How to halt the decline of British Speedway
The Premiership Grand Final Play-Offs in October 2022 were riveting affairs. They had everything - great racing, suspense, controversy, real thrills and spills, and above all healthy crowds. Belle Vue supporters made their way over the Pennines to Sheffield in some force to provide a great atmosphere for the second leg. The sport got a boost as TV, radio and press ran reports of the Aces' triumph after a wait of 29 years. Surely it proves something - that fans will turn out to watch Speedway when it's at its best. Of course not every match can be a "Grand Final" but this gives us a clue as to what can be done to halt Speedway's decline as detailed in Part One of this article.
There are two key questions when it comes to the future of British Speedway:
1 Do the Sport's governing bodies have a plan to halt the decline?
2 Do they have a vision of what Speedway should be like in 10/15 years' time?
In a recent candid interview the current Promoters' Association Chairman says they are looking for someone with money to lead them into a new world but until that happens it's a case of making "the best of what we have" because Promoters don't want to risk losing cash. Promoters' reticence in taking risks is understandable but it is a bit like the Speedway equivalent of "Waiting for Godot". If present trends continue, serving up "more of the same" in the absence of a Speedway Messiah, almost certainly means re-grouping round a decreasing number of tracks year by year - a depressing scenario.
On an optimistic guestimate in the course of a week at the height of the season in 2022 some 16,000 people attended live Speedway in the whole of the UK - that is the gate of a mid-table Championship football side for a single match. Aside from a Grand Final or exploit by Team GB, Speedway has a very low profile in Britain. Seven tracks have closed in the last 5 years. Only Oxford has bucked the trend. Mildenhall recently cast doubt on whether it would be in business in 2023 quoting 30% increase in costs and spectator numbers down by 25%, nevertheless paying tribute to its "loyal but dwindling support". That epithet can be applied to British Speedway in general. The sport has to make itself relevant to new generations and increase its fan base if is to survive. It can't rely on its aging demographic. Unfortunately there is no magic bullet, no quick fix but it should be possible to halt the decline and lead Speedway into the new world referred to by Rob Godfrey.
What should that "new world" look like?
1. 25-30 operational tracks, including two within easy travelling distance of London and a one in Wales so that Speedway could be once again considered as a national sport.
2. One large league or two leagues supported by a third semi - professional NDL equivalent.
3. Clubs would operate a squad system to cover for injuries, fans would be able to identify with their Club's riders.
4. There would be investment in developing young riders.
5. Stadiums would be comfortable and family friendly, and tracks prepared to serve up close racing.
6. Crowds would be 5000+ for the top tier.
Pie in the sky? It's only what, roughly speaking, exists in Poland right now. But to achieve this vision would require significant private investment and sponsorship. Any major investors would need to be convinced that Speedway has a future and that its fan base can be significantly regenerated and increased. The first step should be for Speedway to appoint a Chief Executive, independent of any Club/Promotion, with the brief to bring in that investment and regenerate the sport over a 10 year period.
In the meantime British Speedway needs to halt its long sleepwalk into oblivion. The road to recovery will be an arduous one but steps can be taken to halt the decline even now.
Step One: Phase out "Doubling Up", Guest Riders and build up Fan loyalty to their Clubs
In 2018 Leicester's promoter said "We all want "Doubling Up" to be gone" and that Speedway needed a 3/5 year plan to phase it out. The announcements for 2023 teams show that little will have changed in 5 years. 60% of Premiership riders are in Championship teams. Six of Redcar's team are Premiership riders. The original reason given for "Doubling Up" (or more accurately "Doubling Down") was that it was a necessary evil because of the shortage of UK based riders. But the real reason was to help riders make a living by riding in two leagues. Chris Harris has gone on record that he couldn't do Speedway without doubling up or getting a part-time job. So for the past few years riders have been given "carte blanche" to ride anywhere and everywhere in order to cover their significant costs. They can't be blamed for that. There are few more dangerous or precarious ways of earning a living than riding Speedway. But it is short-termism and it is being done at the expense of the Sport's integrity. Doubling down reduces opportunities for young NDL riders to move into the Championship, exactly exacerbating the "rider shortage". This argument has certainly been exposed in the teams declared for 2023. Promising riders like Drew Kemp can't find a team place in the UK whereas established Premiership heat leaders, also racing in Poland and Sweden, will be allowed to double down in Championship teams. The "loyal but dwindling" cadre of supporters may be prepared to tolerate it but non Speedway fans are bemused by the equivalent of Harry Kane playing for Spurs in the Premiership and Millwall in the Championship.
