FIM Speedway Grand Prix exclusive rights auction (2022-2031): part 2

THE Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) £100+ million Promoter of “the Championship” – aka the  Speedway Grand Prix (SGP) & Speedway World Cup (or Speedway of Nations) – contract is still up for grabs and a decision is expected shortly. With only BSI IMG and Eurosports Events (part of Discovery) the only two bidders remaining in contention in the FIM auction for these exclusive rights to promote and stage “the Championship” from 2022 to 2031, now might be a good time to briefly review BSI’s bid strategy such as we can intuit it from their frequently self-regarding business performance over the past two decades.

Rather helpfully the FIM provide a useful hand-holding template for bidders as well as various requests for further detailed information. The FIM are keen to establish, “the vision of the candidate with regard to the organisation and promotion of the Championship and, more precisely, to its marketing positioning, its promotional and commercial strategy, and ultimately its business model” as well as “an outline of a multi‐year business plan for the Championship, including the investment the candidate is ready to commit in order to develop the Championship together with projected return on investment.”

As my initial blog on the FIM tender clearly showed, BSI have been able to achieve hard to beat close to incredible rentier margins – over the last decade and longer – by exclusively holding the exclusive rights to “the Championship”. This performance is primarily because they have ‘free rode’ on the (pre-) existing speedway universe and its infrastructure (riders, venues, fan base) without need or requirement for investment, contribution or – worse of all – long term strategic vision for the sport. All they had to do was pick up and run with whatever bits took their fancy and leave the rest without having any obligations or duty of care. Almost every BSI ambition, goal or promise made originally – at the time of signature on a two decade exclusive contract – or subsequently has mainly not been met while also being hailed as a stunning achievement by heavy breather media either in BSI’s employ or beholden to them as major advertiser as well as on an access, grace and favour basis.

Sorting the reality of the wheat from the word fellatio chaff is pretty straightforward even if we pick out a few of the FIM tender document metrics

<Geographical expansion of the Championship>

If conquering new geographies or discovering new SGP staging countries were BSI donor organs, then almost universally the speedway body has completely rejected the transplant and, more worryingly, either the new markets and new audiences patient is dead or theoretically barely just alive on life support. The best that can be said when it comes to the future (and next contract) is that so many countries and geographies remain studiously unexplored. Primarily because, like the dead parrot, speedway wouldn’t vroom in most of these places even with the 10,000 vaults of strategic investment and actual serious marketing spend that BSI have never yet really committed to exploiting these new business/market opportunities. Worse still, the blow-in one-off speedway big night out (on mediocre, often one-off, tracks) BSI business model definitely doesn’t even build up to an evening of thrills on a regular basis. Let alone provide the foundations for a community or, presented as these SGP meetings currently are by BSI Speedway, generate never mind sustain curiosity. Given BSI Speedway are a European based organization, it has proven completely beyond their investment horizon, wit, ingenuity, planning, intelligence and basic business ability to even try out events in any of the European motorcycle mad countries – such as Spain or Portugal. All this despite, in latter years, often boasting that their acquiring parent company owner IMG is the biggest/best/most global sports rights marketing company in the world. In this respect too, IMG have been truly pitiful too as they apparently have no inclination to leverage their expertise, event templates or worldwide media/television contacts but, instead, prefer to maximise and bank significant inter-company payments their lack of activity – to outside observation – scarcely merits.

Looking at specifics, BSI’s foray into Italy – a pre-existing speedway nation (PSN) rather than new market prior to their arrival on the scene – ended in failure. The one-trick speedway marketing pony of big city big stadia of John Postlethwaite – that saw Philip Rising hail him (his number one advertiser) as a  “genius” – has regularly flopped expensively and embarrassingly badly (even if we ignore that such tentpole events have a cost base way out of kilter with actual or potential revenues). Though Cardiff is the one swallow that makes a summer, this alleged business expansion model was anything but scaleable. Examples of BSI’s modern city big stadia strategic failure are legion throughout Europe – from Hamar, Norway to the Friends Arena in Stockholm via Gelsenkirchen, Germany – these events have struggled for crowds as well as either profitability or popularity. Though hard to believe possible, ventures to continents further afield have only been of the even more pitiful variety. Indeed, though BSI Speedway have reserved their ‘new market’ expansionary activity to Down Under, their business model, smarts and acumen has been found sadly wanting if judged by their ill-considered and ham-fisted multiple abortive SGP adventures to break into both Australia and New Zealand (both PSN) which all ended in acrimony and failure.

