Friday, February 24, 2012

In Defense of Power Jams

One of the most compelling parts of being involved in modern roller derby for me is the fact that the sport is still in its infancy. The future is unknown and full of possibilities. I get to experiment with things like roller derby stats because no one has ever done it before. The book has yet to be written on a lot of things, and I get a chance to play some small part in writing it.

As a result, there's a lot of debate going on about everything derby-related. I guess it comes with the territory. Being new and malleable, the sport is open to experimentation in a way that other sports simply aren't. There's going to be trial and error and adjustments to be made. Mix that with a lot of varying opinions, and you've got a good recipe for criticism.

When it comes to the sport itself, the most obvious adjustments come in the form of rules changes. It seems like everyone has an opinion on how to "fix" slow derby. Everyone seems to hate it when teams choose not to skate past the pivot line to bleed the clock or get an extra blocker back from the penalty box. There has also been a lot of discussion surrounding the idea that WFTDA might abolish minor penalties with the next rules update. Plenty of derby folk on the interwebs are more than happy to express their desire for WFTDA to adopt a "no minors" rules set. In fact, WFTDA actually beta tested that idea last year.

Both the "no minors" and "forced play" ideas have gained some traction. You can read various blogs about them elsewhere, so I'm not going to retread those debates here. In stead, I want to chime in on another common complaint about the current WFTDA rules set I've been seeing lately: The idea that power jams are somehow bad for roller derby.

The main criticism is essentially: "Power jams are too impactful on the game." No one can argue that power jams don't matter. Everyone has seen a 20-point swing result from a jammer penalty and completely change the complexion of a bout. The ever-present threat of this is undeniable. What is debatable is whether or not this is a bad thing.

Opponents of the current rules would say that it's bad for the sport that a critical power jam can change the outcome of a bout. I've seen several blog posts and internet comments that have put forth this argument. I could not disagree more.

Big plays are a part of a lot of different sports. They add excitement. In football, a deep pass to the end zone or a sudden interception return for a touchdown can be heart-stoppingly awesome. In baseball, a 3-run homer run can completely change a game. Hell, the simple threat of a big play making the difference helps keep a game interesting. Any bout within 20 or so points going into the last jam is not out of reach. It can make for some extremely dramatic finishes. Anyone who watched the end of the 2010 WFTDA championship bout knows what I'm talking about. Should we really want to change that?

I've also seen an argument that power jams usually only help the team in the lead. Jerry Seltzer wrote: "The concept that power jams will allow teams to come back from a big deficit rarely works; often they just allow the team that is leading to increase its lead."

Well, the fact is that when one team is winning by 100+ points, power jams are not to blame. One team is just a lot better than their opposition. Eliminating power jams is not going to make blowouts more interesting. The only thing that can fix that is the evolution of the sport. As the sport evolves, competition will become tighter, and match-ups will feature more similarly-skilled teams. In that setting, power jams will allow for more exciting bouts because more bouts will still be "within reach" in the final jam.

Another common criticism of the power jam is that it forces the officiating to affect the game to a larger degree. I won't argue with this, but I will point out that this is true of every team sport that uses a penalty system. In football, receivers are constantly trying to draw a big pass inference penalty. Basketball has been built around trying to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line. —And soccer... ESPN actually ran a commercial making fun of how soccer players fake injuries to draw penalties.

It's an inherent part of having a penalty system. There are always going to be strategies employed to try and force penalties to gain the advantage through the refs. It's unavoidable. I say we should embrace it. In my opinion, it's pretty awesome when that last blocker forces a track cut on the jammer and gives her team a big power jam. If you lessen the effect by shortening jammer penalties or eliminating them altogether, you just end up cheapening the value of good blockers.

The power jam rules debate really boils down to an argument between consistency and excitement. Do you want teams to win by playing a solid game throughout a bout, or do you want inconsistent teams to have a puncher's chance at the end? Obviously, there's a happy medium between those two aspects in any sport, but I would argue that the medium we currently have is pretty happy already.

