Back when I used to write regularly, I was always trying to save British speedway. I’d make suggestions of how each problem that came up could be avoided or fixed, with the usual caveat that it wasn’t my money and that my ideas could always fail in practice.
However, it seems to be the thing at the moment, with even the industry bible Speedway Star acknowledging that that sport is on its uppers (although strangely quiet about the often-shambles that is the Speedway Grand Prix series…), and so I thought I’d return to the subject, with one last, desperate swoop at saving the day. Hey, I never pretended I didn’t have delusions of grandeur!
So how to do it? Well, the first step is to listen to the fans. In a sport like football, or like cricket, or Formula One, the fans are an afterthought. They’re there to provide atmosphere and their money doesn’t really make all that much difference to the fortunes of the big players. It was theorised that the last big Premier League football deal – the one before the giant one they signed earlier this year – would have allowed clubs to take £20 off the price of each ticket without any change to their fortunes, so you can kind of see that the fans really don’t need to be listened to.
In speedway, however, the fans bring the bulk of the cash through the turnstiles. Furthermore, because speedway promoters aren’t actually very good at the promoting bit (and those that are are hamstrung in the age of social media by a restrictive media rights deal), it’s pretty important to get the fans on your side. The traditional way of doing this has been to do whatever the hell you like and expect the fans to turn out, regardless, because where else are they going to go for their speedway? Unfortunately, many promoters are finding that fans would rather do without…
There are many gripes from fans about the current British speedway product, and I could be here all day listing them. It’s probably better to ask what the fans want, rather than what they don’t like, and with that in mind there seem to be three main desires – they want regular speedway, they want to see the same team week in, week out, and they don’t want to pay too much to see it.
Regular speedway used to mean weekly meetings. When I first started going to Coventry, you knew every Saturday would be speedway night. Well, except for the first Saturday in every month, when stock cars ran, and the Bees would be away at one of the other Saturday night tracks. The only time a World Championship meeting interfered with things was the World Final, once a season, and fans got into the habit of going every week.
The same was repeated up and down the country and it’s paramount that we get back to that. Again, using Coventry as an example, in 2013 the promotion introduced National League speedway alongside the Elite League Bees and were rewarded with healthy crowds for both, despite a lacklustre campaign for the senior side. It’s no coincidence that 2014 & 2015, which have been disjointed and broken, saw crowds fall alarmingly for the Storm, and rise by a little for the Bees, despite much-improved EL seasons. You can get out of the habit, you see?
Whether it be weekly, or fortnightly, there has to be a set pattern for speedway. Fans can’t leave a meeting knowing there won’t be another for a month, or sometimes even not knowing when the next one will be because rain-offs have yet to be restaged! Get the fixture list right and you’ve got a captive audience for the rest.
Quite how you do it is another thing. The simplest way also impacts on the second fan desire – and more of that in a minute – and that is to declare a unilateral fixture list. Being a member of the FIM, and signing up to their international calendar, means that you won’t always get first priority in the international fixture list, but there’s no rule against running the meetings regardless, it just means availability of riders is lessened. And that might a blow to some but its impact – for me, at least – is offset by the gain from that regular racenight.
So, that (kind of) sorted, on to the next fan desire: they want to see the same team week in, week out. It used to be that your club would declare its one-to-seven at the start of the season – often as late as press & practice day – and, barring injury or dramatic loss of form, that would be the seven that saw you through. They’d ride in the majority of meetings, if not all, and guests and other facilities were minimal. Yeah, sometimes your top man got injured and you’d use a guest, but often any gaps – and certainly those lower down in the team – would be filled by a “junior”, one of the unattached riders who rode second-halves at your track.
Nowadays, it’s not unusual for half or more of the fourteen riders on show to be missing, replaced by the horrid rider-replacement facility or a guest from other team. I’ve always accepted guests for what they are but their use has gotten ridiculous, and facilities are being granted for the flimsiest of reasons, and there are other fans who’ve never liked guests, drifting away from the sport or moaning into their programme boards on their way to drifting away from the sport.
