Wither speedway in 2008? Part 1

The annual BSPA conference is nearly upon us and, as is traditional before the tablets are brought down from the mountain to explain the latest configuration or colouring of next season’s deckchairs, various interested parties are getting their retaliation in first while pretending to put forward helpful suggestions. Because of the wide acknowledgement that there is the possible start of a malaise within British Speedway, particularly in the Elite League where the vexed issues of team strengths and relations with other foreign leagues had severe impact in 2007, its likely that there might actually be some radical changes implemented to overhaul the rules and organisational structure of the sport. There are almost as many opinions as there are fans and these appear on the forums, in local newspapers (never the national press) and, now another season of the protracted GP series is finally over to free up sufficient space within the pages of the Speedway Star, this last fortnight has featured some interesting and lengthy contributions on the topic. Mainly from the big beasts of the jungle in the form of asides, comment and guidance from promoters in general getting their ‘public’ tuppenceworth in but also, at some length, from the experienced Terry Russell and Neil Machin who’ve put forward their respective analyses and vision. They clearly don’t agree. I thought I’d spend a small amount of time comparing and contrasting their opinions in a few blogs on pertinent issues prior to the BSPA conference as there is no doubt that major decisions have to be made, problems discussed and they provide vital insight into possibilities given that they are part of the inner circle that runs speedway in this country. And, in the case of Terry, has had and continues to have a huge input in THE key relationship in British speedway – namely that enjoyed with our television partner Sky Sports.

Lets get the traditional obsequiousness out of the way, yes, its fantastic speedway appears on the (satellite) telly so much compared to times when we didn’t enjoy this oxygen of publicity and we don’t want to lose that coverage. However, to question some aspects of the relationship, take a critical look at the Sky coverage or to suggest ways we could build a better mousetrap doesn’t automatically mean I’d like the screens to go black. Given, I’m primarily looking at the debate about the future of British Speedway, I’m going to mostly ignore the GP coverage that appears on our screens in this blog. The fundamental problems that relate to this important relationship with Sky concerns the elephant in the room of the likely fact that the size of the television audience has little relationship with or impact on speedway attendances in this country (despite impassioned but unquantifiable statements to the contrary). By that I mean, no Elite, Premier or Conference club that I’m aware of has claimed that their revenues through the turnstiles has significantly/noticeably increased as a direct demonstrable result of this regular coverage (though I’m happy to be corrected). In fact, when the Sky cameras turn up (except for the play offs) attendances often drop dramatically from their ‘usual’ levels. The clubs are apparently contractually compensated for this situation in a number of ways – and the figures I have are ball park rumours so obviously suffer from inaccuracy – notably through the one off balloon payment each Elite club receives each season (circa £42,000) and also through the additional payment given to the host/home club for every televised fixture (£3,000). So, clearly who gets chosen and who does the choosing is a vitally significant factor for your business plan (and bank manager) as an individual Elite League club promoter. Basically, if your team enjoys success, has a line up Sky deems attractive to an armchair audience or enjoys favouritism, then they can clearly earn more from this relationship than some of their less fortunate counterparts. For example, if you’re say an Ipswich fan, your team only appeared on the telly in 2007 a few times (once?) at Foxhall Heath so your club – if they completed all their EL fixtures – would receive around £50k; whereas teams like Swindon or Coventry (buoyed by track success it has to be said) would because of their multiple appearances would earn something in the region of £60-70k.

These payments don’t probably compensate for the lost revenues through the turnstiles but, and it’s a big BUT, the oxygen of publicity helps each club maximise the value of the prime televisual real estate in the stadium that remains within the promoters control on race night – the air fence! Though Neil and Terry appear to disagree about the provenance and efficacy of air fences to the extent that Machin has to remind us, “air fences were introduced by the Elite League promoters, but for reasons of corporate branding and signage to accommodate Sky and others. But I have never said they were brought in by Sky.” The standard line on air fences tends to air brush this factor out of discussions and concentrate emphasis upon safety aspects, though my understanding is that no air fence in this country has received the award of the British Standards Institute Kitemark (usually awarded after a formal consultation process to establish the safety and efficiency of equipment through independent tests and analysis of documentation). It has to be said, whatever the approval process or which side of the provenance of the air fence debate you hold, that the danger caused by the positioning, protection and stubbornness of the stadium furniture behind the air fence is yet mitigated and still remains a really significant factor in determining the degree of injuries a rider sustains (ignoring those that get hurt when trapped underneath the fence). Nonetheless, I’m sure Terry and Neil both agree that there is money to be earnt from the sale of adverts. The chance to appear on the telly appeals to most people, let alone sponsors who book space adverts at the stadium, and clearly helps to defray some of the income lost through the turnstiles when the Sky lorries roll up on a Monday. Indeed, in my book Showered in Shale, Terry’s brother Ronnie Russell told me that air fences were the “most fantastic thing to happen in speedway for many years” since they improved rider safety, reduced club insurance premiums and, in the case of Arena Essex, increased safety fence space advertising revenues from £11,700 in 2003(when they were in the Premier League) to £80,000 in the Elite League in 2004.

