Hell on Wheels

Is America ready for the reinvention of Roller Derby? Patrick J. Schaefer thinks so, and he's willing to put your money where his mouth is.

In the '60s Leo Seltzer's son, Jerry, brought it back. He was helped along by the invention of videotape, which allowed for easier syndicated airings. By 1970 Variety, the authoritative entertainment-industry trade publication, proclaimed Roller Derby the fastest-growing attraction in the land. Two million fans per year paid to watch America's hometown team, the San Franciso Bay Bombers, during its road tour of 100 cities. Another three million tuned in to 125 TV stations that carried canned shows taped at Kezar Pavilion and other Bay area locales during the 20 weeks per year when the Bombers stayed home, battling an endless succession of buffoonish bad guys and gals.

On TV the Derby rated consistently higher than hockey or baseball and ran nose-to-nose with basketball and football, according to Deford's history of the Derby, Five Strides on the Banked Track. It always did better than news, talk shows, and most feature films.

Five years into the disco decade, Hollywood capitalized on the Derby's mass appeal by releasing Rollerball, a United Artists hit starring James Caan ("In the near future the world is controlled by giant corporations. To satisfy the public's lust for violence, the corporations sponsor 'Rollerball,' a brutal combination of hockey and Roller Derby.") By 1988 the Derby was moribund once more, its demise mirrored by the forgettable, low-budget Roller Blade. ("Roller-skating amazons battle an evil warlord who commits torture and slavery in post-nuclear war Los Angeles.")

"In those days we would do two days a week in the city, then three more nights in the outlying suburbs," Mark D'Amato recalls. "You'd have the Sunday live telecast with all the hype -- who was gonna kick whose ass, what various characters were up to. Then we lost that Sunday telecast, and pretty soon we were down to one or two events a week, and then it was all over."

Roller skating, which began as an aristocratic fad in England and later caught the popular fancy stateside, has now returned in the form of in-line skating. But something else interests Patrick Schaefer: In the 1990s NASCAR auto racing has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States. And last year pro wrestling pulled in $6 billion in merchandizing revenues alone. Blue-collar passions have turned respectable and astonishingly lucrative. Schaefer -- a Cincinnati transplant, an ex-cop with a law degree, a onetime freelance promoter of pro wrestling -- says he sees his opening.

His attempt to bring about a successful revival is not appreciated by some Derby diehards. "On the Internet and in the trade papers, they say Patrick Schaefer isn't in this for the love of the game, he's in it for the money," Schaefer himself says. "I have never dignified comments like that with an answer, but I've felt like saying, 'Do you think the old-time promoters were in it for the love of the game?' Not hardly."

Schaefer freely admits it's been difficult getting RollerSport Challenge out of first gear. His company has sunk between $300,000 and $400,000 into equipment, leases, and video production, he says. The cash was raised from 32 shareholders, "none of whom have asked for their money back."

Federal regulations allowed Schaefer to raise up to $1 million during a set time frame -- one year -- but that year ran out on May 15, and now the money almost has, too. Also this spring Schaefer decided to back away from a jelling deal with American Independent Network, a Texas-based national TV provider, worried that RollerSport would get aired at the wrong times in the wrong places. "It would have been like Giorgio Armani coming out with a new line of suits and debuting them at Kmart," he huffs.

Bob Kronowitt, Schaefer's partner, is almost giddily candid about how tough times have been. "Here!" he says, throwing his personal bank statement across a desk. "Take a look!" The checking account balance reads $4.16.

Now Schaefer and Kronowitt have settled on a different way to raise capital for what they promise will be RollerSport's true blastoff. The company is going public. "It's got sizzle," Schaefer says, speaking of the stock-to-be, which he promises will debut soon on the OTC bulletin board, an electronic market of America's tiniest public companies.

On the one hand, Schaefer is confident new investors will take to RollerSport Challenge. Company assets now amount to more than a rented office and warehouse and a secondhand Derby track, more than the scattered enthusiasms of a score of skaters. The Derby has always lived and died by television, and Schaefer has three TV deals confirmed.

The first and most important letter of agreement is with TransAmerica Media, a Miami-based company that plans to make RollerSport Challenge a household name in Central and South America and throughout the Caribbean. The second is with TCI, a cable company, which hopes to air RollerSport in eight of the top ten American TV markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Media One, a Pompano Beach firm, will distribute the shows in Broward County in exchange for local airing rights and advertising space at events.

"We've tested the waters, and there's strong interest in Latin America," notes Jose Del Cueto, president of TransAmerica Media. "It used to be wildly popular down there. They called it lucha en patines -- wrestling on wheels." He adds: "Patrick has really struggled with this for a couple of years now, and I think he'll pull it off. Depending on the quality of the shows, this has the potential to reach a couple hundred million people."

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