I've been working on a a rather comprehensive stats study (the results of which you'll be seeing shortly) which includes the previously mentioned Points off Power Jams statistic. What I've found indicates that the average power jam doesn't have as much of an impact on a bout as many people assume. The words "power jam" automatically bring to mind an image of one team racking up numerous grand slams and completely taking over the bout.

The reality is that power jams like that are not very common in competitive bouts (and they simply don't matter at all in non-competitive bouts). Would you believe that in high-level, similarly-skilled match-ups, the average impact of a power jam is only about 10-12 points? Yes, there are some 20-point gougers, but there are just as many 5-point penalty kills. Just like with power plays in hockey, how well a team capitalizes on a power jam or kills a penalty can add another level of intrigue to the sport.

If you truly examine them, you'll find that power jams simply aren't the sport-destoying monsters that some people believe them to be. In fact, I would argue that they are part of what makes roller derby as awesome as it is.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Points Off Power Jams

Power jams in roller derby are a lot like turnovers in football. Both have a large impact on the outcome of a game. Both often trigger momentum shifts that can rally one team while leaving the other demoralized. Anyone who watches football can tell you that the announcers talk a lot about turnover differential and how it impacts the odds of winning. Turnovers make a big difference.

The same holds true for power jams in roller derby. If one team gets more power jams than their opponent, their chances of winning are obviously increased. Yes, there are a lot of mismatches in roller derby due to how young the sport is. Still, if 2 teams are similar in talent and skill, power jams can easily be the difference between victory and defeat.

One football stat that is often talked about alongside turnovers is "points off turnovers." Basically, it's the number of points a football team scores with the possessions immediately following turnovers. —The stat illustrates how much turnovers are effecting a game and how effectively a team is taking advantage of their opponent's mistakes. A team with 3 takeaways and 17 points off turnovers is really capitalizing on them. Conversely, a team that has 3 takeaways and only 3 points from them is wasting opportunities.

Enter "Points Off Power Jams" or PoPJ for short. Obviously, having a stat like this in roller derby could give you a lot of insight on how well a team is taking advantage of power jams and limiting the damage from them. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, roller derby isn't as simple to break down as football. —Or maybe it's just that the sport of flat track roller derby hasn't been around long enough for people to really dissect it in this way.

The problem with tracking something like this is in differentiating which points resulted from the power jam and which points were just a result of normal play. You can't just look at the points or differential from full jams effected by jammer penalties. There are too many other factors in play. If a jammer gets double-slammed before going to the penalty box, 10 points from that jam are not a result of the power jam. Somewhere around 50% of jammer penalties also continue into the next jam. How do you take into account the new initial passes both jammers now need to complete before scoring?

Anyone can watch a bout and estimate a power jam's impact, but that's subjective. I hate stats that depend on interpretations because they're unreliable. What's needed is an objective set of rules to separate out the points scored as a result of the power jam from the points scored as a result of good pack play. Well, I've come up with a pretty good system that covers every scenario.

NOTE: For the sake of clarity and funness, let's call the jammer who is sent to the penalty box "Raskal Rae." The jammer who's scoring unopposed will be "Fannie Flash." Anyway, here are my rules for tracking PoPJ:

1. Jammer lap points are never counted. This is pretty straightforward. If Raskal Rae is lapped before going to the box, that point was not a result of the penalty. If she comes out of the box in front of Fannie Flash and is then passed, her point was the result of Fannie's blockers doing their job.
2. Jammer ghost points are always counted. Another easy one. As soon as Fannie Flash passes the first opposing blocker on a power jam, she gets the jammer point as well. Also, if Fannie is scoring but does not pass Raskal before she gets sent to the box, that 5th point is a result of the foul.
3. If Fannie Flash is between passes when Raskal Rae earns a penalty, PoPJ begins tracking immediately upon the foul being committed. This seems pretty simple, but it's important to spell it out this way. Technically, when a skater is sent to the penalty box, she is immediately off the track (and her ghost point is awarded if applicable). The time it takes Raskal to get to the penalty box is a direct result of the foul. Had the jam continued with her, we assume Raskal would have called it off to prevent any scoring from Fannie on her next pass. —And even if Raskal didn't have lead at the time or decided to let the jam continue, the points Raskal would have scored would have been offset by the points Fannie would have scored. The absence of Raskal scoring means a greater net gain for Fannie's team.
4. If Fannie Flash is in the middle of a scoring pass when Raskal Rae commits her foul, the points scored on that pass do NOT count towards the PoPJ (except for any jammer ghost point). Now we're getting technical. We are assuming that Fannie would have completed this scoring pass regardless of the penalty. Yes, this is a big assumption, but we need an objective way of tracking it. If you split apart scoring passes based on estimates, you start robbing the stat of its objectivity. The only option here is to not count the pass.
5. If Raskal Rae exits the penalty box on a scoring pass, PoPJ stops tracking points as soon as Raskal Rae enters the pack. Any points scored on a pass for Fannie Flash that is not COMPLETED prior to this are not counted (except for any jammer ghost point). The few seconds Fannie has to get out of the pack while Raskal is approaching are definitely a result of the foul. However, if both jammers end up in the pack at the same time, we view them as on parallel scoring passes. Because Raskal Rae's scoring pass is obviously post-penalty, we should view Fannie's pass the same way. Fannie Flash does have the option to call off the jam before Raskal gets to the pack, in which case the points from the unfinished pass should still be counted (because in that case Raskal never began a scoring pass). If Fannie fails to call off the jam before Raskal scores, we view it as a tactical decision. If Fannie did not have lead, that is the result of a error on Fannie's part (or her team's). Either way, if the scoring passes become parallel, we do not view the points scored as earned towards PoPJ.
6. If Raskal Rae exits the penalty box needing to complete an initial pass, PoPJ continues to track points scored by Fannie Flash, but only for the current / next pass (except for any jammer lap point). Fannie does not want to call off the jam right away because she's still scoring unopposed. She has 1 pass to give before Raskal scores, so we are giving her 1 pass to finish her scoring. This holds true even if Raskal completes an initial pass and begins scoring before Fannie completes this pass. Raskal's initial pass was parallel to the current/next pass for Fannie, so Fannie's pass still counts even if she is later lapped by Raskal while still in the middle of it (because Raskal's scoring pass is not parallel to it). If Fannie fails to call off the jam before Raskal scores, we view it as a tactical decision or an error by not getting lead (same as in #5).

The important thing to remember in all of this is that a scoring pass is either counted or it isn't. Again, the reason for this is to eliminate guesswork and build the stat around objective, factual data.

No stat is perfect. In reality, all power jam scoring passes are partially helped by the penalty and partially helped by the pack play. Hell, roller derby as a whole is a combination of any number of different variables at any given moment. It's like "butterfly effect" the sport. —But that's why I like experimenting with stats for it. There are so many possibilities when it comes to measuring how one thing effects another. I geek out about it. A stat like this is simply a slice of the sport that can help you look at a bout in a new way and maybe gain additional understanding.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Junior Derby and Building a Fan Base

It seems like roller derby is always fighting for attention. We live in a marketing-driven society, and cable television and the internet have brought a world of sports to our fingertips. —So it's no surprise that derby has to fight like hell just to avoid getting completely lost in the shuffle. Skaters have to put up flyers, make numerous appearances at community events, and partner with various sponsors just to get the word out. Despite all that effort, it can feel like they're still shouting in a vacuum. News media rarely acknowledges derby, and mainstream sports fans still view roller derby as a spectacle or kitsch.