Before I look briefly at some of the points of debate between Messrs Russell and Machin as it applies to Sky, I’d like to look closely at some of the thoughts of Nigel Pearson on the future direction of the Elite League as expressed, slightly bizarrely given its ostensible target audience, in the PLRC programme from Swindon. Nigel is our best contemporary speedway television broadcaster, works for Sky as well as the BSPA as its Press Officer with responsibility for the speedway world (rather than the national media), so he has access to the dramas, thoughts and attitudes of the key figures behind the scenes but, most significantly, is also a speedway fan. Consequently he’s ideally placed to read the runes and hear the whispers (not just through his own Chinese walls) while having enough involvement over sufficient years to place things in their historical context. He manages to be subtle, oblique but plain speaking in these programme notes and this should enable us to tease out some of the main touch points of debate between his various speedway employers. Interestingly Nigel notes, “It’s been widely reported that the top brass at Sky Sports have been less than impressed with a lack of close meetings this season…there’s no secret there. The abolition of the second tactical ride option clearly contributed to that situation. It was a move greeted with groans from the Sky corridors of power the moment it was announced last November.” Ironically, pretty well the only time in recent living memory when the speedway promoters have consulted with their fans (albeit other more strategic topics could have been chosen for debate) – albeit through the third party agency – was through the rather conclusive Speedway Star poll on the tactical rules in 2007. The traditional approach is to treat the fans as either slow on the uptake or recalcitrant children and tell them what they’ll get is what they supposedly want. Naturally having tried consultation, it can now be dismissed by the promoters and it’s most likely that this rule will change back again in 2008 (though possibly only for the Elite League). In part this is sensible commerce as it will satisfy the ‘entertainment’ remit that the sport has bought into when supplying its strategic partner Sky Sports with Monday night content on a regular basis (even though many of the matches shown in the 2006 season with this rule in operation indicates that it’s not necessarily the ultimate panacea some erroneously claim it to be). It was widely rumoured that the Star poll displeased the upper echelons of British Speedway since they honorarily got to feel like fans – i.e. they weren’t consulted before the poll was announced – and, once it became clear the way the wind was blowing, couldn’t then really ignore the conclusions without great linguistic sophistry.

This year the Star is back on message with some lengthy set piece debates but, significantly, no input from the paying customers via a poll on any issue (so far, though a non-contentious one may be found). A glance back in the archives about this tactical rule – as quoted in my book Shifting Shale (have you bought one yet? It makes ideal reading over the long speedwayless winter months) has Terry R explain the original genesis of the rule, “if the cameras are there and it’s a bit one sided, well, it would have happened anyway, but we do notice that we get the channel scanners…and at 9 o’clock, if we’ve got a meeting on and the scores are close, the TV audience increases massively. They’re the occasional viewers who flick through and watch it provided it’s close. You can increase by 50,000 viewers, which is wonderful” [15/11/03]. After the BSPA conference that year, Chris van Straaten [29/11/03] echoed that perspective, “the traditional speedway fan hates change, but we have to think of the new audience, the TV audience…[with] the new tactical rule”. In last weeks Star, Richard Clark mysteriously noted, “there seems to be an attempt in some quarters to re-write history”, something he views as indicative of a “strange Stalinesque bid” by some unnamed parties I’d personally like identifying. Interestingly in this context, Terry also isn’t adverse to some re-remembering himself, “that decision [on the tactical ride rule] was brought in by the BSPA a couple of years ago, to save money. No matter what tactical ride rule you have, be it the old one or the one we have now, they’re never popular…the fact is we are a sport and also an entertainment, and some of these runaway matches are no good.”

