The Cost of Taking Up Roller Derby

by Meryl Williams

I wanted to start playing roller derby for a long time before I actually did it. Like so many before me, I saw Whip It! when it came out in 2009 and immediately came up with my derby name (Penny Pain, in case you’re wondering). I loved the idea of a female-dominated sport and finding a place on a team of women who love something as much as I do.

If you know someone who plays roller derby, you’ve probably seen someone excitedly tell you the things I’m about to tell you: Being on eight wheels is awesome, almost anyone can learn to skate, and everyone who plays roller derby lives and breathes it. (Kind of like CrossFit, except with more bruises and maybe fewer people doing Paleo.)

Growing up, I skated more than any other kid I knew. When the local roller rink held high school lock-ins, my friends schemed ways to get their boyfriends to come without their parents knowing and I was the only one legitimately excited about the idea of unlimited, overnight skating.

I rediscovered skating during a time of relative duress. I was coming to terms with the ending of the most serious relationship of my life. My ex-boyfriend had moved out, and subsequently I’d had to move somewhere cheaper. I was also in the midst of a sexual harassment complaint I’d filed against a Chicago cab driver, and the stress of waiting for the court process to be over was taking a toll. I didn’t know it then, but I needed to skate. Roller derby ended up giving me support, courage, and confidence during a time when I needed them most.

But it hadn’t been until I got my current job and paid off some fun ear surgery medical debt that I felt like I could justify the start-up costs required to play. I am so glad I took the plunge. I started skating in January and I haven’t wanted to stop. If it’s something you’ve considered, I want to break down some of those expenses for you. Trust me when I say it can be worth the investment.

The first thing I would recommend you do is go get yourself a copy of Roller Derby For Beginners. I read this great starter guide last spring and it was a huge help to me as a newbie — it has tips about protecting yourself on the track to decrease the likelihood of injury, how to get into peak derby shape, and how to take care of your gear. It’s where I learned I could safely wash my gross protective gear in the dishwasher (but maybe skip the dishes on that cycle).

Second, you’ll need to make some investments — but most of them are fun! Here’s a summation of the gear, league fees, insurance, and other expenses I shelled out for when I started skating:

Skates: My black Knight Rider G-80 skates retail for just under $100. I am lucky and have a badass speed skating uncle who helped me pick these out. I love them, and they are one of my most prized possessions. You can find less expensive options for around $75; just make sure you don’t show up to orientation with a pair of boot skates, or worse, inlines! There are no roller blades in derby.

Knee and elbow pads: I got my Triple 8 brand knee pads on for $36.99, and my elbow pads of the same brand were $32.99. If you can, try on a set of each of these before you buy so you make sure you get the correct size for your body. Some choose to invest in higher quality knee pads, particularly if they’ve experienced knee issues in the past.

Wrist guards: My Triple 8 wrist guards came from the same site at a cost of $19.99. My favorite story from my orientation back in January was how I was so clueless I put my wrist guards on backwards. Apparently it happens a lot, particularly to those of us who didn’t play sports in high school.

Mouth guard: Don’t skip this purchase! Mouth guards help protect your teeth, yes, but they can also help prevent concussions. The standard boil and bite mouth guard I got cost me $29.99, but in retrospect, that seems steeper than it needs to be — you can probably find one cheaper.

Helmet: My first helmet was a Triple 8 Brainsaver and I mostly bought it because it was blue. My second helmet is a similar model, but in a shade of blue I decided I prefer more. Each cost $39.99. You can absolutely do more research than I did — my main concerns were appearance and whether or not my hearing aids would be interfered with. The Brainsaver model lets my over-the-ear hearing aids breathe, which is good, because roller derby is a tough, sweaty workout.

League fee: I started skating with Derby Lite in Chicago, which was a program that taught you skating basics in Level One and skills and drills in Level Two. One 12-week session with Derby Lite cost $144-$216 depending on the level. For three months of practices, it wasn’t bad and I looked forward to skating with my friends and improving my skills each week. Now I skate with the Rose City Wreckers, the recreational league of Portland’s Rose City Rollers. I pay $30 each month in league fees, which go toward keeping the organization going as well as a ton of awesome league events.

Insurance: One other fee that came along with Rose City is insurance. The Rose City Rollers are a part of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), so they require all league members carry WFTDA insurance. This is a $40-$70 expense, depending on the time of year you join, but trust me, it’s an important expense. Roller derby is a rough and tumble sport. One of the most common questions people ask me about the sport is if the falls are fake, like in wrestling, and I assure you they’re not. I’ve seen skaters fall, and fall hard.

If you’re going to play roller derby, WFTDA’s insurance kicks in as a secondary insurance option should something happen to you on the track, be it during a bout or a practice. Because it’s secondary insurance, make sure you’re up to date on your primary. (It’s also not a bad idea to know which hospitals near where you play are in your network.)

There are a ton of other fun things you can get to play roller derby, like practice wear, decorative toe guards, and helmet stickers of your inevitable derby name, but those can always come later. Start skating and you’ll tumble down that Etsy rabbit hole before your know it, with the rest of us.

But if you’ve ever thought about joining roller derby, believe me: lacing up is worth your time. I’m in stronger shape than I’ve ever been, and I love skating with the women I’ve met through roller derby. Roll out!

Meryl Williams is a Chicago journalist who recently moved to Portland. She loves roller derby, upbeat music with depressing lyrics, and shamelessly ordering the Kids Pack-size popcorn at the movies. Sign up for her awesomeTinyLetter.

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