10 days off work to be able to be in good condition to skate well. This does not include any leisure time excluding climatization. Some skaters can take 5 working days off if spaced out accurately. However, this is not well maintained on the body as you lose 2 days of travelling time and end up with 3 tournament days. If anything happens with your flights you may not arrive in time or worse you may get stuck halfway.
Other time losers
VRDL are not the only team that have to juggle the large time differences. Here’s the math for you on a number of different teams that compete international in some capacity.
Time difference with Dallas, Texas and…
Time zone changes also impact your body as fatigue sets in. To climatize you need at least 2–3 days of rest to get comfortable in your new surroundings before you’re able to compete at a high level. Even so, your first game/practice/skate session is shaking off cobwebs in your body to remind itself how to play roller derby. I always dread watching the local team face off against a team that just had a long haul travel trip as their faces and body just look tired (me totally included).
Staying eligible to be competitive
The current WFTDA Rankings system is not kind to geographically diverse teams like VRDL. In order to stay competitive teams must play 4 sanctioned games. Asia Pacific is the hardest hitting region with this rule. VRDL #1 in Asia Pacific has a 489 point gap between the #2 ranked Asia Pacific team Canberra (#14 globally). This is the largest ranking gap of all classified regions in the WFTDA with the present frozen rankings in 2020. For VRDL to play competitively above Canberra in rankings they have no option but to leave Australia. It is not in VRDL’s best interests with the rankings system to play teams from Canberra or below as our ranking would go down due to the unrealistic expected score difference. As much as I would love to get 60+ point jams consistently we just aren’t there yet anymore with the loss of the jammer lap point (sheds a tear).
If VRDL were not able to get 4 sanctioned games in one tournament the average cost of $2,400 AUD ($1,800 USD) per person would need to be added again for another trip elsewhere to another competitor. This is a high decision making factor for many of the team when deciding tournaments. An example of this is our participation in Georgia W Tush in 2019 instead of the Big O. As much as we love participating in Oregon, if we can’t get enough games we’ve just added thousands of dollars to our expenses individually. Especially when competing at a high level, you’re playing the same teams most of the time, the only difference is the location.
Finding and maintaining support for our team’s high costs are a hard sell to businesses. As our team does not often compete domestically and mainly in America and Canada we rely heavily on our brand and good results rather than a presence in Victorian stadiums or arenas. Our league has invited teams to fly to Melbourne, Australia to share high level roller derby with our community and been turned down due to the costs noted above.
The sacrifices are passed onto our officiating members too. Asking Australian officials to volunteer their time and talents to interpret the WFTDA rule set similarly in alignment to Championship level officials is a challenging request. It is not uncommon to have variances in interpretation of officiating between countries. After all, we are all a little bit diverse! As much as we celebrate this diversity our team does spend extra effort preparing strategies and plays for championship level games which are performed overtime in earlier games throughout the season at American tournaments to make officials of that level aware of what they are likely to to see at our games. This also makes them more accustomed to our level of play and have a alignment of understanding of the rule sets interpretation.
Every year our team changes it’s roster. Not only because our talent changes, but due to the high monetary cost, time required and other personal goals that get put on hold until you feel you’ve reached your peak in competing. Each skater on our team would spend on average $7,200 AUD / $5,300 USD a year for their travel season (assuming 3 trips on average cost $2,400 AUD). Many of our members are transfers from other Asia Pacific leagues whose teams could not afford to play higher level teams consistently abroad. As they have spent a fair amount of years learning roller derby from their home league, transferring to VRDL and then climbing the ranks to make the All Star team they become tired and prepared for a more… local challenge. Next time you see a skater or official from a long haul country be sure to thank them and appreciate their presence. Acknowledging that the cost for them to participate is high brings us one big step further to understanding their sacrifices.
The pandemic may introduce new opportunities for roller derby to celebrate more regional and local derby communities coming back together. Without the structural requirements in place during 2020 and potentially some of 2021 the Asia Pacific region in particular will likely see a change in opportunities for more domestic and local play. I hope with more people aware of the challenges faced by our team located in a distant country that the future of roller derby becomes easier for our upcoming athletes in Australia, New Zealand and Japan to become globally recognised for their talents.