Though they’re never published, we’re always hearing what a massive success the viewing figures for speedway on satellite television are without any specifics (though strangely there’s never an auction for the rights to show speedway like there often is for so many other televised sports) and how the coverage invariably attracts new keen-as-mustard viewers. If we assume that speedway generates 25,000 new subscribers for the sports package for the duration of the speedway season that, by my calculations, raises £7 million (8 months x £35 x 25,000). Even if we reduced this by a factor of ten on the assumption that this talk of audience success was merely unsubstantiated BS, then the subscription revenues are still £700,000 before a single penny has been earnt through the sale of the numerous advertising slots during the frequent commercial breaks (less the costs that outside broadcast coverage and the GP rights purchase requires). Even if you take the most pessimistic outlook, that televised speedway results in no new subscribers but stops or reduces the flow of cancelled subscriptions during the summer months, then clearly Sky have huge vested financial interests in consistently maximising the entertainment value of what’s on offer from British Speedway with little or no concern about previous history, the long term implications of decisions made by the BSPA to the rules, make up and constitution of any of the speedway leagues or the future existence of most clubs. Given so much is at stake for the future, luckily Terry Russell tells us the promoters are in control of this relationship and, indeed, take total responsibility. This is contrary to the perspective often outlined by correspondents on the Internet forums where its claimed that the Sky tail wags the Speedway dog (though this may, of course, be a delusion at the Elite level where the speedway tail fails to wag the Sky dog). This high degree of control by the BSPA apparently definitely applies to the choice of play off dates (as much as rule changes), “I love the way everyone blames Sky, it’s got nothing to do with Sky. We, the BSPA, set the dates, we give the dates to Sky and they accept the dates. They don’t demand the dates, they get on with what we give them. When it’s not working, the blame is put on the wrong people. It’s us to blame”

The need for close relations with a valued commercial partner is a theme that Nigel warms to in his combative PLRC programme piece on possible future options for the sport. “So it’s time, in my view, for the Elite League to consult with Sky and get an idea of what they’re looking for. It’s a TV league, let’s be honest – and with some fine-tuning it can again become the best league in the world when it comes to the profile and standard of riders. However, Neil Machin has a good case for the Premier League [challenge meeting experiment between Stoke & Sheffield that saw reversion to ‘old’ tactical substitute rules and the white helmet colour]. Maybe the PL bosses should go back to basics – I don’t see any harm at all in different rules for the different leagues.” Personally I don’t agree with this suggestion about differential rules for different leagues (though we already have this to some extent) since it undermines any long term efforts to establish the credibility of the sport to outside parties, particularly the rather sceptical outside print media. We play the same football rules throughout the world from the professional leagues to parks football without complaint, so it would be peculiar if speedway in this country couldn’t manage that (even if the rules in the Swedish and Polish leagues differ to ours). When cricket in this country did dramatically tinker with the rules to create the 20-20 version this revolutionised the interest and the audience so, perhaps, if the Elite League is merely a television competition the BSPA should perhaps embrace that fact and thereby consider a television tournament with a severely reduced set of fixtures (a la the league cum knockout of the later stages of the Champions League for example. Or, maybe, It’s a Knockout?) that best suits their commercial partner rather than operate its present policy of death by a thousand rule changes and strategic initiatives. Such a Monday Night Speedway Masters league could have as many untraditional rules, jokers, squad systems etc as well as include the star attraction (and the best riders always attract interest even if riding in the primarily invitation only BSI GP isn’t any longer actually any indicator of superior riding skill) all those recalcitrant and reluctant wantaway GP riders – who in recent years have suffered so often from mystery medical complaints – could continue to ply their trade in the UK. The proper (non televised version) Elite league could then return to being a traditional home and away affair where finishing top on points meant you were champions. There could even then be possibility of the introduction of the promotion-relegation feature Terry Russell states he favours to restore excitement to the sport along with possible wider credibility.[On the Lakeside website a few days after this appeared when answering 20 questions on November 22 Jon Cook noted, “living with or without the GP series is the biggest issue facing British Speedway.” Until it’s resolved one way or the other – and this requires the clubs “to be brave and not come out with another fudge” – Jon believes the suggestion of a parallel but separate senior league without GP riders is a non starter. “I think that this is a sensible solution but always falls down because the second competition would be a lower standard and as such would not be financially viable, if previous experiments with the British League Cup are anything to go by.” All true stuff, though I do believe that a case could be made that these comments on reduced quality of the offering on display applied to some of the Elite League product served up to fans last year!]

