DNN Retrospective, 2010: Growing Pains
This is the fourth article a year-by-year retrospective series we're posting in the week leading up to DNN's 5th Anniversary. If you're just joining in, the series starts with Justice's take on 2007.
By the start of 2010, we found ourselves struggling to keep up with the accelerating global spread of modern roller derby. Drew Barrymore's derby flick Whip It may have flopped at the box office in late 2009, but we'd seen before with A&E's 2006 series Rollergirls that even a mainstream media "failure" had the capacity to turn a new, geographically diverse constituency on to derby. The sport was going truly global.
Where Rollergirls spread the sport to parts of North America outside major metro areas, Whip It broke the language barrier. Derby had long since established an international presence in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and other parts of Northern Europe, but always locales where English was at least a nearly universal second language. By early 2010, after Whip It, derby leagues were flourishing in France and throughout Latin America, areas where English fluency had never taken hold.
International competition was now taking place on several continents. London and Berlin each hosted major tournaments, and Adelaide Roller Derby in Australia dethroned the Philly Roller Girls as hosts of the world's biggest roller derby competitive event. A trickle of feedback the previous year became a torrent in 2010: international leagues positively gushed at us about the critical role DNN played in their development, by providing a look at how top leagues played the sport, and helping them identify and connect with their own neighbors.
For the first time, we began to realize that DNN wasn't just a few derby nerds tilting at windmills in hopes of getting the wider world to see modern roller derby as a sport. We had become a lifeline for people in remote corners of the world who had also been bitten by the derby bug, and were desperate for any kind of resource to help them figure out how to actually do it.
Derby was growing fast, and DNN would have to grow with it. It would not all be smooth sailing... but, if you've got to have a problem, let it be "too much roller derby!" It was a very exciting time.
There's never enough.
Every month of 2010 brought a new major event, with interesting matchups warranting the attention of anyone who was paying attention. ECDX begat Wild West Showdown, begat the Midwest Brewhaha; Fall Brawl became Spring Roll, Battles for the Coast and on the Bank warranted similar attention, and before you knew it, we could count the year's free weekends on one hand (just like everyone in derby).
The DNN team grew, too, from the 3 of us in 2008 to several dozen in 2009. In 2010, over 200 people would lend their time, skills, and creativity to some element of DNN's offerings. Many hands make light work; but, many hands also make for more time dedicated to management and training. Adding people extended our reach dramatically, but also stretched thin the time of the core crew.
By summer, looking down the barrel of another Derby Deathmarch, we realized that something had to give. We were facing some pretty serious expectations from the community, and it wasn't going to be physically possible to put in the necessary hours to meet those expectations while simultaneously holding down full employment. Laws of physics, don't you know.
So we were faced with a stark choice: scale back our offerings to a level sustainable with our all-volunteer model, or find a way for DNN to provide some personal income to open up our time.
Like anybody who adopts derby as a lifestyle, rather than just a pastime, we were burning through our personal funds at a steady clip. And, like any derby devotee, we were happy to do so; work is what you do so that you can do the things you want to do, and with DNN we had found a very satisfying way to be part of the global roller derby revolution.
That said, even without the aforementioned time pressures, our personal budgets were reaching the breaking point. Thankfully, we weren't on our own.
Our tentative experiments with sponsorship and ad sales in 2008 had blossomed in 2009, with charter sponsor Sin City Skates soon joined by fiveonfive magazine, Fast Girl Skates, and Atom Wheels in providing financial support for DNN. 2010 brought Sin in Linen, Riedell, Cruz Skate Shop, and The Bruised Boutique as additional significant sponsors, with many other businesses advertising at lower levels.
Just as we'd begun to see how geographically distributed derby skaters looked to us as a resource to learn the sport, we also discovered that we'd become a vital avenue by which fledgling businesses could reach the roller derby market. We've taken this responsibility just as seriously; to this day, we pay special attention to the bottom of our advertising menu, to make sure we're providing small derby businesses with a viable tool for growth.
Other derby businesses helped us in different ways. Wicked Skatewear bent our ears at RollerCon 2009, impressing upon us the opportunity we were missing by not offering limited-edition DNN items to our funding contributors. With their help, we conducted successful fund drives to support our travel costs for the 2009 Big Five, Wild West Showdown, Midwest Brewhaha, and The Great Southern Slam.
On the strength of those fundraising experiments, we decided to take our time/money dilemma to our audience. In June 2010, we launched our first comprehensive fund drive, with a selection of limited edition contributor premiums based on a fantastic piece of original art design from Flat Track Revolution.
By year's end, we'd exceeded our $25,000 fund drive target by over 20%. With your help, we'd established the funding model we rely on to this day: sponsorship and advertising, supplemented by direct, voluntary viewer support. We've never put content behind a paywall, and we never will. Open, unfettered accessibility for the entire derby community is fundamental to our mission.
Of course, wherever there's even a little money, there's the prospect for suspicion and jealousy.
On occasion, we were distressed to find out that games of derby telephone (perhaps you've experienced the phenomenon) had resulted in rather serious misrepresentations of how we did business -- and that those misrepresentations were gathering steam while we didn't even know they were out there to be refuted. (As Mark Twain once said, a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can change into its outdoor wheels.)
