Attendance figures for the 2008 and 2009 Speedway Grand Prix (SGP) series have finally been released from where they’d been held in a file marked ‘Top Secret’ inside the BSI/IMG bunker located on the outskirts of London. A quick first glance indicates that the SGP World Championship outlook remains cloudy and its popularity with fans is (for the first time) in decline. Indeed, even according to these BSI/IMG figures, fans prepared to pay at the turnstiles to see one or more of the events has decreased in aggregate. Worse still, upon closer inspection, these figures don’t easily allow comparative analysis, let alone that they also raise doubts about both their accuracy and the methodology used to compile them.
Firstly, these attendance figures remain – as they have done traditionally – suspiciously rounded. Is it really that likely that only two out of the 2009 SGP events don’t have smoothed attendances that end in 000,00 or 0? Experientially and statistically, this smells like stinking fish.
Secondly, questions remain about whether these headline figures released by BSI/IMG refer solely to customers who actually paid for their entry to the various events that make up the SGP series! Indeed, suspicions remain that the inclusion of complementary giveaways along with press & other gratis attendees have possibly inflated the attendance figures. Though, to be fair, lack of fan enthusiasm combined with the need to portray the stadiums as crowded on TV are possibly a factor behind the need for such giveaways. Nonetheless, standard practice in pretty well every other ‘professional’ sport – many of whom IMG either manage or promote – is to list the PAYING customers rather than artificially boost the total attendance figure with these ‘false’, non revenue earning additions. For example, when Sunderland AFC publish the attendance figure for any individual match, it includes all paying customers (season ticket holders & via the turnstiles). They don’t include SAFC administrative or playing staff, friends, directors, press, refreshment kiosk staff, ice cream vendors, programme stallholders, Police, medical & security staff, prize winners or, even, gratis/comp tickets etc. Not only would it be disingenuous to do so but, more significantly, it would mislead both sponsors and advertisers who’re prepared to support the club based on the level of guaranteed television exposure (in addition to the value they attach to audited/verifiable numbers of fans actually at the game).
Lets go back a few steps to interrogate these recently released SGP attendance figures. The Speedway Star (July 5th 2008) reported critically upon the decision-making capabilities of the Cardiff SGP referee, noted the frustration of involved riders and also stated, “42,187 other people in the stadium concurred with them”. Compared to the (suspiciously rounded) figures reported for previous GPs at Cardiff, this was at that moment a NEW ATTENDANCE RECORD. However, amazingly, BSI/IMG now subsequently report that, in fact, the 2008 figure was 42,600. Where on earth did these 413 extra people suddenly come from? Possibly they exist and have justifiably been added to the spreadsheet. Who can say? There’s certainly a variance. Whatever the explanation, at this late stage how fantastic that the wondrous brilliance of the event allied to the magnificently innovative BSI/IMG adverts to promote the Cardiff ‘experience’ ensured that greater success than stated in the trade press was achieved! Nonetheless it’s strange that the specialist press would get such specific detail wrong?
If 2008 became increasingly super wonderful, then Cardiff 2009 was even more amazing with a reported attendance of 43,000 (nothing randomly ‘real world’ like, say, 42,937 or 43,236, but exactly dead on 43,000 people attended). Sadly for the World Championship, even after all these post-hoc revisions, reported overall attendance for the whole SGP series showed a decline of 7.3% from a reported 186,972 in 2008 to 173,309 in 2009.
Worse still – somewhere along the line – the attendance spreadsheet compilers appear to have lost track of some important but understandably disgruntled fans….
Few can forget that after the mismanagement that resulted in the fiasco of the Gelsenkirchen postponement, all tickets (but no travel costs) were refunded to badly let down fans. It was reported at the time (Speedway Star October 18th 2008), “Bellamy revealed they’d sold 11,500 for Saturday’s event, a disappointing figure following the near 20,000*[* doh! it says 25,000 in the BSI/IMG figures] last season” and “as a gesture of goodwill [these fans] will be offered a free ticket to a BSI-promoted event [namely, Gothenburg, Copenhagen or Cardiff] in 2009”. Questioned in light touch fashion by SGP series Press Officer Philip Rising (Speedway Star January 17th 2009), Paul Bellamy lashed out against misinformation, inaccuracy and rumour on the Internet about SGP generally and the Veltins Arena debacle in particular. He also categorically stated, “ticket sales were not that bad, we would have been alright. We would never cancel an event because of poor ticket sales. They only make up a portion of the revenue, there is TV money**, sponsorship and, of course, the reputation of the series”. [my italics]. By midsummer (Speedway Star June 6th 2009), with a hint of self-satisfaction, it was noted that the offer of compensatory replacement tickets “pledge” for one of three BSI-promoted events had been “honoured”. A delighted Bellamy burbled, “we have distributed over 6,000 tickets for the Swedish, Danish and British GPS to fans who were at the Veltins Arena”. Interesting the same issue also noted about the 2009 Gothenburg GP, “BSI were happy with the 15,000*** [***doh! 15, 236 in the figures] attendance on Saturday”.