You can tell I’m a speedway fan since I’m proposing a complicated, unworkable, impractical and expensive solution. Change is definitely needed but the recent past has shown the BSPA prefers a situation where the sport remains half pregnant and some of the fundamental issues remain unaddressed or decisions have to be tinkered with when more assertive or voluble promoters highlight how the law of unintended consequences kick in (to their disadvantage). Nonetheless, all the smoke signals would appear to suggest that promotion and relegation between the Elite and Premier Leagues (however formed) is a real possibility. This immediately throws up the issue of finance and, more specifically, balloon payments for the relegated team a la football (thereby often maximising the possibility of said team bouncing straight back onto the so-called gravy train), when money is comparatively short supply in the sport and the majority of clubs fail to make a profit. More importantly, most sports primarily automatically promote the champions and relegate the basement side with play offs only affecting the peripheral positions. This appears sensible and equitable, plus it’s easy to justify/explain.

The last few years has seen the Premier League spoil its product and ruin its integrity (but increase revenues through these additional fixtures) with the introduction of the play offs – supposedly to be televised – rather than award the trophy to the true champions based on the most points accrued via traditional one home and away fixture model. Whatever system is worked out, some clubs – even if they become the ‘chosen’ promoted club – will not have a sustainable business model at the Elite level. No disrespect to them at all, but it’s only a few short years since Berwick nearly won the PL and they clearly would endure a financial disaster if promoted (based on recent history, location, crowd size and race night). If made compulsory, this state of affairs would exacerbate the disequilibrium between the have and the have-nots the system tries to address. And, heaven forefend that this could happen in speedway, it also opens the possibility that a team reluctant to gain the accolade of promotion could gerrymander their performances to contrive to somehow accidentally ensure they don’t have to face this difficult commercial possibility. I really don’t envy the BSPA their choices and, whatever they decide, the sport will still struggle to gain credibility it craves as a sport to take sponsorship to the next level if its rules, organisation and disciplinary procedures continue not to be run by an administration independent from the promoters. The present situation or being a member of the management committee is an unenviable task in itself and appears, to any outside observer, as a situation fraught with vested interest.

Terry Russell identified that the 2007 Elite League suffered from an “imbalanced situation” that failed to benefit the clubs, the fans, Sky Sports or provide the necessary entertainment that would have new or existing fans turning out enthusiastically in profitable numbers. I do feel his worry that to continue the structural “imbalance” will result in “an awful sport [where] we all just won at home, and nobody ever won away” is overstated. His further anxiety, “what would be the point of travelling supporters?” overlooks the fact that they are already a dying breed except in the play-offs or those fixtures that have a strong local rivalry component (e.g. Glasgow/Edinburgh, King’s Lynn/Mildenhall, Mildenhall/Rye House, Poole/Eastbourne, Coventry/Wolves) or, possibly, years of rivalry that both sets of supporters still buy into (e.g. Rye House/King’s Lynn).

If the strength of the top teams reduced the weekly entertainment value of the sport at the Elite level (“the top four were very clear all year long and that made it very difficult”) and compounded the ageing nature of the format, then this tiredness was echoed in the Sky coverage. On the one hand I sympathise that they can only cover what they’re offered and a random selection of any sequence of 10 matches from 2007 would compare very poorly to the entertainment offered by a similar random sequence of 10 matches from, say, 2000 or 2001. However, the relentless boosterism that every week sees pretty well every race/meeting exaggeratedly and relentlessly greeted as the most brilliant ever along with the continuous promotion of the wonderful be-all-and-end-all GP series. A competition that BSI has extended to take its tired staleness to a whole new level inside flash stadiums on the (man made) tracks, thereby proving that the addition of more professionalism along with needless whistles and bells fails to compensate for the predictable paucity of the real product on show. This presentation over content has also fatally infected the Sky Monday night speedway viewing experience. There is no doubt that the hackneyed aural presentation has passed its sell-by-date and, in its own way, echoes an overall entertainment problem it has now become a part of rather than a solution for. Maybe the unpublished viewing figures have improved but if I was a sponsor or a strategist at Sky I’d be worried about my own contribution to killing this alleged golden goose. Terry Russell claims, “they’ve increased this year, viewing figures are still very good” but television is fickle, and often looks for brilliance and distinctiveness along with good value. At present, the contract can’t be renegotiated since it has three years to run and Terry sensibly highlights the commercial and negotiating imperative for speedway to, “keep improving and making the product right”.

