The Cost of Taking Up Roller Derby

Hittin’ a bitch on eight wheels ain’t cheap.

Photo: Mark Nockleby

Four years ago, coming off a bad breakup of an even worse relationship and with an excess of angst and free time, I started playing roller derby. Never mind that I’d never roller skated a day in my life and I was never what you might call coordinated by any stretch of the imagination. I heard about it from a friend who skates. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: You play roller derby?

Her: Yep.

Me: Is it hard to get on a team?

Her: Yep

Me: I’m in.

I’m not sure what madness overtook me but it took me at the perfect time, because there was a intro set of classes being offered by the local league which started the next week and a skate shop just down the street where I could get all the gear I’d need.

It turned out they offered a starter package, containing a entry-level pair of skates, knee and elbow pads, wrist guards, a mouth guard and a helmet, for what I was assured was the low price of $300. I asked the woman working the counter if I was going to look like a total asshole showing up for class with all this gear and having no idea what I was doing. She told me that I would be fine, everyone would be beginners, and that’s what the classes were for. It turned out that she was mostly but not all the way right.

I hauled all my gear home and signed up for the ten week block of classes, which — serendipity! — also cost $300. At this point I’m not sure what kind of fugue state I was operating in as I was basically blindly dumping money into a pit made of roller skates and past emotional torment, but I was committed. No backing out now.

When I showed up for the first class I quickly learned a few things. The first one was that the woman at the skate shop had totally lied to me and there were people in the class that not only had skated before but could do things like turn around and skate backwards. The second one was that the boil and bite mouthguard that had a strap that attached to my helmet and looked like some kind of orthodontic device that gets filled with paste when you’re getting fitted for a retainer was not what the cool kids wore. I honed my thousand yard stare for the two hour class and went home and had a total bratty hissy fit breakdown because I had never experienced not being able to do something as an adult while surrounded by other people that were excelling at said thing. Once I got that out of my system I vowed to catch up, and fast.

I started heading down the peninsula weekly to the closest roller rink to get some outside practice in ($9 per skate sesh). I bought one of those cool kids mouthguards that you could talk and breathe and drink water while wearing (and didn’t connect to your helmet) ($25). I swapped out some components on my cheapo starter skates ($25). I finished up the ten week starter class and transitioned into the rec league program ($25 a month). I paid a cobbler to sew a little loop onto the tongue of my skates so it wouldn’t slip to the side and let my laces rub my ankle raw (best $15 I ever spent). I bought a bunch of Bay Area Derby shirts, hats and hoodies (to date my best guess is around $200). In short, I had the derby fever, and I had it bad.

I was skating every opportunity I got and making progress at the rec level, but I wanted more. When yearly tryouts to make the league proper came around, I jumped on board. At this point, my skill level had outgrown the extremely basic starter skates that came with the beginner package. They were heavy and clunky and had plastic trucks. I was ready to upgrade.

This time I was going in with eyes open to the roller skate retail world. I had seen the realities of what it could cost to get some high-quality wheels on your feet. I did some research, tried on a few different models, and did some mild agonizing with the help of the skate shop (“But what will they feel like once they’re broken in?” “You’re just going to have to wait and find out.”). I decided on the Riedell 495s with Revenge plates, Roll-line toe stops and Radar Bullet wheels. I am embarrassed to type this but they clocked in as by far the most expensive shoes that I have ever or will ever own at $595. My mom bought them for me and I was immensely grateful. If you decide to take up roller derby, I recommend you get you a mom that will buy your skates for you.

Around this time I also upgraded my pads. The first time I took a real hit and hit the floor, I realized the starter level protective gear was also not cutting it. I invested in some real pads that were made for derby and could take a beating — 187 Derby Pro knee and elbow pads ($90 and $35, respectively).

I passed tryouts. I got drafted to a team. I was a real derby player! My dues increased to $50 a month. I bought uniforms — a dark jersey ($35), a light jersey ($35) and a reversible scrimmage tank ($30). Along the way I decided to go cheer on our AllStars at WFTDA Champs in Nashville (probably around $500, with flight/hotel/copious food and drink). I roadtripped it up to Eugene to do some cheering and some heckling at the Big O ($200?). I went to Tinseltown Showdown in Los Angeles three times — once as a spectator and twice as a skater (probably around $400 or so).

I also started lifting weights and buying protein powder. I got a great deal on personal training but it still added up ($1000 over the course of a year). Protein powder had to be replenished every few months at $30 a pop. Also needing replenishing every few months is the vodka I spray on my pads to help keep the funk down between washings ($10/fifth) and the denture cleaner I soak my mouthguard in to keep it from . . . growing stuff (I learned the hard way that rinsing it with water is not enough) ($6/120 tablets). I also started engaging in what’s turning out to be a tried and true ritual with my liquor store guy, wherein I request “the cheapest fifth of vodka you have” and he offers me three or four differently priced options, as if someone who marches into a liquor store and requests such a thing is apt to be picky.

A few years in I snapped a ligament in my ankle (the anterior talofibular, if you were wondering) during a routine scrimmage. This added a visit to urgent care, some x-rays, a follow-up appointment and some physical therapy ($424), a fancy brace ($32) and a bunch of Ubers because I couldn’t ride my bike to work ($40). As an additional fun result of this, I now have an old-person-like weather-related malady, which is to say that when it’s cold out, my ankle aches.

Along the way I’ve maintained my skates and bought new sets of wheels as they’ve worn down and new bearings because I’m too lazy to clean the old ones. New laces, new toe stops, pivot cups, mouthguards and other sundries also go on the the list. Let’s also not forget to mention the numerous angst beers consumed after practices while commiserating with my teammates about making rosters, doing drills and who said what to who and how they said it. I’m going to estimate that at an extremely conservative $400 over the past four years.

In summary:

  • $1,515 on equipment and gear
  • $2,355 on league dues, skating clinic and rink entry
  • $1,100 on travel, both as a spectator and a skater
  • $200 on repping my league and looking fresh
  • $496 on getting hurt and getting better
  • $1,000 on personal training
  • $670 on consumables (protein powder and angst beers)
  • $84 on inhibiting bacterial growth (vodka and denture tablets)

A total of $7,420. And I’m sure I forgot some things. Being confronted with this number is a little shocking. I knew it would be high but I wasn’t expecting this. I will say that the emotional payout of finding a new community of like-minded women that just want to strap on some skates and hit a bitch has been, shall I say, priceless. But still. $7,000??? Excuse me. I gotta go skate it out.

Julia Sheng skates for Bay Area Derby, enjoys a good post-practice beer, and has been known to offset some of her derby costs by selling her bone marrow. She would like you to know all thoughts are her own and not representative of Bay Area Derby’s take on the world.

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