Retro sports? Why not. In an effort to nab a younger audience, The Nashville Network has decided to bring roller derby back to the small screen. Roller Jam, which combines elements of professional wrestling with roller skating, will air on Friday nights on TNN from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. starting on January 15, and will be rebroadcast on the network on Saturday afternoons. CBS Cable, parent company of TNN, has partnered with the World Skating League (WSL), which it also owns a stake in, to produce 26 episodes, with each two-hour show featuring two of the WSL’s five teams-the California Quakers, the Texas Twisters, the Illinois Inferno, the Florida Sundogs and the Nevada High Rollers-doing battle.
Despite enjoying some success in the 1940s and again in the early 1970s, roller derby, for the most part, has languished on television. Sporadic broadcast scheduling and poor marketing support are the main reasons why it’s failed to break through in the U.S., says Jerry Seltzer, commissioner of the WSL. However Seltzer, who is also serving as a consultant on Roller Jam, believes the sport can still work on TV.
While the original rules of roller derby remain intact, this time around the producers have added some features to make it more accessible and more, um, alluring to today’s generation of viewers-namely, males ages 12 to 34. The oval track will be longer (with a sharper incline), participants will use in-line skates rather than the old quad roller skates, and each team will be comprised of five men and five women, all of whom, TNN has assured, will be dressed in skimpy attire.
Indeed, TNN is relying heavily on the look and the personalities of the players to sell the sport. Producers have already promised that a good portion of each show will be dedicated to player profiles. ‘As much as we’re establishing Roller Jam as a sport-as sports entertainment-as we move down the road, character development will become a predominant part of the program,’ says Patty Ricciardelli, director of marketing at TNN.
With such a format, comparisons to the WWF’s and WCW’s shows become automatic. Ricciardelli doesn’t dismiss the similarities, readily admitting that RJ is directly courting wrestling’s audience.
Developing a property that capitalizes on the ratings success of televised wrestling is a wise programming move towards building a younger audience base, analysts say. But whether or not a sport that failed to capture the imaginations of viewers nearly 30 years ago will work now, in what has become a decidedly more fragmented television market, remains to be seen.
‘After 45 years of television, something original in television is something that hasn’t been done in the last 30 days,’ says Bishop Sheen, an entertainment analyst at First Union Capital Markets. In order for Roller Jam to succeed, advises Sheen, ‘it will need to be a cross between American Gladiators and the Atlanta Olympics. Those are the production values it will have to have.’
Jon Peisinger, president of Creative Branding Systems, the company charged with overseeing licensing for the property, is banking on both the nostalgia of boomers who remember the sport as children and the popularity of in-line skating and extreme sports with today’s kids to provide the audience for RJ.
So far, Peisinger has yet to announce any licensees, but expects to grant some licenses in the categories of basic apparel and accessories before the new year. The first wave of licensed RJ merchandise will be available at all mass retail outlets beginning in January.