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.

On the other hand, Schaefer acknowledges that some would-be investors will balk at RollerSport packaged in the form of a penny stock deal. Three and a half years ago, Schaefer and Kronowitt met one another when they each sold companies they owned to a firm named Madison Sports & Entertainment. They were paid with Madison stock, which at first went up -- then down, really fast.

"I am not going to say that Madison was a scam," Schaefer says today. "What I am going to say is that there are questions as to whether the company ever really intended to do what it said it planned to do. It was all allegedly -- and I'll stress that word -- designed to drive the stock up so that insiders could profit. The whole experience was very unfortunate. Bob and I got taken for a lot of money, and now we're sitting on a lot of worthless paper." At the time Madison executives contended their hardships were the normal business setbacks of a start-up company.

Guy Beaven, a penny stock broker turned author, puts the experience in context. In his 1995 book titled Hello Suckers, he describes the Fort Lauderdale-Boca Raton corridor:

It is a little section of the world where every bar is packed with brokers of every description and vice, their Mercedes-Benzes waiting for them outside in the parking lot. In fact, the entire Sunshine State is a haven for confidence rackets of every description. The reason is simple enough. The population is growing faster there than anywhere else. It is also where many older folks go to retire with their pension funds and retirement accounts and life's savings. Those who migrate here are already existing on a fantasy. Add lots of money and a swindler and suddenly you've created a fertile ground for fraud.

Schaefer contends: "By putting out premature or misleading information, you can drive the stock up. At RollerSport we have never done that. We put a press release out saying Desmond Kameka, ranked in the top ten in the International In-line Skating Association, is now skating with RollerSport Challenge. It's true. We put a release out saying we have a signed deal with TCI Cable. It's true. In the mid-1980s there were like 400 penny stock deals coming out every day, and a lot of people are still the guests of the government because of them. Maybe because Bob and I got burned in the past, we've been overly cautious."

Meanwhile, in a suburb of Orlando, there's activity that both challenges and pays tacit tribute to Schaefer's dream. The World Skating League, a new company with rumored backing from CBS and TNN, has finished building its own Derby track and is now recruiting skaters. Leading the recruiting drive is Faith Urban, Schaefer's former point woman. She notes that World Skating League athletes get a paycheck, unlike those at RollerSport.

"These people are players," Urban says of her new bosses. "They have the smarts, the expertise, and certainly the money. We may fall flat on our faces, but it won't be because we didn't give our best effort."

Urban says the company plans to shoot its first six TV shows by January, then launch the network series on TNN. A memo appeared in Schaefer's warehouse recently, expressing concern that World Skating was trying to cherry-pick RollerSport's best skaters.

"I in no way see a competitive problem, and that's not PR nonsense," says Mark Hickman, vice president of production for Ross Television Productions of Knoxville, Tennessee. "Roller Derby has gone so far out of the public mind that I think anything any one of us does will only benefit the other." Hickman says it was Derby queen Joan Weston's obituary in the New York Times that inspired his current efforts -- her death reminded his backers of how popular the Derby had once been. Hickman declines to say exactly who those backers are.

From his home in California's wine country, the last person to guide Roller Derby to a comeback is mulling an offer to do some consulting work for Hickman.

"I think, under the right conditions and very properly financed, it's possible," Jerry Seltzer says of a Derby comeback. "When I did it 25 years ago, it was much easier, believe me. We would play live games, videotape them, and send them to stations. Simple. Now the costs and technology are so different. There's cable TV, which complicates matters. Arenas you could rent for $1000 back then probably wouldn't open their bathrooms for that kind of money."

Orlando's World Skating League plans to emphasize skating athleticism and virtuosity over wrestling on wheels, sources say. A good idea?

"I'm going to answer that a little cryptically," says Seltzer, now age 66. "My father always wanted to see the Derby in the Olympics. He always believed it could survive without the histrionics. But every time it's been run with a strong sense of how to bring people into the box office. I'll say I would like to see it come back as legitimate a game as possible. Anyway, it's kinda like crabgrass. It just keeps coming back, one way or another.

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