Sunday, January 11, 2015

Checking Out the Cool Kids

I think Roller Derby could teach fencing a lot about how to be a spectator sport. 

We seem to care about that: Over the last few years I've seen a lot of changes in the fencing rules attributed to the motivation of making fencing more spectator-friendly. The Las-Vegas style in-mask lighting systems used at the Olympics. The pointless (and baffling) rules about non-combativity. The brief switch to clear visors (until they turned out to be a safety hazard). Clearly these changes are not enough to attract crowds--at least in the U.S.--as the appearance of a non-fencer or fencing-relative at an event becomes a story for dinner, at NACs. (E.g., "Hey, someone wandered in today and asked me if we got paid to do this!"

As I mentioned in my last post, the Blood and Thunder Roller Derby World Cup co-habited the Dallas Convention Center during the December 2014 NAC. They had a lot of spectators. I mean...a LOT. Like, thousands, over the four days of the competition. They built bleachers around each of the competition practice rings to accommodate them.

Sometimes the relative unpopularity of fencing as entertainment is blamed on our arcane rules. That doesn't seem to be an impediment to the Derby: I spent two hours watching matches and even after having the scoring explained to me I couldn't figure out how to keep track. (It involves counting how many times one team member, designated the "jammer," passes members of the opposing team as she skates laps around the track, dodging interference.)

Trying to keep track of this for yourself is a bit like trying to follow the score in Calvin Ball.

Watching the officials didn't make things much clearer. The roller refs not only had as many arcane hand signals as fencing, they threw these signs while skating around the track (backwards, much of the time). 

Did my clueless-ness affect my enjoyment of the sport? Not a bit. I appreciated the speed and grace (yes grace) of the best teams. I was infected by the enthusiasm of the crowd. 

And these fans were IN to it. Dressed to the nines.

Wearing their allegiances proudly

They were waving SIGNS

Heck, they had MASCOTS

(Aforementioned beaver referenced in sign, above)
All of which led me to wonder, if fencing is so hot for popularity, what can we learn from roller derby?
Remember that nugget of insight in the Athlete Handbook I cited in my last post? "The purpose of uniform color or design is for audience interest..." 

Well Roller Derby competitors are nothing if not interesting.

Sakonnet River Roller Rats

Steel City Derby Demons

Skaters from London Roller Girls, London Rockin
Rollers and Croyden Roller Derby as
featured in Flat Track Fashion

The truth is that fashion--fun, rollicking and unconstrained--makes a sport more accessible. Distinctive team or personal uniforms not only make it easier to tell competitors apart, how an athlete dresses signals something about his or her attitude and personality. Florence Griffith Joyner exploded on the international stage not just because of her blazing speed, but because her flamboyant 4-inch nails and the flashy one-legged running outfits she designed for herself. Not that such distinctiveness is without controversy--think how much grief Venus Williams gets for her fashion choices on the court. 

So hey--USFA, if you want to need bleachers at fencing competition to accommodate the crowds, encourage individuality and style on the strip. Don't just grudgingly allow athletes to submit mask designs for approval (of which all of Three have received the official nod)--foster some real personal flair. Several Olympic level athletes are already fashion models, working with major brands. (I'm looking at YOU Race and Miles and Tim.) Why not use these guys as ambassadors, inviting designers to turn a critical and creative eye on our uniforms? Why not follow the lead of the FIE and hold a competition for best redesign of the uniform (though perhaps with a little more emphasis on practicality than the FIE 100 designs.)

And what's to stop this from happening? Maybe, in part, our own attitudes. When Tim Morehouse remarked on Joe Deucher's red knickers at the Dallas NAC, some of the comments on his Facebook post included "silly and cheap,"hideous,"disgusting" and "ugly." Good. Fashion should provoke controversy. There should be room for "best and worst dressed" at every competition, as well as the athletic champions. And guys? If dressing up isn't your thing, remember--you can always stick to basic white. 

There--happy? Now if you need me, I'll be fencing over there--I'm the one with the badger mask, and the batman fingerless glove on my off hand. 

1 comment:

  1. I wonder why there's such resistance to sartorial variety in the fencing world? I'd chalk it up to lack of time/inclination to "splash out" but those responses to red knickers are pretty strong. Anyone?