Sky Sports British Speedway Viewing Figures 2002-2009

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there’s the wonderful moment where the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ gets asked (answer: quite a lot). Some speedway fans have had the temerity to wonder similarly – what exactly have Sky Sports done for British speedway (with their regular coverage of the sport)? On balance, this is completely positive but, at the same time, altogether less clear. Looked at in its simplest terms, the regular Monday night season long coverage of the Elite League (with occasional Premier League meetings plus the SGP & WTC) has – though it’s hard to exactly quantify with a monetary value – raised the profile of the sport with both sponsors generally and, much easier to establish, Sky viewers in particular. You don’t doubt the value of this exposure if you happen to follow a sport actually starved of this oxygen of publicity. Acclaimed rugby author David Barnes notes, “We wish we were on Sky every week. Actually we are – Sky Alba – in bloody Gaelic! The best we can hope for is that our teams play Welsh clubs so that we can get it on their channels!”

Even without access to any breathless Sky Sport press releases, it’s easy to quickly rehearse the benefits that have accrued to British speedway. Most notably: heightened visibility as well as additional lucrative sponsorship for both riders and clubs from businesses keen to have their brand associated with the high speed glamour of the sport. The sponsors also take advantage of the regular brand exposure Sky’s satellite broadcasts inevitably provide for the sharp-eyed viewer and/or potential customer.  The benefit of inevitable almost weekly Elite League coverage is also a countervailing influence that, arguably, also contributes the greatest disbenefits to (if such a beast exists) general public perceptions of the sport. Usually this is because the run-at-all-costs nature of television (advertising) scheduling requires that the show must often go on – even in damp suboptimal racing conditions that, unfortunately, can lead to a more processional, excitement light spectacle.  There’s also the secondary problem created by the structural difficulty of the current ‘small’ (but perfectly formed) size of the Elite League. This necessarily leads to devaluation of the entertainment value of the product on show as a result the sheer frequency of the number of times a limited number of teams get to meet during the season. For example, during the 2010 season, we’ve already got to see Poole or Coventry too often live on the telly while, for instance, Ipswich remain comparatively invisible. The ‘oh no, here they are again’ nature of this situation has also been thrown into sharper relief since the departure from the British racing scene of the box office impact of the head-to-head duels of so-called (GP) ‘superstars’ like Nicki Pedersen, Jason Crump and Greg Hancock whose battles used to delight the commentators and distract from the sometimes meagre fare on offer.

He who pays the piper calls the tune so the demands of regular coverage have also (allegedly or coincidentally) wrought various changes to the rules, regulations and governance of British speedway. Dependent on your age and point of view, some of these changes have been positive and others not. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous and include such things as the introduction of green helmet colours, the advent end of season Play-Off, the arrival of team suits and, even, the double dip tactical ride (joker) options. Some of these changes have – aside from the imperatives of maintaining the relationship and contract with Sky – also been driven by the sports own commercial revenue generating motives and, consequently, have unproblematically fed through into the other leagues.

However, all that glitters isn’t gold and the most significant impact of the arrival at any track of the Sky Sports outside broadcast unit is the deleterious impact on crowd levels prepared to come through the gates to watch a meeting live that, instead, they can watch on the telly from the comfort of their sofa. Until recent changes to payments individual clubs received as a balloon payments and staging fees, this was a problem that – in moments of stress or anxiety – the Elite League clubs management highlighted on a pretty frequent basis in the print media. This happens less nowadays since, as Dave Pavitt puts it so eloquently, “It’s alright now they get a good wedge. They didn’t used to but they do now!” Though this hasn’t yet happened when Sky deign to show Premier League meetings, Dave Pavitt believes familiarity can still breed contempt. “The Premier League crowds are up for those [TV] meetings ’cause it’s something different. When we had one at Somerset, we made a big effort and went out and really sold it to the fans, the local area, the media and the sponsors! But, when you get it four or five times a season, you get blasé. It’s human nature.”

Another, arguably more important, issue is that very few clubs have maximised the opportunity that the lure of the television cameras in their area can have upon both fans and sponsors. Exceptions are more notable than the rule. For example, Lakeside made a promotional virtue of the arrival in Thurrock of the television arc lights by ostentatiously throwing their gates open to all comers with the enticing offer of a free night at the speedway where new or stay away fans could sample the atmosphere, product and experience at no cost (other than their time, food and transportation). Admittedly Lakeside wished to detoxify perceptions of their location and also wished to assert the values of their rebrand of the club name, logo and aspirations. Nonetheless, their creative use of the opportunity provided by live satellite television coverage saw a reported 5000 crowd on the night and this initiative paid off handsomely in the medium term with significantly increased average crowds and greater sponsorship. This didn’t happen by chance or without hard work and serendipity. However, not all clubs have shown this creativity – preferring complacency to thoughtful action – instead proceeding to capture the financial benefit of the balloon payment and appearance fees immediately as they build ever tighter revenue budgets wholly dependent for break even (or profitability) upon their regular fix of Sky money. Few if any look to use these monies creatively with a view to down the line revenue acceleration or as a sunk cost in future rider development.