As most leagues who have done a demographic survey can tell you, the vast majority of modern roller derby fans either know someone involved with roller derby or are involved themselves. Derby does not have a large following in part because it hasn't been around long enough to cultivate a fan base that rivals other sports. Beyond that, though, the stigma of the fake fights and staged outcomes of 70's roller derby seems to inhibit the sport's ability to be taken seriously. Derby remains very much a neglected sport despite every effort to be recognized. Meanwhile, networks like ESPN continue to cover professional bowling, competitive eating, and strongman competitions.

As roller derby continues to grow and evolve, it faces the question of how to break that barrier and take it's rightful place as a legitimate team sport in the American consciousness. The drum derby fans usually beat is: "Look at the WFTDA Big 5. You can't argue that this sport isn't athletic and competitive and sophisticated." While that argument is very true, it doesn't exactly convert many people dismissive of roller derby.

Perhaps the route to take with that kind of non-fan is actually at the other end of the spectrum. Junior derby has a big advantage that isn't being utilized to it's full potential. As people involved in roller derby, we tend to view junior derby as the next generation of skaters. I've heard it said on numerous occasions: "These kids are going to be the superstar skaters of tomorrow." While that is true, the more important and often overlooked statement is: "These kids are going to be the hardcore fan base of tomorrow."

Outside of roller derby, my favorite sport to watch is baseball. I grew up playing little league and watching the Twins win the World Series in 1987 and 1991. I didn't realize it at the time, but the bond I was developing with a simple summer pastime was the foundation for a lifelong obsession. I love baseball in a way that I honestly can't ever love roller derby. It's a connection to my youth that's so ingrained in me it's difficult to overstate. Roller derby simply does not have that kind of following because it hasn't had the opportunity to build those kinds of ties. Not yet at least.

I see the kids from the two local junior derby leagues (TCJRD and NERDy) at the local adult derby bouts all the time. They are far more into the action than the average fan. It's so endearing to seem them geek out about a star pass or an apex jump. They relate to the sport in a way that adult fans cannot. What's probably just as important as that is the fact that they are introducing derby to friends and family members who otherwise would not pay attention to the sport. A non-fan, dismissive of roller derby, is far more likely to give the sport a chance when viewed from the junior derby angle. The juniors don't have to battle a memory of pro wrestling-ish antics in the past. Junior derby is automatically assumed to be pure.

Along with it's lack of the "fake derby" stigma inhibiting it, junior roller derby is also undeniably cute. Crowds love it. Media loves it. It's attention-grabbing and approachable for anyone, even the conservative grandparents who do not like to step outside of their comfort zone. Suddenly, the crazy, far-out sport that they are not comfortable even thinking about is something interesting and new and fun for the whole family. That's what junior derby can do. —It can break down barriers for the sport and convince people to be more open minded towards it.

Junior derby is still relatively small when compared to the adult version that has driven it's inception. There's roughly 9 or 10 adult leagues for every junior roller derby program in existence. At some point, that needs to change. The future of the sport is not going to be 20-something or 30-something women (and men) finding a hobby later in life. It's going to be people who grew up with the sport and see it as part of who they've always been. That's how a sport's hardcore fan base is supposed to feel about it, and that's how derby is going to ensure that it doesn't disappear into the history books once more.

In my opinion, developing junior derby should be a goal of every modern derby league looking to secure it's future and a strong fan base. It could be something as simple as an occasional kids derby clinic (how it started here in Minnesota), but ultimately the best thing is for there to be a functioning junior derby league. Leagues should embrace this and invite the kids to skate pre-bout or at halftime. Some leagues even have junior derby programs as part of their own operation. Junior derby in any form is always good for adult derby.

There's a saturation point for adult derby out there somewhere. We haven't hit it yet, and it still seems to be a long way off, but you can be certain that it does exist. At some point, WFTDA and MRDA are going to stop growing. When we get there, modern roller derby is either going to hold steady or start fading. Junior derby holds more power than most people realize. It has the ability to secure the future of the sport in a way that the current adult version, which gets most of the attention, simply can't.