Of course, to pick a few random examples, with a bright future to talk up for the purposes of their respective tender documents, bike mad countries such as Japan, Thailand and America (or ambitious oil rich ones like Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi) will all probably find passing mention as serious new market opportunities in the BSI and Discovery bids. I expect that they were probably all mentioned in the original BSI submission over twenty years ago. Like talk of sightings of the Loch Ness monster, aliens and unicorns, the ambition to take the Speedway grand prix to new faraway locations has been so often mentioned – but not even vaguely started to happen – in the interim that if these promises were a rock the size of Stonehenge, they have been worn smooth by their repetition and inaction into a tiny pebble meantime. Indeed, at the time BSI first breathed news of the United States of America as a possible new country option for the SGP to develop for the greater good of speedway, Greg Hancock still had well over a year to go until his thirtieth birthday!

<Sponsors>

Rather than find, develop or source their own, BSI Speedway have never been unafraid to poach – but rarely retain – existing speedway club sponsors (especially British ones) with the promise of the SGP bright lights and celebrity as well as the joys Millennial Stadium corporate hospitality entertainment options. Where BSI Speedway really stand out is in how they have perfected their little name unknown brand regional sponsor strategy rather than take the route of landing big name global brand widely known sponsors. BSI have almost a 100 per cent record in failing to entice big brands attracted to and keen to exploit their shrinking often ageing SGP audience demographic.

Just a brief glance back in time to 2003 shows the SGP was sponsored by such illustrious brands and businesses as: Teng Tools, Kamasa Tools, Wales Tourist Board, Karcher, Fiat Commercial Vehicles, JCB and Castrol. By 2008 the key/major SGP sponsors were: Visit Wales, Wonderful Copenhagen, Dansk Metal, Speedy Hire, JAK Workwear and Veidic. Fast forward to 2011 and the SGP had somehow by a miracle retained the sponsorships of Visit Wales (and rather amazingly continue to get gifted £ millions of Welsh taxpayers money for – it seems – absolutely no accurately quantifiable benefit), Dansk Metal and Visit Copenhagen. Continuing to attract the Local Tourist Board expertise BSI Speedway IMG have made their sponsorship watchword, saw Leszno Spread Your Wings, Gorzow Haven and Goteborg.com added to this illustrious obscure European regional towns/countries with ideas above their station and budget to match roster along with sponsorships from global brands such as Nice, Mitas, Neva FM, Just Eat, Exide Batteries and Polska Grupa Energetyczna. By the present day (2019), BSI had attracted many notable sponsorships including those of the world famous Az company from Torun, Anusol the hot Turkish tyre manufacturer and – if judged by their logo – the prestigious horse grooming company Adrian Flux.

<Revenues (sources)>

Arguably this is an area where BSI have shown some innovation to clearly demonstrate that they are really an events staging company who just happen to have the rights to something – speedway – that they have little or no interest in and less duty of care towards. The basic BSI revenue model combines income from five channels, namely:

TV rights

Sponsorships

Staging rights sub-contracting (covered under the “venues” sub-section heading below)

Brand licensing

Ticket sales

Naively speedway fans often wrongly assume that exclusive ownership of the SGP rights means that BSI will seek to maximise the numbers of fans attending as they erroneously presume that this is the primary focus and aim of their business. Obviously, getting more fans through the turnstiles theoretically involves exciting racing by talented riders on tracks that enable and encourage overtaking. Sadly, of course, the reality is vastly different as BSI have preferred to serve up only one leg of their very wonky stool (talented riders) on a regular basis. The brute reality is that selling tickets to fans is the lowest priority of the BSI SGP revenue streams. Obviously, as a sports marketing company, the sale of television rights is the stock in trade of BSI. Judged by the UK experience, television audiences have been on a precipitous decline for many years.

Though this is an existential threat for speedway generally, it barely impacts the BSI revenue model as so long as they maximise the volume of rights sales, the quality and calibre of the full live product shown is irrelevant as they are very practiced at delivering exciting show reel style highlights edits that mask the turgid processional reality of the majority of the actual racing. Those who disagree with this analysis that the SGP is an endless series of processional races with little or no drama really do need to explain the reason(s) why the television audience figures are declining if it is not the quality of the product shown? Given the professionalism of the pictures and edits, it can only be commentary team, the programme format, the inconvenience of its broadcast time or basic lack of popularity for Grand Prix speedway. [Obviously the dim bulbs at both BSI and the FIM appear to continue to believe that this is because the SGP isn’t an exact replica of Formula 1] It is also worth noting that the current FIM contract with BSI appears to have no penalty clauses at all for poor performance – on track or off (aka whether it’s for performance or sackable Twitter comment reasons) – just so long as the FIM fail to get paid their £2 or so million rights royalties every season. Once the contract was awarded – in dubious circumstances according to the late John Berry among others – BSI could treat “the Championship” but especially the SGP with impunity without penalty, fear or consequence provided they pay the FIM their fee and adhere to the FIM’s hardly userous technical staging rules and regulations.

