Like so many things, it got its start in the Great Depression.
In 1929 struggling movie theater promoter Leo Seltzer took notice of the popularity bicycle and dance marathons. The cash prize was especially appealing to out-of-work participants. Seltzer began sponsoring his own dance marathons, labelled "walkathons" because the participants would often simply shuffle to the music for hours at a time in events would last as long as 40 days. When the popularity of the dance marathons wore off around 1935, endurance roller skating began a resurgence. Seltzer began sponsoring indoor "Trans Continental Roller Derbies". The derby would take place on a banked wooden oval track and run the distance between landmarks, such as New York City. The first of these events took place in the Chicago Coliseum featuring 50 man-woman teams. Each teams "progress" was displayed on a map of the US featuring colored lights marking their place. The event lasted 11 days.
Seltzer took his Derby on the road with great success. Crowds thrilled whenever "Jamming", skaters lapping the competition, occurred. Jamming was encouraged during five minute "open house" sprint periods during the performance. When Sports and Gangster-Fiction writer Damon Runyan saw what was happening he recommended Seltzer change his format to encourage the physical contact during the event, effectively putting more "entertainment" in "Sports Entertainment."
The new format featured five person teams each with a designated Jammer. The action was fast paced. These 1938 broadcasts from KOIL in Omaha allow the listener to get absorbed in that excitement.
Roller Derby is enjoying a resurgence with several Women’s Leagues forming around the world. Although the games are heavy with a punk rock and feminist aesthetic, they remain true to the roots of the sport heard inn the 1938 broadcasts.