Outside the Elite League, after nine years of the increased visibility of the sport provided by Sky’s regular coverage, there has been no measurable uplift in attendances in the Premier or Conference/National Leagues. It could – albeit without corroborating information – possibly be argued that the glare of publicity has slowed any deterioration in crowd levels. I’m not aware of any PL/NL promoters claiming this in the trade press or their programme notes, let alone any speaking to any positive uplift in fan numbers as a direct or indirect benefit of the Sky contract. The trickle down effect of top earner tax cuts famously didn’t happen after Mrs Thatcher said it would and, in speedway, the notional increased recognition of speedway remains a dog that hasn’t barked at the turnstiles.

Indeed, the exponential growth of the satellite television coverage of the sport has foregrounded another potentially damaging implication for the health of British speedway. It’s spawned a new generation of fan who either don’t go to watch speedway live at all or, alternatively, helped retrain those who used to go every week to pick and choose their meetings. Clearly the present economic situation, ongoing admission price increases and the contemporary prevalence of speedway teams built to a restricted financial budget also play a part in this state of affairs but Dave Pavitt identifies this attitudinal change as another significant factor. “Nowadays there’s a new speedway fan! They get their fix in front of the telly on a Monday night and then, if they want to, they chose what speedway meeting they’re going to go to. At the big events – Pairs, World Team Cup, Cardiff, 4TT – crowds are up ’cause the fans know they’re going to see a good meeting with the best riders. The old speedway fan used to go and watch their team home and away – well, home at least! But now they don’t! If they still go they pick and choose. The new fan gets their fix on a Monday.”

Even more worryingly, despite the rise of the ‘new’ stay-at-home-on-the-sofa fan, total viewing figures actually peaked in 2008. This is definitely something for the authorities and the broadcaster to ponder after the previous exponential growth in their average and cumulative speedway viewing figures Sky Sports have seen since they first ‘invested’ in the sport in 2002. No one can doubt the professionalism of all aspects of the Sky presentation and outside broadcast team. However, their coverage of the sport isn’t founded upon altruism. Though, that said, we’re often told that they’re extremely happy with their relationship with both the sport  – raising suspicions that the contract adheres to their boilerplate and didn’t maximise value for the sport during the growth years – and the continuing viewer reaction. Nonetheless, in 2009, they lost around one million viewers as judged by the industry standard of the minute-by-minute statistical sampling method employed by Broadcasters Audience Research Board. BARB counts the average number of people watching any television programme throughout its duration (excluding advertising breaks). These viewing figures are publicly available online but time consuming to find and collate. Luckily, thanks to the diligence of speedway fan and writer Charles McKay, the usual not in front of children ethos that permeates information provision within speedway circles doesn’t apply. The viewing figures Charles so patiently compiled are reproduced here for your enjoyment below. You can draw your own conclusions. They do clearly show that the Play Offs are the real box office attraction and the season long campaign the necessary but less popular sideshow.

Any number of reasons could be advanced to explain the decline in viewer numbers in 2009 (though this will, in some quarters, be dismissed as a one off blip). Inaction shouldn’t really be the reaction but, to the naked eye, steady-as-she-goes appears to be the present response of the speedway authorities. However, some promoters privately still believe that the sport hasn’t been brave enough to embrace more radical options to transform the sport, make it more attractive and, thereby, (hopefully) attract more attendees through the turnstiles. Neil Machin is one such promoter who’s also prepared to comment publicly, “We’re actually in a leisure industry and people forget that…We have to look at what we are giving people. When cricket, the most boring game on earth – it’s been repackaged –to create a much more acceptable product. They realised they had to do something and it’s about time we realised we had to do something.”

The number of viewers prepared to watch Elite League speedway on Sky has continued to decline (so far) in 2010. (Or, to look at it another way, they might have robust viewing figures but don’t always fulfil the qualifying criteria of being in the Top 10 programmes shown on Sky Sports in any one week). So, the possibility that some might be asleep at the wheel could have significant and dramatic future implications. When I saw BSPA Press Officer and sports commentator Nigel Pearson at last season’s Redcar versus Edinburgh he sketched a possibly apocalyptic future scenario. “Without Sky, [Premier League] would be the highest level of sport in this country. People want to think about that! The riders here tonight at this level earn a living from speedway but, without Sky, it would become an amateur sport or semi-professional, at best! They’d all still ride speedway but they’d also have to work and fit in speedway around that! Without Sky, where would we be as a sport? It’s an interesting question for us all to ponder!”