It’s accepted wisdom that there aren’t enough riders to go around for our leagues, and I’m not sure that’s true. But even if it is, is it not putting the cart before the horse? If there aren’t enough riders to go around, there are too many teams. But that’s the curse of a speedway culture that sees league racing as the only thing worth promoting. For proof of that, they point to non-league meetings drawing less than league meetings, but that ignores that those meetings usually have a lesser field for the same price and that if there is a choice, people will go with what they know. What if there was no choice? What if there was only non-league racing? We’ll never know because it hasn’t been done for thirty years…
But let’s accept, for a moment, that there are enough riders. That you can find 196 riders to fill team places at the 28 standalone clubs in the UK (with six-rider teams it falls to 168). You then have to ensure that those riders put the UK first, ahead of anything other than their own championships and league racing (and those clashes are easily avoided when picking your team). Where is the logic in a UK team not being able to run a meeting – or utilising a facility for a missing rider – when an Australian is riding in Poland? Or a Dane in Sweden? Baffling.
Fans want to know that their riders care about their team. It may not be true – witness the “kissing the badge” craze in football – but as long as the riders make a good stab at pretending the fans are easily pleased. They don’t want to know that, actually, riders value their Polish and Swedish clubs higher because they pay more. It may be a fact of life that the different models of sport, politics, and business in those countries allow that sort of cash-splashing, but it shouldn’t affect how we do things.
No, find a group of riders – and they are out there – who want to ride British speedway as their first priority – and go with those riders ahead of any others. Again, like with the issue of regular speedway, the loss of fans who only want to see the “best” may well be outstripped by the gain from fans who find that, actually, having a TEAM to support is much, much better (see Birmingham and Eastbourne this season for proof of that…).
And that neatly brings us to the fact that fans want cheaper speedway. The cost of speedway has spiralled in recent years, out of kilter with other forms of entertainment. None of it – or very little - has gone into the pockets of the promoters, it’s that their costs have often increased and the loss of fans – for so many reason, including those above – has made things worse. It’s obvious, from when promotions run offers and are rewarded with much bigger attendances, that there is a desire to see the sport, it’s just the price that may be holding people back.
But even if there was a will to reduce ticket prices across the board, how do you do it when the costs are so high? Well, you either run at a loss (or increase other avenues of income – tricky) or you reduce costs. I was privileged enough to get a look at some accounts in recent years and rider costs for one team made up 65% of the outgoings. That’s at least £12 of the £18 you pay at your local Elite League track going to the riders, and maybe more because some teams are absolutely running at a loss.
There’s an old saying, “cut your coat according to your cloth,” which is being ignored by promoters up and down the country. They’re stuck in an arms race, paying out two thirds of their money to riders who are arguably not drawing the fans in to pay for it. And part of that is because it’s become an accepted thing that speedway riders are professionals, despite participants in sports with similar crowds being very much semi-professional at best. And it never used to be the case – the title-winning Ipswich Witches side of 1984 had only four full-time riders!
It’s not a case of whether the riders deserve full-time money, it’s whether that full-time money is there. And it’s not. And that, in itself, may help make the first two items on fans’ wish lists more possible. If you are drawing from a pool of riders who are not earning the big money – those unlikely to be missing fixtures because of the SGP, SWC, Polish & Swedish leagues – then regular fixtures and consistent teams become easier to achieve…
As an aside to this, and because I’ve mentioned it above, one way to reduce prices is to get more fans through the gate. You know a simple way of doing that? Get the product – which is often very, very good – out there for as many eyes to see. How do you do that? Videos on YouTube, linked to Twitter and Facebook, and highlights on any page that will have them. Easy, right? Especially in these days of simple uploading and wi-fi and 4G. Well, not if the contract signed with Terry Russell prevents it. Imagine that – the most visually exciting of sports going unseen by millions of potential fans!
There’s no easy answer to speedway’s current problems. If there were I’m sure even those promoters whose intellect we cast shadows on would have found it. It requires bold and innovative thinking, broad strokes rather than tinkering with the rules (and don’t get me started on the rules!), and a willingness to truly re-shape the British speedway landscape.
(There are other, smaller issues that need to be addressed, and maybe I’ll be back with those if there’s a willingness to hear it. I understand it’s a difficult time for a lot of people in the sport but time is ticking…)