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Originally published Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 5:31 AM

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The best kind of growing pains for Rat City Rollergirls

With a rapidly growing fan base, the Rat City Rollergirls look to take their league from spectacle to sport.

Seattle Times columnist

Nicole’s calendar

Gifts from the earth: Sixteen of the region’s top chefs will cook, and 37 wineries will pour at this annual gala, to raise money for college programs and student scholarships at South Seattle Community College on Jan. 26. Tickets are $175 per person through the college’s foundation. (206-934-5809 or www.southseattle.edu/foundation.giftsfromtheearth).

So this is where the magic happens: Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, members of the City Council and the City Attorney will open their offices during a City Hall open house from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Jan. 26. McGinn will hold a Q&A session, and there will be workshops on the legislative process, music, a farmer’s market and food trucks. City Hall is at 601 Fifth Avenue in Seattle, and, unlike street parking, it’s free.

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Admit it: You love the fishnets. The fact that a sport that requires a helmet would also make room for a little flash of femininity, a touch of lipstick, some heavy eyeliner before they clamber onto the track and start blocking and jamming.

And the names. They’re more sneers than anything: Ivana Clobber and Loco Chanel. Kutta Betch and Teeny Mussolini. Rawkell Sqwelch.

But the ladies of Rat City Rollergirls want you to know they aren’t just sex on skates.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Alyssa “Lorna Boom” Hoppe, a founding member of the league. “We are no longer the hipster, funky thing to do.

“We’re in an awkward phase between being an amateur and professional sport,” she said. “To thrive, we need greater recognition as a sport.”

And indeed there was something else on the track when the Rat City Rollergirls kicked off their ninth season at KeyArena the other night: a new sense of professionalism and athleticism that they hope will knock them, and the sport, to the next level — and maybe all the way to the Olympics.

Hoppe, 36, recalled how the league started in 2004; more than 40 members were broken into four teams to make up the Rat City league: The Derby Liberation Front, Grave Danger, the Sockit Wenches and the Throttle Rockets.

In the beginning, their bouts were held at a rink in White Center. They didn’t have a liquor license, so they gave away beer from donated kegs.

By the time they moved to a hangar at Magnuson Park, they had a “kid garden” for families with children — everyone else was free to drink.

“We didn’t consider ourselves athletes,” Hoppe said. “We were just doing something crazy.”

But this season the team will be showing off a new rule set and strategies, like the elimination of minor penalties and a single-whistle blast that releases all of the players at one time, instead of one pivot, three blockers and one jammer incrementally.

The ultimate hope is that the skaters are seen more as the athletes they are — and that the league is recognized as a major player in the Seattle sports scene.

And it seems to be working.

In 2001, there was only one women’s flat-track roller-derby league in the country. In 2005, there were 50. In 2011, there were more than 1,000 leagues.

The official organization, the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, now has 158 member leagues in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Australia — and, of course, there are rumblings about roller derby someday becoming an Olympic sport.

Here in Seattle, the Rat City Rollergirls “maybe” had 200 season-ticket holders before 2009. Now, there are 500, and the team has the highest attendance of all sports teams at KeyArena (that means the Seattle Storm) with an average attendance of 4,100 fans.

What happened?

“’Whip It!’,” Hoppe said of the 2009 roller-derby movie featuring “Juno” star Ellen Page. “Teenaged girls are a huge part of our demographic. We’re the role models that never existed.”

But it’s their parents too, which would explain why the average age of a Rat City patron is 41, and why a majority of them are college graduates with an average income over $100,000.

“I’m pretty sure they’re moms and dads,” Hoppe said. “They come for the spectacle and stay for the sport” — a ratio Hoppe now puts at “80 percent sport and 20 percent spectacle.”

“We are a full-contact women’s sport,” she said. “Our athletes are training year-round, and aggressively. And that’s one of the missions. To raise the bar, athletically.”

Culturally, they’re doing just fine.

The team is a well-oiled machine, with a marketing staff, merchandise and a fan base that other leagues would envy. Two of its members — including Hoppe — are on the board of directors of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

And a few weeks ago, the team barreled into the national spotlight when five of its 40 members appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Seattle,” raising the team’s profile on a national scale.

What it rakes in from tickets and merchandise, Rat City puts right back into the team, Hoppe explained. Uniforms, a Ballard training facility (called “The Rat’s Nest”), strength training for its all-stars and bringing in teams from other leagues so fans don’t get bored.

This season, Rat City is hosting the Gotham All Stars from New York, the Charm City Rollergirls from Baltimore, the Montreal Sexpos and the London Rollergirls.

“We want to train our fans to cheer for us, not just one of our teams,” Hoppe said. “And we want to get them invested in roller derby outside of Seattle.

“I’m so proud,” she added. “It was a fun and wacky thing to do, and it became something. A community.

“It’s like we say: ‘We’re more than meets the black eye.’ ”

Nicole & Co. appears on Sundays. Reach Nicole Brodeur at 206-464-2334; nbrodeur@seattletimes.com. Twitter: @nicolebrodeur.

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