Anyways, I digress, BSI’s business model to maximise television rights sales to anyone and everyone – no matter how obscure or how limited their subscriber base or audience figures – provided they pay has seen the speedway television audience whither on the vine. While, simultaneously, national and/or PROPER free to air broadcasters – to be clear let’s list the only proper free-to-air national television stations in the UK: BBC 1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5 – studiously steer clear of serving up or inflicting the guaranteed turn of live SGP racing product upon either their advertisers or audiences.

With a “championship” bid from Discovery channel who own Eurosport (and Eurosport Events) on the table at the FIM we do, now, also need to reality examine the possible strength and promise of their television audience proposition and credentials. These are something Simon Downing, Head of Factual and Sport Discovery UK terms, “our growing motorsport offer” that Eurosport hope to parlay into the “go-to destination for some of the most exciting two wheel championships”. If the definition of “free to air” television channels is stretched to breaking point beyond all credibility and rationality then a whole number of “Freeview” channels no one has heard of or even chooses to watch unless smashed off their face when in control of the remote, then – maybe at a complete push – we could start to count mish mash ultra-obscure with watching-paint-dry style content channels such as DMAX or Quest. These channels are so obscure they aren’t even the late night channels speedway fans usually skip over or pass out in front of randomly. If we glance at the BARB audience share figures for September 2019, then DMAX fails to reach 99.63% of the UK viewer audience while Quest does fractionally better by failing to reach 99.09% of UK viewers. Both of these perform way better than Eurosport who – even if you combine their premium channels 1 and 2 – only reach 0.17% of the UK audience. If we combine the total audience of Quest, Eurosport 1, Eurosport 2 and DMAX then 98.55% of the UK television audience DON’T watch these channels at all. This is quite a shop window. It is worth noting that Eurosport are likely to enjoy similarly poor audience share figures in other European countries. As a UK comparison, in September 2019 BT Sports – despite being ‘Premium’ (aka NOT free to air) satellite channels – had over three times the audience share (at 0.58%) of Eurosport 1 and Eurosport 2 channels combined (at 0.17%). Or what the Speedway Star optimistically hails as a “broadcasting giant” – in recent articles without byline in the same issue – and Eurosports’ “potential reach to 87 million viewers”. POTENTIAL is something very different from likely. It is theoretically possible, of course, but only if every other television channel in existence suddenly ceases to exist and viewers still want the comfort of something showing in the background.

Even robust, highly regarded well known commercially independent sports specialist satellite channels – such as Sky Sports in the UK – have struggled beyond the false dawns of first blush interest to make live speedway (British and SGP) of any stripe a success or, indeed, attract advertisers at severely discounted rates. Many years after they – sensibly – frequently relegated SGP live broadcasts to the moving wallpaper Siberian wastes of Sky Sports 3 and Sky Sports 4, the commercial decision that saw Sky Sports walk away from two remaining years of their contract to hand the speedway keys for free to a (notionally) rival satellite broadcaster (BT Sports) rather than continue indicates that the SGP and live speedway generally has product and engagement issues. If we dream of a fantasy world where there is SGP live broadcast success, its traditional OAP audience demographic has very limited appeal even to highly specialist companies specialising in age related products.

With the sponsorship revenue stream suffering from a severe lack of global and big brand sponsorships – these are only notable by their complete absence – via their initial sponsorship of Greg Hancock, Joe Parsons of Monster Energy rather cannily leveraged these SGP sponsorship travails at BSI. Given free reign by inept management execution and lack of marketing and executive vision at BSI Speedway, Parsons did so in a manner that haloed and aligned with the recognition and dominance ambitions of his beverage brand within the lucrative Polish market while securing a long term relationship with BSI where the tail wags the dog. BSI fell on the Monster opportunity like a thirsty man in a desert suddenly finding an oasis, albeit filled with a peculiar coloured and noxiously flavoured liquid. Not only did BSI get a substantial annual payment but they also made a very significant one-off marketing spend cost saving – that they can now no longer add back into their operating cost budgets without wrecking their balance sheet and profit margins – by sub-licensing all the key/major aspects of SGP event promotion to Monster Energy. Judged by the evidence of their eyes at any “Championship” event, most fans and any casual observers (an increasing rare beast and endangered species) would be shocked to discover that Monster are NOT the series sponsor nor are they the meeting sponsor but, in fact, are just a valued partner. The fact that BSI have been more happy to facilitate Monster effectively cannibalising and co-opting the visual and marketing presentation of the SGP/SWC/SoN series to their brand – while long term diminishing its mindshare appeal to other major sponsors entrants via this plaster everything in Monster Energy signage barrier to entry – demonstrates who wears the trousers in this relationship. But also shows revenue short termism trumps any (should there be one) long term series development strategic plans at BSI.

