When NFTs came to roller derby, roller derby put up a fight

When you think of roller derby, you probably think of tough people on roller skates dashing down a track and hitting each other. You probably don’t think about the blockchain. But crypto has entered the arena whether Roller Derby is ready for it or not.

Three roller derby skaters – Lady Trample (real name: Samara Pepperell), Miss Tea Maven (Jennifer Dean) and Sharon Tacos (Cailin Klein) – tried to start an NFT project this month. NFTs or non-fungible tokens are digital assets stored on the blockchain. One of the most well-known uses of NFTs is to prove ownership of digital art, like the cartoon monkeys you may have seen or Reese Witherspoons current twitter avatar (and latest business venture). But you don’t “own” the art; Rather, they have a token that represents it. You can also make a lot of money by selling these tokens.

Like crypto itself, NFTs are polarizing. Some see these digital assets as the grand new frontier of art collecting, digital ownership, and community. Many other people think it’s an environmentally destructive scam where a small group get very rich with lines of code of no real value or benefit. This criticism played out to a lesser extent when the Derby NFT project was announced.

In some ways, roller derby and NFTs are similar. For many, they’re not just a sport or an investment opportunity. They’re also communities that outsiders don’t understand. They have both been accused of being a cult or a fad.

But these theoretical parallels don’t mean that the roller derby and NFT communities go hand-in-hand in real life. Trample, Maven and Tacos thought they would and formed ‘Bout Time NFTTT. (Roller derby games are called battles and each of the skaters has a T in their derby name.)

If you follow roller derby you know who at least one if not all three of the founders of ‘Bout Time’ are: they are top athletes who have played for the best roller derby teams in the world. Tacos came up with the idea in January. She says she got into crypto during the pandemic and has the skills and knowledge to produce her own NFT collection. Inspired by other NFT projects who have donated to various causes, Tacos thought she could do the same for Roller Derby by donating a portion of the proceeds to struggling leagues. She approached two skaters whose skills would be needed for the project: Trample is an artist who could draw the images, and Maven works in marketing and could promote the project.

It’s not uncommon for skaters to start their own derby-related businesses, from making gear and apparel to owning the shops that sell them. But these are all tangible goods and services that make sense to people. NFTs would break new ground in derby consumption.

Roller derby could use some help. The sport has largely been shut down during the pandemic. Two years later, it’s still far from recovered and probably never will. Many leagues lost their venues, their revenue streams and their members. A cash injection could do wonders for them. The three also saw this as a way to generate more external interest in derby, or as a starting point for other uses of NFTs and the blockchain that could also popularize the sport.

You can see where they would get this idea from. Many other sports leagues and athletes are getting into NFTs, so why not these and why not them? And derby’s do-it-yourself ethos feels similar to the decentralized community that most successful NFT projects – and the NFT space itself – encompass. Maven said she also sees this as an opportunity for more women to get involved in a largely male-dominated industry. Trample drew the basic image of a roller derby skater and hundreds of interchangeable elements, from the skates to the tattoos, to be layered on top. They generated thousands of images, each with its own NFT.

“It was just trying to be a broad representation of the sport and a cool way to create something that’s collectible,” Trample said.

They announced the project with an Instagram Live on March 9, along with a website providing full details, social media accounts, and a Discord channel.

Here’s how it should all work: On March 31, ‘Bout Time’ would drop 10,000 NFTs for people to buy for $25 in a cryptocurrency called Polygon. Depending on how many NFTs they sold, they donated up to 50 percent of their proceeds to roller derby leagues, with NFT holders deciding which leagues as a group. Another 5 percent would go to non-profit conservation organizations to offset the environmental costs of minting the NFTs. The rest of the money would be divided among the three, minus any other fees they would incur and any taxes they would owe. If they sold all 10,000 NFTs, everyone would get a nice chunk of change, but nobody got rich here. Not from initial sales, anyway — NFTs, of course, have been known to skyrocket in value.

One has to wonder if there has been enough crossover between the Roller Derby community and the NFT community to sell 10 of them, let alone 10,000. But ‘Bout Time didn’t think it had to be. People who are interested in NFTs buy from collections that don’t depict things they like or do all the time, from cartoon cats to pixelated punks. Why not derby skaters too?

“I think the artwork is super cool,” Tacos said. “I love most things Trample designs and I’m confident other people will love it too.”

Ideally, they said, most of the money would not come from the Derby community at all. But it would go back in.

That’s not how most members of the derby community — or at least the most vocal sections of it — saw things. In hundreds of comments across Derby-related social media channels, the three have been accused of many of the same things the NFT world in general is criticized for. People didn’t understand what NFTs were or what they were going to buy. They said NFTs are scams and Ponzi schemes. You saw celebrities use their fame to make money off their fans. They sponsored a project that harmed the environment. If you don’t know much about NFTs and can’t grapple with them, it’s easy to see their downsides. It’s much harder to see how good or useful they are.

However, unlike most NFT projects, this criticism came almost entirely from her own community, which she has supported in the past and who she thought the project could help. The three expected some of this and thought they were ready to address it. But little did they know how caustic, numerous and consistently negative the comments would be. They had supporters, but most of them were afraid to express that support publicly lest they too be attacked. ‘Bout Time also feared any leagues they contributed to would face similar animosity. Social media combined with the derby community can lead to some pretty nasty build ups.

“They just want to argue, and I’m not a fighter,” said Trample. “It’s not in my nature – on the track, yes. Off the track, no.”

In the end, the three skaters decided it wasn’t worth pissing off the roller derby community to create what could have become of this new one. They decided to pull the plug.

“If this community doesn’t want us to do this project, then we’re not going to do this project for them,” Trample said. “The only reason was to raise money for the derby community and they spoke out so strongly against us.”

So “Bout Time NFTTT” is over before it even started. But all three say they believe NFTs — or at least the blockchain technology they’re based on — are here to stay. Tacos is already involved with another NFT project that may find a more receptive audience. Or maybe not: some reports say the NFT bubble is about to burst, with average selling prices falling in recent months. On the other hand, people have been saying for years that the crypto market will bottom out, and it still does.

For now, it looks like roller derby isn’t ready for NFTs just yet. Or maybe it finds another, unique derby way into it. As one person on a Derby gossip Facebook group heatedly discussing the topic noted, “blockchain” would make a good Derby name.

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