From the first time we put our logo on a video stream, we'd begun to hear bits of it - "Why should these guys get money? Why isn't it going to the skaters?" Our appeal for funding to offset some lost income due to DNN's time pressures definitely turned up the heat on these questions.
The answer, which we perhaps didn't communicate often or effectively enough, is simple: who's making money? By this time, Justice, Gnosis, and I were easily a cumulative $100,000 of personal money into our derby experiences. That DNN as a business had begun to bring in some money helped to stem that tide, but certainly didn't halt it.
Furthermore, moving to DNN as a partial source of personal income didn't advance our own personal finances. Quite the contrary -- we knew we'd be accepting significantly lower pay from DNN than we'd earned in outside employment. Turning some income-generating portions of our time over to derby directly meant further financial sacrifice toward our goals of building a sport -- and a family -- that we love.
And finally, the idea that somehow we were extracting money from the roller derby ecosystem was something we never could wrap our heads around. Maybe we were too close to the numbers, but it seemed obvious to us: the numbers involved were, still, laughably small.
There's only "profit" to be made if the revenue potential exceeds the cost of the production, and derby isn't there yet... at least, not without sacrificing our commitment to keeping derby media accessible to the whole community, and to operating our business within its means.
The makers of the documentary Derby, Baby! have generously granted us permission to share this compilation of a number of relevant perspectives on broadcasting's place in roller derby, which will be one of the extras on the soon-to-be-available DVD release:
Not all profits are measured in dollars. Derby then, as now, ran as much on an "attention economy," where many if not most drew at least some of their derby satisfaction from whatever spotlight they were able to garner. It's as true for us as for anyone; I get a lot of life satisfaction when someone tells me something I created was important or helpful.
Unwittingly, by pulling together a coherent and growing audience for online derby broadcasts, we'd helped to create another segment in derby's attention economy. Already in 2009, we'd ruffled some feathers amongst the announcer community, some of whom felt we were making poor or inequitable choices about the best talent to staff microphones for a given event.
Our efforts to patch that rift in 2010 fell far short. Behind-the-scenes grumbles grew to direct conflict, with one announcer saying (in exactly so many words) that he had half a mind to put DNN out of business, so poor was our handling of their concerns.
Limited time, and a tendency to overcommit what time we had took its toll in this area. While we did our best to hear and act on these announcers' concerns, time pressures largely forced us to stick with a policy that had worked for us for years already: we choose to work with people who make our jobs easier, rather than harder.
Early on, each of the DNN principals were drawn into the community in no small part because, well, that's just it: community. Most of you have probably had the same experience: it's not just a beer league that meets a couple time a week -- it's a group of people who share a kinship, a certain love of whimsy, a real post-boomer love of pop culture taken to absurd heights... in short, a family.
In DNN's first few years, we enjoyed the ability to do business like we were working with family, too. We enjoyed personal trust relationships, built over years, with key people in many leagues far and wide, with WFTDA, and with many of the businesses that served roller derby. We were busy people, spread thin; we were happy to do business quickly, on a handshake and an email, holding people to their word and knowing we'd be true to our own.
Unfortunately, we were about to learn a textbook lesson about sociology and group dynamics: Once a community exceeds about 10,000 people, social norms are no longer sufficient to enforce that community’s behavior standards.
As we had in 2009, at the beginning of 2010 we sought and received assurances from WFTDA leadership that we'd be able to again provide live internet broadcast of WFTDA events on DNN. We were pretty excited about this -- the progress we were making in building out a core of volunteers, learning to make the most of the technology, building a consolidated audience, and building an ad sales base had us pretty confident that we were about a year away from signing corporate sponsorship outside the derbysphere (enabling *vast* improvements in our offerings in 2011).
By September, we'd begun to see the error of our ways. In the midst of our normal Big Five preparations with host leagues whom we’d been communicating with all year, we were blindsided by unexpected challenges to our broadcast permissions at three of the tournament locations. In each case, an outside vendor dangled the prospect of making money in front of the host league (but always tucked away in the form of "share of remaining (unproven, uncertain) profits after all broadcast expenses are covered"). In each case, someone from within the WFTDA community offered that option up to a host league while pointing out that DNN wasn't contracted on paper.
When we appealed to WFTDA leadership for support, we learned that a vote in May had placed broadcast rights back in the hands of tournament host leagues. This was no small crisis, as we'd sold advertising, launched a fund drive, even booked airfare based on the verbal commitment from WFTDA leadership we'd felt secure with at the start of the year. Nobody from WFTDA had notified us of the policy change. Many shoulders were shrugged at the observation that we expected the word we'd been given by WFTDA to be honored.
We were eventually able to negotiate accommodations in each case, but it was a harrowing experience. The times, they were a-changin'.
Taking these lessons to heart, we urged WFTDA to create a formal bid process to select a broadcaster for the 2011 Big Five. We'd hoped this would create, at the very least, a level playing field. As we'll detail in the next chapter of this retrospective, our experience would fall somewhat short of that ideal.
But none of these new challenges could sap the joy we felt, along with the whole community, at the 2010 postseason. Epic game after epic game unfolded. The seemingly invincible would again be overturned. The hits were hard, the maneuvers exquisite, the final moments heartstoppingly intense, right down to the final whistle of the final game of the year. It was a great time to love roller derby.
Let's relive that now, shall we?
DNN's 5th Anniversary retrospective continues soon with our most challenging year to date, 2011.