A first step would be to work towards restricting Premiership heat-leader status riders from doubling down in the Championship. In the short-term while crowd numbers remain low at Championship tracks the semi-professional option maybe necessary. Clearly it isn't easy to combine a part-time job with Speedway but something has to give. Let's put things in perspective. The best track with the best facilities, Belle Vue, has average crowds of 1,400. That's less than half the average crowd of the least supported team in Football's Division 2, Salford City. Speedway's Premiership Clubs are operating in terms of attendances at Football's "National League", one step down below the lowest professional division. Championship Clubs are a further step down again. The numbers speak for themselves. If it's too costly to put on Speedway in its current form the sport has to cut its coat according to its cloth. Standardized engines for example. Otherwise apart from its other problems it risks pricing itself out of existence.
A step towards abandoning guest riders would be to ban them from the two reserve berths in both leagues and give real doubling up chances to lower league riders through an expanded "Rising Star" system.
Each season a musical chairs exercise means fans have to get used to a new team line-up because of the points limit. The bond between riders and fans is the key to existing fans keeping coming through the turnstiles and bringing in new ones. Fans want to identify with "their" riders. Aside from the doubling up problem there is little continuity in team Speedway with some exceptions like Wolverhampton. An emotional attachment is built only for it to be broken, the latest example being Danny King, highly popular at Poole, being forced to leave for 2023. Whilst having balanced teams is an admirable objective it is worth little if it is being achieved at the expense of a slap in the face for loyal fans. The whole model of one year contracts needs to be reviewed in favour of encouraging riders' long-term commitment to a Club.
Step Two: Stop the hemorrhage of Track closures
Every closure is a body blow to the sport but the Speedway authorities seem to be powerless onlookers in this scenario. Some stadiums have closed not for lack of support but because Owners/Landlords have decided to cash in to developers (Swindon, Coventry). In many locations Speedway isn't in control of its own destiny. Peterborough and Edinburgh are currently living on borrowed time. However the one bright spot in the Speedway firmament in recent years, Oxford, is now thriving not only as a Speedway venue but also as a Greyhound Stadium and community facility currently on a 10 year lease. The way forward has to be proactivity in securing the future of Speedway in stadiums as part of a multi-sport/community complex. Coventry's "Save Speedway" campaign has recently won an important battle. It gives hope to Swindon, Rye House etc but better to avoid shutting the door after the horse has bolted.
Sadly other closures have occurred simply because not enough people were passing through the turnstiles - the most recent examples being Eastbourne in mid-season 2021, and Newcastle, a club with a great tradition crashing out in 2022, 93 years of Speedway consigned to the dustbin of history overnight it seems. Attracting less than 400 supporters to Brough Park in its final matches how did it come to this? Just up the road, Berwick (population 12,000), can support not just one but two Speedway teams whereas Newcastle (population 300,000) cannot maintain one? Surely more could have been done to prevent the demise of such a famous club? The alarm bells had been ringing in 2021 but the "Diamonds" went into the 2022 season with a non-competitive team and not surprisingly people didn't want to pay to see the equivalent of a 6-0 drubbing at home each week. Obviously no club can continue losing 4 thousand pounds per meeting but could they have not been assisted to see out their remaining fixtures and buy time to revive the club for the next season? Birmingham reported similar financial woes and low gates but their promotion seems to believe they can turn things around and they'll be taking their place in 2023.
Step 3: Better planning to deal with things going wrong:
Speedway can do more to avert the "amateurish" tag which has dogged it over the years.
A Meetings being abandoned for "lack of medical cover" is extremely bad for its image. This could be avoided at relatively low cost.
B A meeting was even abandoned for "lack of safe tyres"- the equivalent of a Football match being stopped for lack of adequate football boots.
C Eliminating long delays. A televised match between Sheffield and Ipswich descended into farce in 2022 when it took 45 minutes to repair the air fence. As riders finally took to the track to complete the last few heats they were ushered off as the 10 15 "curfew" had arrived. Too often the patience of supporters is tested to the limit and beyond. To add insult to injury the points were "awarded" to Sheffield even though Ipswich still had a realistic chance of getting something out of the match.