Sky Viewing Figures

Date

Meeting

Audience

2002 League
27/05 – 26/05 Kings Lynn v Eastbourne 40,000
03/06 – 09/06 Poole v Coventry 70,000
17/06 – 23/06 Coventry v Eastbourne 130,000
17/06 – 23/06 Swindon v Arena Essex 70,000
24/06 – 30/06 Belle Vue v Peterborough 60,000
26/08 – 01/09 Oxford v Coventry 60,000

430,000

2002 PlayOffs
09/09 – 15/09 Play offs 90,000
16/09 – 22/09 Play off Semi Final 70,000
23/09 – 29/09 Play off Final 80,000
30/09 – 13/10 Play off Final 80,000
07/10 – 13/10 British Final 40,000

360,000

2003 League
24/03 -30/03 Eastbourne v Wolverhampton 50,000
07/04 – 13/04 Coventry v Eastbourne 60,000
14/04 – 20/04 Peterborough v Oxford 40,000
28/04 – 04/05 Poole v Eastbourne 60,000
16/06 – 22/06 Wolverhampton v Poole 90,000
23/06 – 29/06 Ipswich v Eastbourne 110,000
21/07 – 27/07 Oxford v Eastbourne 100,000
28/07 – 03/08 Belle Vue v Poole 120,000
11/08 -17/08 Coventry v Poole 80,000
18/08 – 24/08 Wolverhampton v Oxford 70,000
25/08 -31/08 Coventry v Eastbourne 80,000
01/09 – 07/09 Oxford v Wolverhampton 100,000
08/09 – 14/09 Eastbourne v Peterborough 80,000
15/09 – 21/09 Coventry v Peterborough 60,000

1,100,000

2003 Play offs
22/09 – 28/09 Play off Semi final 100,000
29/09 – 05/10 Play off Final 140,000
06/10 – 12/10 Play off Final 100,000
13/10 – 19/10 Elite Riders 80,000

420,000

2004 League
29/03 – 04/04 Arena Essex v Poole 130,000
12/04 – 18/04 Poole v Wolverhampton 60,000
19/04 – 25/04 Belle Vue v Peterborough 140,000
26/04 – 02/05 Coventry v Eastbourne 90,000
10/05 – 16/05 Ipswich v Coventry 70,000
17/05 – 23/05 Arena Essex v Belle Vue 70,000
24/05 – 30/05 Oxford v Peterborough 100,000
31/05 – 06/06 Peterborough v Ipswich 130,000
31/05 -06/06 Coventry v Swindon 100,000
31/05 – 06/06 Wolverhampton v Belle Vue 111,000
31/05 – 06/06 Poole v Ipswich 80,000
07/06 – 13/06 Poole v Arena Essex 100,000
07/06 – 13/06 Arena Essex v Peterborough 80,000
14/06 – 20/06 Eastbourne v Poole 90,000
21/06 – 27/06 Ipswich v Swindon 40,000
28/06 – 04/07 Swindon V Peterborough 80,000
05/07 – 11/07 Oxford v Eastbourne 120,000
12/07 – 18/07 Peterborough v Poole 100,000
26/07 – 01/08 Belle Vue v Arean Essex 90,000
09/08 – 15/08 Eastbourne v Ipswich 60,000
16/08 – 22/08 Wolverhampton v Arena Essex 40,000

1,881,000

2004 play offs
27/09 – 03/10 Play off Semi Final 90,000
04/10 – 10/10 Play off Final 80,000
11/10 – 17/10 Play off Final 80,000

250,000

2005 league
28/03 – 03/04 Wolverhampton v Belle Vue 100,000
04/04 – 10/04 Peterborough v Swindon 40,000
11/04 – 17/04 Wolverhampton v Poole 52,000
11/04 – 17/04 Swindon V Poole 53,000
18/04 – 24/04 Belle Vue v Ipswich 77,000
16/05 – 22/05 Eastbourne v Ipswich 63,000
23/05 – 29/05 Oxford v Wolverhampton 67,000
30/05 – 05/06 Poole v Ipswich 71,000
13/06 – 19/06 Coventry v Poole 67,000
27/06 – 03/07 Eastbourne v Belle Vue 90,000
04/07 – 10/07 Oxford v Swindon 36,000
18/07 – 24/07 Ipswich v Swindon 69,000
08/08 – 14/08 Eastbourne v Ipswich 76,000
15/08 – 21/08 Poole v Peterborough 106,000
22/08 – 28/08 Belle Vue v Eastbourne 125,000
29/08 – 04/09 Wolverhampton v Poole 107,000

1,199,000

2005 play offs
12/09 – 18/09 Play off semi Final 95,000
19/09 – 25/09 Play off final 79,000
26/09 – 01/10 Play off final 114,000

