Just when you thought this story couldn’t get any better…
As I reported previously, the Cleveland Indians baseball team should have never underestimated a roller derby team. But they did, and now it’s bringing to light what is apparently a history of other leagues stealing roller derby names without any recognition or compensation whatsoever.
The Cleveland Guardians roller derby squad is one of 65 members in a league called, the Men’s Roller Derby Association. Per reports, the Cleveland baseball team claims they knew the Guardians roller derby team was in existence and active. Yet, they chose to only complete their due diligence on the New York Guardians XFL team and Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy – seemingly ignoring the local Cleveland roller derby team with the exact same name, the Cleveland Guardians. And now, I think we may have found out exactly why this was not properly dealt with.
When we broke the story, #DerbyTwitter fled our replies and DM's here over at Conduct Detrimental HQ. And now, with help from our new friends over at the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), the Conduct Detrimental team has learned that this is not the first time a professional sports team has outright copied a derby team name from the same geographical market... without paying them a single dime.
Let’s start with a little background on the WFTDA to paint the full picture. The WFTDA is the international governing body of women’s flat track roller derby representing more than 450 member leagues on 6 continents. The WFTDA sets the international standards for rankings, rules, and competition each year, and provides guidance and resources to the sport of flat track derby. Yes, they are a pretty big deal.
Angel City Derby was founded in 2006 by a collective of skaters, and the league is composed of nearly 200 members that compete against teams from the state of California and internationally. Angel City was one of the first leagues in Southern California to become a member of the WFTDA, joining in December 2007.
Meanwhile, Gotham Roller Derby is based in New York City, and is the first flat track roller derby league in the metropolitan New York area and a founding member league of the WFTDA. Gotham is one of the preeminent leagues in roller derby, having won five WFTDA championships.
Well, why am I telling you all of this? Because there is a women’s soccer team with a familiar name that will be the Los Angeles area’s first women’s professional team since the Los Angeles Sol folded in 2010. You guessed it… Angel City FC is a planned National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) expansion team that is expected to begin play in 2022.
According to the LA Times, nearly four dozen of the team’s 60-plus investors are women – including actress Natalie Portman and champion athletes Abby Wambach, Serena Williams, Lindsey Vonn, and Candace Parker – making it the largest female ownership group in U.S. sports history.
For an incoming women-led team that has outwardly stated to Sports Illustrated that their mission is to “provide an opportunity to some of the best professional female athletes in the world to play on a stage as powerful as Los Angeles [and] send a strong message to young girls in the community and beyond,” you’d think they would be lifting up other dominant female sports teams. But it seems like the opposite could have been the case.
In fact, the announcement of the Angel City franchise caused backlash on social media among women’s sports fans and particularly roller derby fans due to the long-standing existence of the championship winning Angel City Derby. On October 21, 2020, the club officially confirmed it was keeping the name Angel City FC. Despite the outrage that was brought to the soccer club’s attention, the derby team was not approached about the name whatsoever before the decision was made.
In 2021, another NWSL team was rebranded to don a familiar name to the roller derby community: Gotham FC. Formerly known as Sky Blue FC, the club rebranded to NJ/NY Gotham FC and revealed a new crest and color scheme to go with it. On both occasions, not a single dime was given to these clubs for blatantly copying their names within the same market. Is this beginning to sound familiar? Looking at you, Cleveland Baseball Team...
Executive Director of the WFTDA, Erica Vanstone expressed that “Angel City and Gotham are two of [the WFTDA’s] biggest teams. Gotham is the former number one team in the world. It’s hard to believe the NWSL didn’t know they existed.”
Vanstone went on to say that following the unveiling of these two women’s soccer clubs, she “did not expect to learn about the lack of advance outreach to these teams, especially from a women’s franchise coming into the market in which there had already been teams of the same names for over a decade.”
When Vanstone was asked about the derby community’s reaction, she felt that “it presented a good opportunity for Angel City FC or Gotham to work with these teams to co-promote. Partnerships are the best case scenario to uplift women’s sports in general. But to my knowledge, no one was given the chance to have these conversations in advance, which was just disappointing. In my mind, regardless of IP conversations, these were such missed opportunities to build fans and engage the community around a brand launch – that’s the valuation mistake here.”
Is this past history of other professional sports teams taking names from roller derby just a coincidence? I think not.
Despite the fact that women’s roller derby is more widely-played as a sport than its men’s counterpart, Vanstone opined that “this is the third time this has happened and some members of our community are pointing out that folks are only just caring about it now because [the Cleveland Guardians] are a men’s team, which is a valid frustration for women in sports.” Yet, the first two times this type of branding conversation happened it came from other women’s sports teams: Angel City FC and Gotham FC.
Certainly, the baseball team spent a lot of money researching the name and identifying potential legal hurdles. Baseball claims they knew about the roller derby team. And you would have to imagine that as part of their research, they learned about the above-mentioned history of other leagues copying the names of roller derby teams in their market and not paying them a single time.
Assuming they knew that, it is conceivable -- if not plausible -- that Cleveland Baseball assumed that the Roller Derby Cleveland Guardians would go away quietly... just like Angel City and Gotham. But that's not the case here as we've seen since the July 23rd announcement.
So now we can ask the question: What's more likely did the baseball team not Google, "Cleveland Guardians," or did they intentional look past them and figured they would cut corners and save costs since there was seemingly no precedent for pay a roller derby team in recent history... which we now know from our friends in the roller derby world.
The baseball team made a critical oversight here. There's no way around it. The question now is are they willing to pay a roller derby handsomely to clean up the mess... or is it time to change the name and start over.
Stephanie is a recent graduate of New York Law School and a law clerk at Geragos & Geragos. You can find her on Twitter @SWeissenburger_ and Instagram @Steph_ExplainsItAll