Along with rights, I think Sky also has obligations themselves. In fact, unless they sort out some fundamental presentational flaws beset their product and that remain within their control, we could all be saddled with an oversold and tired looking product that reflects poorly on speedway to neutral viewers (or would be sponsors/advertisers). Tony Millard appears to have passed his best even as an occasional replacement for Nigel Pearson. In David Grant’s first novel Elephant, he cuttingly describes a detested industry colleague as “an idiot savant without the savant” though, as far as I know, he’s never seen or heard Jonathan Green do his beyond parody loud, hail-fellow well-met weekly shtick. A brief glance in the Speedway Star, just prior to broadcast, appears to be the sum extent of Greenie’s research and – even after many years work in the sport (as he often is at pains to remind us!) – his knowledge of speedway remains pitifully woeful. His pretend devils advocacy, his pathological desire for last heat deciders, silly jokes and buffoonery or his on screen chemistry with Kelvin doesn’t add anything to the equation or represent the sport at all well. Indeed I almost have sympathy with Kelvin for weekly having to work with such a person. It’s probably no coincidence that he sounds much more informed and engaged when given freer reign during the GP’s alongside Nigel Pearson. Green should be replaced and, perhaps, Sky could experiment with speedway presenters who prove themselves on a weekly basis at their own tracks and enthusiastically know their sport. People like Kevin Long, Kevin Coombes, Michael Max, Dick Barrie or Craig Saul spring to mind though there are others. They should be given their chance to succeed (or fail), as they’d add something to the viewer experience. Even someone like the decidedly retro Mike Bennett (of King’s Lynn and wonderfully entertaining DVDs fame), who has a long held ambition to perform at the Cardiff GP, could be considered and may even improve things. Though this may have an element of being the speedway equivalent of a tit for tit exchange. Articulate riders (or ex-riders) like Chris Louis, Mark Loram, Billy Hamill and David Norris should continue to sit alongside Nigel Pearson since they add insight to the viewer understanding/enjoyment and temper the occasional pro-forma will to bluster-cum-hyperbole (despite the fact he’s presently the stand out presenter of his generation). Sky also need to make structural change to the language they use to describe the on track action, most notably they need to introduce some greater integrity and honesty into their speedway presentations. Sky commentators on football, rugby and cricket have the confidence and authority to identify when the action provides a poor spectacle or fails to fulfil expectations but for televised speedway a screechy whitewash often suffices. They also need to ensure that they utilise skilled, knowledgeable practioners if they are to attract new viewers – if you’re told a GP or league meeting features “brilliant” racing but the evidence of your eyes is otherwise, then people switch off or don’t come back – and if they are to continue to build their franchise successfully for the future.

Looking positively to the future: if radical reorganisation plans are unveiled following the BSPA Annual Conference (and the vexed issue of youth rider development strategically addressed and sensibly funded) then British Speedway will find itself with its best opportunity in a decade to attract national print and broadcast media coverage. I deal with such media outlets in my work and, if I’d had the speedway account over the past few years, I’d have been fired by now since it’s a results oriented business and coverage has been extremely poor. Major news and features British Speedway stories have been squandered – I’m sure that these easily spring to the minds of fans and promoters alike – and, if you discount Cardiff GP coverage, the level of national column inches and interest has been execrable. Surely, it’s vital for the sport and the publicists they hire to seize this significant chance to draw full/renewed attention to this glorious (family) spectacle – staged nightly throughout the United Kingdom – to the attention of sports (and features) editors in a manner so compelling that they really have to consider why they don’t cover it on a regular basis. The rebranded version of our sport needs to position itself so as to stress its history, excitement and great value across all the leagues (not just the Elite one) in a way that stands alone from (but still complimentary with) the Sky coverage and the Grand Prix series as, ultimately, we’re selling a different and much more local/regional product that these glossier strands don’t really represent or encapsulate. This ‘bigger and better, back to our roots and patriotically follow British Speedway’ approach is surely the only cost effective way to attract new or returnee fans, enthuse youngsters to serve an apprenticeship in our sport and, most importantly from the promoters commercial point of view across all three leagues, potentially attract new sponsorship from companies keen to join in this new era for our sport and the wide geographic coverage across three countries it can offer.

In a nutshell, we need to have a structure we are proud to capably advocate and display to the outside world aided by a television partner who refreshes their offering in order to presents our sport attractively, innovatively and accurately.

Shortly, my next blog will look at the vexed issues of “foreigners” and youth development.

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