288,000

2006 league
17/04 – 23/04 Wolverhampton v Coventry 110,000
01/05 – 07/05 Poole v Coventry 113,000
06/05 – 14/05 Eastbourne v Coventry 124,000
05/05 – 11/06 Eastbourne v Swindon 88,000
19/06 – 25/06 Poole v Arena Essex 110,000
26/06 – 02/07 Reading v Poole 83,000
03/07 – 09/07 Belle Vue v Poole 89,000
10/07 – 16/07 Wolverhampton v Swindon 110,000
24/07 – 30/07 Belle Vue v Poole 112,000
31/07 – 06/08 Oxford v Poole 142,000
07/08 – 13/08 Belle Vue v Ipswich 127,000
14/08 – 20/08 Peterborough v Eastbourne 81,000
21/08 – 27/08 Coventry v Peterborough 154,000
28/08 – 03/09 Swindon v Ipswich 174,000
04/09 – 10/09 Wolverhampton v Swindon 115,000
11/09 – 17/09 Peterborough v Reading 95,000

1,827,000

2006 play offs
25/09 – 01/10 Play off Semi Final 122,000
02/10 – 08/10 Play off Final 145,000
09/10 – 15/10 Play off Final 124,000

391,000

2007 league
26/03 – 01/04 Belle Vue v Poole 145,000
09/04 – 15/04 Wolverhampton v Belle Vue 108,000
16/04 – 22/04 Lakeside v Poole 136,000
23/04 – 29/04 Poole v Coventry 153,000
07/05 – 13/05 Reading v Eastbourne 143,000
14/05 – 20/05 Poole v Lakeside 141,000
14/05 – 20/05 Birmingham v Sheffield 104,000
21/05 – 27/05 Coventry v Swindon 177,000
28/05 – 03/06 Belle Vue v Wolverhampton 115,000
18/06 – 24/06 Reading v Coventry 97,000
25/06 – 01/07 Wolverhampton v Poole 38,000
02/07 – 08/07 Eastbourne v Lakeside 126,000
09/07 – 15/07 Belle Vue v Swindon 162,000
30/07 – 05/08 Coventry v Poole 159,000
06/08 – 12/08 Swindon V Peterborough 146,000
13/08 – 19/08 Peterborough v Poole 132,000
03/09 – 09/09 Peterborough v Poole 121,000

2,203,000

2007 play offs
03/09 – 09/09 Peterborough v Poole 121,000
17/09 – 23/09 Play off Final 163,000
24/09 – 30/09 Play off Final 156,000

440,000

2008 league
31/03 – 06/04 Coventry v Eastbourne 205,000
07/04 – 13/04 Belle Vue v Poole 158,000
07/04 – 13/04 Peterborough v Eastbourne 122,000
14/04 – 20/04 Ipswich v Swindon 138,000
28/04 – 04/05 Swindon v Eastbourne 147,000
05/05 – 11/05 Eastbourne v Poole 130,000
12/05 – 18/05 Wolverhampton v Ipswich 154,000
26/05 – 01/06 Reading v Rye House 84,000
02/06 – 08/06 Wolverhampton v Swindon 160,000
09/06 – 15/06 Ipswich v Poole 137,000
16/06 – 22/06 Eastbourne v Lakeside 153,000
23/06 – 29/06 Belle Vue v Ipswich 184,000
30/06 – 06/07 Lakeside v Coventry 147,000
07/07 – 13/07 Belle Vue v Coventry 147,000
21/07 – 27/07 Ipswich v Swindon 114,000
28/07 – 03/08 Coventry v Peterborough 116,000
04/08 – 10/08 Lakeside v Eastbourne 122,000

2,418,000

2008 play offs
29/09 – 05/10 Play off semi Final 169,000
06/10 – 12/10 Play off 168,000
13/10 – 19/10 Play off Final 156,000

493,000

2009 league
06/04 – 12/04 Belle Vue v Lakeside 99,000
19/04 – 25/04 Swindon V Peterborough 94,000
04/05 – 10/05 Wolverhampton v Coventry 115,000
11/05 – 17/05 Eastbourne v Swindon 98,000
25/05 – 31/05 Coventry v Ipswich 121,000
01/06 – 07/06 Ipswich v Swindon 115,000
08/06 – 14/06 Peterborough v Coventry 89,000
29/06 – 05/07 Eastbourne v Swindon 72,000
27/07 – 02/08 Coventry v Lakeside 88,000
10/08 – 16/08 Belle Vue v Coventry 73,000
31/08 – 06/09 Swindon V Poole 93,000
07/09 – 13/09 Eastbourne v Coventry 91,000

1,148,000

2009 play offs
21/09 – 27/09 Play off Semi Final 177,000
28/09 – 04/10 Play off Semi Final 116,000
05/10 – 11/10 Play off Final 109,000
12/10 – 18/10 Play off Final 133,000

535,000


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