Though the SGP riders are talented, outside speedway they are almost completely unknown to the general public and, thereby, passing custom or global brand sponsors. It is often said that SGP rights holders BSI have run the world’s most successful witness protection programme for the last two decades. Adult white males aged between twenty and fifty from any geographic location seeking a new life and protection can instantly be guaranteed complete anonymity provided that they agree masquerade as a rider competing in the speedway world championships. Even if somehow the SGP is found on a late night internet only television broadcast and suspicions get aroused, then decades of endlessly processional racing plus – this season – breathless chatter about meaningless practice times and gate positions quickly dulls the enthusiasm of even the most dedicated and enterprising bounty hunter.

<Investors> & <Venues (circuits, cities, events, countries)>

After early contract talk about big (or capital) city big stadia SGP stagings, BSI Speedway quickly settled down into finding poorly equipped venues and obscure regional European locations. It is almost as if BSI could only contractually fulfil their FIM SGP rights obligations by reneging on every public promise they ever made. Of course, they could this without penalty from either the FIM or court of public opinion as their co-opted print and broadcast media chums (and freelance employees) otherwise busied themselves excitably chorusing their imaged amazing triumphs. Initially it looked as if these Grand Prix event locations were chosen by BSI as part of a social responsibility initiative running an unofficial Duke of Edinburgh Shadow Scheme to tax the ingenuity, wild camping and map reading skills of ageing SGP fans. Invariably inaccessible by public transport, BSI Speedway compound the sheer difficulty of just getting there by ensuring either no details, minimal details or inaccurate details appear as part of the “customer experience” that so motivates (according to SGP stenographer Paul Burbidge in a BSI company newsletter style interview conducted for his other employer the Speedway Star) and excites BSI MD Steve Gould. What information there is always assumes that every SGP fan travels by car – with caravan in tow being a sensible precaution – or white van. Unless old people with sticks can’t badly struggle to traverse a kilometre or so of mud bath style stubble fields or wheelchair users run the risk of falling from their seats then BSI Speedway’s events organisation really doesn’t feel it has properly done its job. Equally, unless there is the real jeopardy of getting crushed by the turnstiles in an out of the way forest, the “customer experience” is deemed as falling short of rights holders expectations. But why – in God’s name – have places like Daugavpils (Latvia) or Krsko (Slovenian) been chosen in the first place by BSI as SGP meeting locations? It goes without saying that watching any SGP meeting combined with the opportunity to visit the Museum of Military Vehicles, see cement factories or wander “Stalkers” leisure park are irresistible even to non-speedway fans. Obviously enough, these decisions have historically really/actually been made by BSI Speedway on the basis of the availability of local government financial (and marketing) support rather than any real attempt to develop the sport or its audience (as the press releases and media comment claims).

Basically any down-at-heel fly-blown backwater with an inflated sense of worth and ambition has no trouble finding kindred spirits on the BSI executive floor provided that they have money to burn. Far from making the Speedway Grand Prix a serious glamour event, BSI Speedway are effectively able to sell in or sub-contract the staging rights to these kind of places with the promise that really all they need is a track in a field as BSI will provide a trailer load of staging equipment and can guarantee live international broadcasts prominently featuring the location name. Given speedway likes to see itself as developing greater appeal, showbiz glamour and gravitas rather than just a track in a random field in a one horse town, this is obviously enough selling the sport short in pursuit of BSI revenues, rentier profits and profit margins but also failing to serve the medium and long term development interests of either the world championships or speedway. Though personally I liked going to Krsko – and enjoy the circa 2km walk from the station along the factory lined river – according to The Voice: The Official Journal of the Friends of Speedway Krsko is a two horse town where one horse has died and the other is attending its funeral. The Voice also notes that Krsko is so small/obscure fails to gain mention in The Rough Guide to Slovenia, even for its nuclear power plant. The local library does have a small section that doubles up as the Slovenian National Speedway Museum but this shuts at 1pm on Saturdays/race day so even this synergy fails to work, let alone attract additional fans to the area when the SGP circus is in town. Looked at generously, BSI’s new market expansion has completely failed to get going while their idea of developing speedway appears to be learning to correctly pronounce the name of whatever flyblown regional towns are mug enough to pay their staging fees or make a significant financial ‘marketing’ contribution to their coffers.

The number of new riders (who manage to progress to a decent professional standard) or new fans – if judged by, for example, paying attendees at these venues and UK television audience figures – BSI’s choice of relentlessly obscure SGP locations has inspired can be counted on the fingers of a badly maimed hand. These are just some of the low and lowering standards that the FIM will judge the tenders of both BSI and Eurosports Events against in their scrupulously judicious decision-making to put the best interests of “speedway” first in the award of the 2022-2031 the exclusive “Championship” contract later this month.

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