D Better fixture management: Despite 2022 being one of the hottest driest summers on record the Championship Grand Final second leg ended up being raced on a cold November night on a neutral track instead of at Leicester. Too many meetings were postponed based on iffy weather forecasts whereas they could have been raced. Example: King's Lynn vs Belle Vue in August 2022. The heavy rain forecast never materialized and the match was eventually raced in the last week of October with two patched up teams AFTER the Aces had already won the Premiership, the match result rendered meaningless.
Step 4 Create a more consistent spectator experience:
Feedback is consistent. A Speedway meeting often takes too long, sometimes two hours or more to run a 15 heat match. Let's put a stop to the messing around - endless "gardening" at the tapes, mechanics rushing onto the track after a minor tape infringement, too long a delay between races. A younger generation isn't prepared to tolerate so much down time and it doesn't need to be this way. Action can be taken to remedy this situation at little or no cost:-
A The meeting has to "flow". The majority of meetings could be completed in 90 minutes. In Western Australia the "Rob Woofinden Classic" organisers crammed in 22 heats of Speedway, plus 250cc and Sidecar races within two and a half hours. As riders were exiting the track at the end of their heat riders were making their way out of the pits for the next race. It just shows what can be done.
B Centre green presentation seems to work. Charismatic presenters can get the crowd involved and generate "atmosphere" even with crowds of 1,000 but not all tracks do this.
C Use big screens to show replays, interviews with riders etc during down time and medical time out. Enterprising Edinburgh use a big screen with attendances of 800-1000 probably so why not at all tracks?
D Families are being encouraged via "kids go free" or "kids for a quid" but more can be done to really encourage families. 7 30 starts on a week night means Speedway is off limits for many school children. Why not start at 7pm? Let families with children into the pits before bikes are warmed up, have their photos taken with riders, sit on a model Speedway bike etc.
E Encourage young people's involvement via smartphone/iphone apps and leave paper programmes to the "oldies".
F Bring back second halves for junior riders including 150/250 cc races like some enterprising tracks are doing and make them free to anyone. That way spectators are being offered better value for money. Up and coming riders are being given a chance to race and spectators the opportunity to identify with them.
G Track preparation: Not a new issue, but some tracks have reputations for producing close, fair racing while at others passing is often at a premium. Not every track can be turned into a Belle Vue overnight but a smaller club like Redcar has acquired a reputation as a good racing track. If spectators are being served up just two or three races out of 15 heats with the rest done and dusted by the third bend, they are right to question whether they're getting value for money. It seems clear that if time and money is invested in good track preparation then the riders will deliver.
The last two years have been tough for Speedway with the Covid Pandemic. Promoters have had a Herculean task just putting on Speedway and can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief if they get through a season without losing money. The economic outlook is also unforgiving - rocketing fuel and energy costs, inflation in double figures - a cost of living crisis in short. All the more reason why people need to believe they are going to have an enjoyable night out at Speedway if they're going to part with their hard-earned cash.
Step 5 Improve Marketing and Promotion:
Millions of people in the UK have never heard of Speedway and don't even know it exists, perhaps not surprising as marketing of the sport is very weak. Speedway needs to reach out beyond its traditional roots but still utilize its family friendly image. More could be done to project its image using charismatic riders like Josh Pickering, Matej Zagar. It should also give a boost to female Speedway riders and again take a leaf out of Football's book where the rise of the Women's game has been phenomenal. This would broaden the Sport's appeal.
Step 6: Ensuring a supply chain of young riders :
The common cry is "there are not enough young riders coming through". But British Speedway is certainly responsible in part for this situation. The acclaimed "Rising Star" 5 year plan was jettisoned after just one year in the Championship. In 2023 Rising Stars will be maintained in the Premiership Clubs at No 7 but no No 8's it seems. More short-termism. There are Training Schools and Development Programmes but there is no substitute for match racing experience which is where the National Development League comes in. However Plymouth "Centurions" won't be competing in 2023 -"Not enough young riders in the South West". If the NDL operates with a reduced number of teams that means even less opportunities riders breaking into the sport. Yet Oxford in their first season back put out an NDL team and are now promoting three of them into their "Cheetahs" side for 2023. If Oxford can find the way to invest in junior riders and nurture them sufficiently then it shows what can be done as is the case in Poland which ensures a continuing supply of new riders.
