Barry Hearn on British Speedway
WHENEVER the current circumstances of British Speedway are discussed, you are apparently never more than three minutes away from the suggestion that an independent body is needed to run the sport in the UK to restore it to its rightful and/or former glory. What exactly this will involve is either discussed in painful copious detail or remains airily broad-brush. Certain ‘hooray words’ frequently recur. Mostly “independence” and “leadership”. Preferably of the strong type. Lapsed and existing fans regularly bemoan the (alleged) ills of the current structure and direction of speedway in Britain. They also frequently rail against a system where promoters make, amend or ignore the rules as well as endlessly revise stuttering revival plans while also getting to mark their own homework on the results. Unsurprisingly this system of assessment tends to deny the existence of problems (whether structural or temporary) in favour of celebrating real, ongoing or imaginary triumphs.
If there is consensus on the need for an independent body to make difficult decisions and dictate in authoritarian fashion, its terms, make-up, strategy and leadership remains subject to endless debate and dispute. Those wishing for a vegetarian with extensive speedway knowledge and experience to head things up often tend to mention ex-referee Tony Steele. However, overwhelmingly, time and again people demand that successful sports entrepreneur Barry Hearn is given free rein to work his proven sports revitalisation and revolution magic. “Only Barry Hearn can Save British Speedway” has been said or claimed so often, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a proven fact, legal requirement or a specially written shale flavoured Buddhist mantra to chant at home. Or, better still, outside the bar of the BSPA AGM hotel in protest at imputed inactivity inside. After all, the story goes, Hearn is the man with the contacts, marketing savvy, ego, proven track record and personality big enough to knock riders, fans and promoters heads together. And, thereby (almost magically), wrangle speedway back into its rightful status as part of the national consciousness and national conversation it once notionally enjoyed as its birth right.
After all, Barry Hearn is the sports entrepreneur who took snooker from obscurity to fame – and back there again – as well as made darts the unalloyed joy to watch and talk about nowadays its boosters so often hail. Obviously, we have to set aside any reservations about such comparisons with snooker and darts – not least, both these pastimes aren’t quite proper sports (either) like speedway as well as the dangers of intractable internecine governing body disputes, variable (frequently satellite paid subscription) broadcast coverage and inferior almost no-name brand sponsors – and instead look to the sunlit uplands that speedway supposedly still merits but currently doesn’t have but might gain or start to properly beckon under the mythology of Hearn’s firm hand of authority, leadership and marketing pizzazz.
Until Audible (major audio platform that part of Amazon – last year Michelle Obama’s Becoming was the most downloaded Audible content; in 2018 it was Stephen Fry’s Mythos) made their five-part “Speedway” podcast (available to sample or buy here), no-one had ever to my knowledge – on the record, anyways – asked Barry Hearn for his thoughts and ideas on the state and likely future prospects of British speedway. Podcast researcher, producer and writer Chessie Bent along with acknowledged speedway fan and F1 Presenter Jennie Gow have now righted this wrong to fill this gap in our knowledge.
Bazza Hearn laconically but confidently gives them his take on the possibilities, problems and qualities of speedway: “It doesn’t necessarily need a Barry Hearn, what it needs is someone with my ethics. They have to be passionate about the sport but they have to be business minded. They have to be realistic and they have to graft their nuts off… in those days they were getting good crowds, big crowds at speedway, and I don’t know why the sport is in the demise it currently is. Somewhere along the line, they made a wrong move or didn’t maximise or maybe got complacent. It was easy but now we see a sport that looks to be <sigh> I won’t say it’s terminal decline because they’ll always be hard core pockets of resistance. But would you wanna be a speedway rider? And put your life on the line at all those speeds for nothing? Or for very little? They were household names thirty years ago, famous people, and big crowds at Belle Vue and places like that. People still talk about it and probably because some of the premises are slightly in decline as well they’ve not offered the level of entertainment value today’s consumer wants. And when you couple that all together. Whereas, if something is going higher and higher, it’s quite easy to ride the coattails but it actually works the other way round, it’s really difficult to stop the decline.”
Hearn continues, “motorsports is massive….[so] where did it all go wrong?….the Blazers, while they love the sport, are just not the businessmen of today. If you don’t treat it like a business that’s fine you will still have people who absolutely love it. What’s not fine [is] if that passion is not shared or is not delivered in a package that’s acceptable to today’s consumer [then] that passion is wasted cos you’ll get nowhere…better people than me would have to do market research to say ‘is this a reasonable proposition? Or, are wasting our time?’ It’s a hard decision to take but you either invest or work to take it forward or you give up. What you don’t do is just sit there in a slowly declining market because it’s boring”
Sadly, studying to these responses or reading between the lines, it turns out Barry Hearn appears to be the one person on the planet who thinks speedway can’t be saved by Barry Hearn. Or, possibly, can’t be saved at all. It is hard to say if Hearn’s disinclination to get involved comes from an antipathy towards motorsports, avoiding a thankless impossible task or because there is insufficient margin, time or personal interest for him to be bovvered to consider it further. It definitely isn’t because Hearn hasn’t heard of speedway or doesn’t know enough about it (if he didn’t he could easily find out) but clearly for Barry this speedway parrot wouldn’t zoom even if you put 5000 volts through it.
Other interviewees include: Scott Nicholls| Sophie Blake| Keith Chapman| Paul Bellamy| Chris van Straaten| Steve Park| Mark Webber| Arnie Gibbons| Billy Jenkins| Reverend Michael Whawell| Nigel Pearson| Kelvin Tatum| Joe Parsons| Phil Lanning| Professor Simon Chadwick| Ellie Norman| Krystian Natonski| David Rowe| Bert Harkins| ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton| Dickie Davies|