Elite League Reverse Ferret?

It’s not that long ago that the tablets came down from the 2007 BSPA Annual Conference mountain. We then learnt that the Elite League promoters were to self administer some tough tasting medicine to address both team strength inequality but also build a more viable long term future for the upper tier of British speedway! There was natty talk of a Three Year Plan and dramatic news came in the form of a reduced points limit that would force teams to discard some of their ‘star’ higher paid riders. Jason Crump was axed by Poole to reduce their strength and the Speedway Star gushed, “Matt Ford is hoping he has set an example for others to follow by throwing his weight behind the revamped structure of the sport…he believes it’s a sacrifice which had to be made for the future benefit of British Speedway after freely admitting the top flight had lost its way last season [2007]”. Fans might have cavilled at the watering down effect on the quality of riders on display prompted in part by these decisions but Dr. Ford only had medical metaphors and the strategic interests of the sport at heart, “I’m looking at the bigger picture which is the sport in general and major surgery was needed to bring the Elite League back into a more competitive structure. It’s a case of short term pain for long term gain.”

The credit crunching economic climate and the ongoing deleterious imbalance of revenues to costs in the Elite League (and elsewhere) prompted the 2008 BSPA Annual Conference to endorse the validity of the Three Year Plan while it glanced 80 years into the future and looked at the future legacy for as yet unborn generations. Its website quoted an excited person or persons unknown (probably Peter Toogood or publicly gung ho anonymous Working Party member), “Our wonderful and exciting sport has built 80 years of heritage in the hearts of our nation, and we are pleased to be at the pinnacle point of re-building its foundations to make for another 80 years and beyond of action where our aim is to capture the hearts of a new generation.” Known for his business acumen and careful husbandry, Chris Van Straaten endorsed the financial maturity of the collective wisdom of the trade association, “Our decision and faith to start the three year plan last season was endorsed by all the Promoters during a conference where one of our main concerns was to protect our fans and the sport from the effects of the current economic climate.”

Ever loyal, the safely ‘protected’ fans only vaguely murmured at the further dilution of the EL product for 2009. There would definitely be no AJ, Greg or Jason. Most teams would only have two ‘real’ heat leaders occupying the three heat leader positions but the future was in the process of being safely brightened. The narrative helpfully suggested by many promoters (as though reading from a pre-prepared script) was that there would be less disruption from GP riders, closer racing and (just add water) a new generation of stars would arise. All this was hopefully true and would also have the added benefit – along with other equalisation measures like the innovative league points structure – that it engineered closer meetings between more evenly matched, mutually competitive teams. Anecdotally some closer early season EL meetings have been proclaimed as evidence of the perspicacity of this vision. However, the comparatively greater absence of so-called “GP stars” only served to further highlight the changed nature and built to tighter budgets conception of the EL. If you closed one eye, it was possible to pretend that there was consensus and a limited egalitarianism with measured forward planning had triumphed over narrower, individual commercial interests that have tended to force the sport lurch from one bodged solution to compensate for yet another set of unintended consequences.

In even plainer terms, the monopoly position enjoyed in the EL by the Top Three successful clubs like Poole, Swindon and Coventry could notionally be threatened by the middle tier and even the ‘smaller’ clubs like Belle Vue, Eastbourne, Lakeside and Ipswich who’d in recent years occasionally find themselves condemned to the general vicinity of the basement. With the Three Year Plan in place, the upper echelons could now (theoretically) be reached by any club without busting the bank, while measured upward progression was possible if not fully back on the menu. The vicious circle of increased costs, on track struggle reflected by reduced numbers through the turnstiles looked like it might be partially broken and replaced by a more virtuous circle of co-operation and support among the EL promoters and clubs. Sadly, team changes news during the last week has seen the Three Year Plan unofficially declared dead on arrival before it’s even reached half way stage, let alone fruitition. The latest round of the speedway arms race has replaced the recent phoney armistice. In a superb example of the reverse ferret, Dr. Ford has suddenly changed his suggested cure and this revised diagnosis has seen Hans Andersen sign for Poole (now that he’s able to fit within their points limit) and, frequent points purge victims [with their unenviable forced selection choices between Hancock/Hamill & Nicholls/Harris] Coventry, have temporarily re-signed their own asset Scott Nicholls. Commitment phobic Matej Zagar has ventured to Blunsdon and more surprise returns to British speedway (“I love the fans but there are too many meetings”) are forecast to follow.

Indeed, if just for commercial reason of regular Sky appearances, more EL teams will have to ape the trail that the market leaders blaze. If any EL team is now to seriously compete for end of season ‘glory’, then “star” riders and what we’ve so often been told are their ‘inflated’ running costs are once again firmly back on the agenda. How long before we see AJ, Jason, Nicki, Greg or, even, (and wouldn’t it be wonderful) Tomasz back riding here on short term contracts only too happy to metaphorically kiss the badge and give their ‘all’ for ‘their clubs’? While it might look good stuff from the terraces, at a stroke it wrecks the oft heralded back to basics EL cost structure, condemns all clubs on a tight budgets to large unsustainable overdrafts and shifts the sport back as the plaything of those with deep pockets or the most vaunting ambition.

This might be the logic of the market – look where this has got the English football Premier League and banking – but ill behoves the trade association that is the often-factional BSPA. Even if it weren’t a recession, toothless governance and an ‘I’m alright Jack’ approach surely shouldn’t be the approach advocated by the collective in the cold economic and sporting light of day? Though Wolverhampton presently appear to buck the trend with a more considered approach to their 2009 rider selections, will they or teams like Belle Vue, Eastbourne, Lakeside, Ipswich (let alone any team brave enough to accept promotion from the Premier League) realistically become EL Champions while this approach to long term strategy and team building exists?

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