In recent years there has been talk of one large British League as a way forward. Here is a comment from a Speedway Star editorial. "It is not the remedy for all British speedway's ills:-
Sounds familiar? This was written in 1994 not 2022. In other words Speedway has been drinking in the last chance saloon for too long and time is running out.
There are some bright spots on the horizon. Workington is making a comeback. The new British Speedway Network for streaming matches is to expand in 2023 and offers the opportunity of making the sport available to a wider audience. But Speedway has to bite a few bullets and face up to its problems. Just providing more of the same won't hack it. Everyone involved, Promoters, Administrators, Riders bears a responsibility for ensuring that the long slow decline is halted and that the sport can have a future beyond its 100th anniversary. Putting someone in charge to halt the decline and implement a longer term plan to ensure the sport has a future is an essential first step.
Postscript: Since completing this article three announcements have been made:-
1 Riders will be on a one minute warning after a tape infringement/unsatisfactory start.
2 Big name riders are returning to the UK including Dan Bewley, Nicki Pedersen, Emil Sayfutdinov.
3 Phil Morris has been appointed Premiership Chief Executive.
Is British speedway about to turn a corner? One thing's for sure it's three steps in the right direction.
This article was first published on 19th March 2023
"Great article with many useful point. My top changes are: A better all round fan experience = comfortable, modern and clean stadiums, and value for money - right now you get just over 15 minutes of actual racing (tapes up to chequered flag) for around £20 - That's not value for money IMHO. As I've said many times, and Ian points it out, millions of people have never even heard of speedway, so that's a good starting point, but you have to have an overall plan, and someone from outside the sport needs to oversee it, else it'll fall back on self-interests. Never say never! "
"An excellent and deeply thought out article from Ian Davey. The problems facing speedway in the UK at the moment are very deep rooted, but over the years many missed chances have been and gone. Even today some simple but effective things could be put into place but aren't. This may sound silly, but ITV's "Tipping Point" features regular prizes each day "courtesy of so & so". Why not 2 VIP tickets to the Cardiff Grand Prix each year? The prizes are given on a regular basis, it would cost nothing for say 100 tickets to be allocated this way, and would give speedway a very cost-effective boost on prime time ITV every day for a set period.
If we don't take every opportunity we can to promote our beloved sport then the downward spiral will inexorably continue. When my generation are finally gone the number of young people taking up the mantle will surely be that much less and our sport will end up even less than a "minority" sport. Hard to believe that 40 short years ago Wembley was packed to capacity for an enthralling World Final, and surely there is now evidence that the writing is on the wall if no action is taken very soon."
"Interesting follow up article by Ian. Usually when anybody discusses the topic of British speedway it is compared to football. Where as football just needs a bit of land for a ground and is usually located within easy reach of public transport with the lower teirs regionalised and played by amateurs speedway is expensive and too risky to compete as an amateur plus for supporters tracks have been and are located in places not easily accessible by public transport, examples Eastbourne, Mildenhall and Iwade. In the old days youngsters would have raced in the second half on second hand bikes and leathers and progressed into the team as they improved.
One thing that is made clear from Ian's article is speedway needs to go back to scatch and start again. You cannot maintain a Premiership league with 7 teams, especially with 4 going into play-offs (Scottish Premiership league has 12 teams with 10 teams in the other three leagues). Unfortunately as with any top sports, charities or business's the people running it cannot relate to the people they are providing a service for with speedway perhaps being the worst example where they cannot relate to what the supporter wants.
I keep emphasising the fact that sport is about competition and that speedway has always penalised successful teams with one of the best examples being my 1988 team Hackney where the following year they were forced to lose half their team through team averages. So I can't see anything changing, it will remain the same as everybody will still be out for themselves and relying on somebody to bail them out when things go wrong. It's a shame but I can't see anything improving within my lifetime. Unfortunately I'm lost to speedway as I have no 'team' to support or track to watch it live. Still, if Oxford can turn their fortunes around lets hope others can do the same. "
|Please leave your comments on this article or on the site as a whole|