Sooo, though assumptions are often the mother of all mess ups, it appears though 11,500 tickets were “sold” for Gelsenkirchen, in addition to their refund only 6,000 or so fans could be bothered to get a FREE ticket for the 2009 SGP series (despite a choice of three ‘attractive’ SGP event locations). One explanation could be that the postponement and its financial aftermath left fans short because it wasn’t properly compensated; thereby, prompting these fans to never ever want to watch the SGP live (in person) again, even for free! Possible draft headline we won’t see: Mismanagement of German SGP drives 5000 fans from the sport. Or, possibly, the publicly quoted figure of 11,500 was another approximation that could be subsequently revised to suit. Either way, the total figure for 2009 might need to be adjusted by circa 6,000 to read 167, 309 or, maybe, has been under reported and should be revised to 179, 309! Given, that suspicions that these figures might (or might not) include comps/gratis/giveaway tickets already, then any existing or potential sponsors would be advised to give such attendance figures a random percentage reduction (of their own choice) before they make any decision to invest. Clearly no business invests solely on the basis of the criteria of attendances but it could be a factor in their decision making process.
Also, when 41 of the BSI/IMG contractual demands given to the prospective Gorzow organisers as conditions to stage part of the SWC were revealed in the Polish press**** – something potentially relevant to these unanswered questions about the veracity of attendance figures – they included the requirement, “BSI will also be given, free of charge, 250 tickets for the best seats on the Main Stand”. Given the small size of this venue, BSI contractual demands elsewhere in the larger, modern stadia they advocate for stagings of the SGP series could be higher. For fairness, even if we just stick to this benchmark of 250 an event for every location in the 2009 SGP series, then 2,500 attendees could possibly also already be included in the 2009 aggregate figure of 173,309. Obviously, BSI demands for such perks could have remained constant for 2008 & 2009, so the net comparative effect might actually negligible. Nonetheless, such ongoing philosophical questions about the accuracy of the figures quoted remains unanswered. In the light of the uncertainty about this information, advertisers and sponsors might still possibly need to apply a further haircut to the attendance figures.
Even more wonderful than the uncertainty that surrounds them or the ongoing playfulness with said SGP attendance figures is the news that in 2009 – at both Parken and Bydgoszcz – more fans were reported in attendance than the SGP website advertises as the maximum capacity of the stadium holds for either speedway event!***** At the time of writing, the BSI/IMG website claims the capacity of Bydgoszcz is 17,000 (2009 reported attendance 18,000) and that Parken is 28,000 (2009 reported attendance 28,600). Obviously both these stadiums can adapt (increase/decrease) the capacity of their facilities according to the demands of the event to be staged there. However, though only a “portion of the revenue” BSI/IMG earns from the SGP is “ticket sales” you have to assume that the capacity the SGP website reports actually bears some vaguely ‘accurate’ relationship to the ticket numbers they intend to sell? Particularly at Parken which is, after all, a “BSI-promoted” event!
Given that BSI/IMG have secured the future rights to the SGP under licence from the FIM for the long haul, isn’t it time the FIM properly investigated what on earth is going on to produce such possibly discrepant reported attendance figures? Some investigation of this particular aspect wouldn’t go amiss before perceptions that the “reputation of the series” has been damaged gains any unnecessary credence?
**** thank you to Roman Chyla for his translation into English of the article that appeared in the Gazeta Lubuska that he posted on the informative Yahoo speedway email forum (email@example.com)
***** taken from an article on the SGP that appears in the Spring 2010 issue of The Voice. (published quarterly – annual subscription £10) For more information contact on 0208 397 6599 or email firstname.lastname@example.org