Wednesday, 28 August 2013

No Money, Mo' Problems! (and other things)

ITEM: Regular readers will know that there are two things in speedway I really despise: BSI's Grand Prix circus and Poole speedway. So you might be surprised to find out that I went to Saturday's GP challenge at Wimborne Road. Except that BSI have nothing to do with the qualifying rounds (and thank God for small mercies!) and the event was a BSPA shared event, with Matt Ford only pocketing as much as any other promoter. That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

I'd planned to go to the meeting for some time, eager to see some faces we don't get to see all that often over here, and in that regard I was rewarded with Vaclav Milik. Luckily for me, a catalogue of withdrawals saw Chris Harris parachuted into the meeting, and that meant I had somebody to cheer on. Still, largely disinterested in the result but keen to see some good racing, I retreated to the bar and watched my first ever meeting from behind glass. Muted sound apart, it wasn't too different, but I'm not sure I'd like to make a habit of it. Especially when that particular patch behind the glass seemed to attract second-string and never-will-be speedway riders like flies to nasty brown stuff, and I bet not one of them paid to get in!

Our little area also attracted the Polish team manager, Marek Cieslak - or should I say the attractive teenage girl sitting with us did! Cieslak was drunk to the point of incoherence - a real stumbling, mumbling man. His drunken attempts to woo a girl thirty or forty years his junior were not reciprocated, and only his "handlers" pulling him away kept it on the funny side of embarrassing. Still, it's not as if speedway has had issues with drunken sexual assault in the recent past, is it, so that's okay...

For what was offered to fans, £25 was incredibly poor value, and when the UK gets to stage such a meeting again they really need to look at making an event out of it - it's a mini-GP in itself, with the lion's share of profits going into British pockets, and to stage it with little or no fanfare, at a difficult to get (especially on August Bank Holiday!) to track, smacks of folly. Still, better than Berwick - that's miles away from where I live... erm, I mean miles away from a central location! I'm not sure I'll do another, but you have to try these things, right? And at least "Monster Joe" was nowhere to be seen, along with the self-interested hangers-on the series proper seems to attract.

As for the event itself, and with the Wimborne Road circuit back to its usual slick dullness after some weeks of unpredictability that either made the track an unraceable mess or allowed some exciting outside passes, entertainment on the track was at a premium, but Danny King (early doors) and Harris (throughout) managed to get some purchase from what little dirt there was, and made some swooping passes on the back straight and third & fourth bends. Harris's inclusion, much to the ire of some idiots, also made for the only genuine speculative fun as the meeting wore on, with the Brandon Bomber, Kenneth Bjerre, Krzystof Kasprzak, and Martin Smolinski chasing (what will surely be, with Niels-Kristian Inversen's redunudant participation) three qualification slots for next year's circus. Harris led twice in races that were stopped and re-run, and eventually missed out on countback, and finds himself in the most horrible spot in world speedway - first reserve for the GPs - whilst the dullest men in speedway took slots ahead of him, and will add little to an already bloated series.

I've railed against it before, but it's always worth repeating - three qualification places for a sport's world championship (especially a sport that has a rich history of just about anybody being able to dream of making the world final) is ridiculous, and rewards mediocrity and deep pockets. I'm fully aware that luddites like myself will never get excatly what we want - the old, one-off world final restored to its former glory - but there has to be somewhere to meet in the middle: that a Grand Prix series can include a majority of riders who have qualified in their own right, rather than limped to 8th (or 9th) in the previous year's events, or been gifted a permanent wild card by dint of their nationality (and how many tickets the organisers need to sell in that part of the world). Am I asking too much? To the people who make a very good living off the current system, yes I am. And that's why things will only change when the gravy train ends. Anyone got a timetable?

ITEM: Got any money? Because if you have I'm sure your local speedway promoter would like to hear from you! Money woes are a staple of our sport, it seems, and probably have been for some time. Only now that the world has opened up, and loose lips can find an audience beyond the stadium bar at closing time, we get to hear about it more and, boy, did we hear about it last week!

Swindon's riders are owed money. Those are the facts. Figures of around £50,000 have been banded around, which sounds about right for the period they're owed for. A simple story, then, but one that hides a deeper malaise. Because, although Swindon are ultimately responsible for paying their riders, parts of that money - budgeted for in the best way you can budget for speedway income and outgoings - are owed to the Robins from other sources, with £20,000 reported to be overdue from Sky. Some of it is owed by other clubs, and that's a quirk of speedway's financial peculiarities that probably needs a bit of explaining.

When a promoter stages a speedway meeting, he is responsible for paying riders from both the home and away teams. The away teams' wages are paid at standard rates agreed by the BSPA, with the riders' own promoter making up the difference. So, for example, let's say that Chris Holder earns £300 a point for Poole but the standard pay for a heat leader is £200 a point - when he goes to Eastbourne, Bob Dugard has to pay him £200 a point scored, with Matt Ford chipping in the other £100. Simple, yes? Clubs have two weeks to pay this money, after which it acrues interest. To put it very simply, there are some clubs that are way behind on these payments, and that money makes up part of what is owed to Swindon's riders by their promotion.

Not every promotion waits for this money to come in - at least two clubs I know of pay their riders first and wait for the money to come in later - but if you are running a tight ship (and most speedway promoters are these days) there isn't always that spare cash to be found. While teams lag behind on these inter-club payments - and one Elite League is rumoured to have not paid a penny of this money all season, as well as being well behind on payments to their own riders - cashflow issues are going to continue to be an issue.

The plain facts are that most clubs are paying out beyond their means. That two of these clubs are heading for the play-offs is scandalous, and is an insult to a club like my own Bees who, I'm told by those away from Brandon, are reliable and quick payers, but have likely suffered a terrible season precisely because they are sticking to what they can afford. Changes need to happen, and budgets agreed league-wide, and punishments put in place for those teams who exceed them. Anything else creates instability, uncertainty, and allows cheats to prosper. And that shouldn't happen in any sport.

ITEM: Talking of the Bees, we're currently scraping along at the bottom of the league and looking very much lost as we do it. It's not been a classic season, with few highlights, and reached a nadir last Friday when we suffered a 70-20 defeat at Peterborough - a track we'd won at just three months earlier. To rub salt into the wounds, Krzystzof Kasprzak - our so-called number one, who has failed to hit double figures on 11 occasions this season, and has dropped over a point off his starting average - qualified for the GPs with an almost faultless performance 24 hours later, and proclaimed Poole to be "like a second home". An improved performance, but another home defeat, finished off a weekend that must probably rank as the worst in quite some time on Rugby Road.

So how, as a fan (and a season ticket holder to boot), do you react to all this? Who do you blame for such rubbish? Can you, and should you, blame anyone? And how much can you take before you walk away and find something else to do with your time???

Firstly, and let's get this out of the way, walking away, snubbing your club and the sport of speedway, is stupid. I know I'm preaching to the converted here, but there's nothing like watching speedway live at the track. Watching on Sky or Eurosport, listening on the radio, or following updates on the internet are a very, very distant second to actually being there, and hearing, smelling, and seeing four bikes roaring around a dirt-track oval. There are many legitimate reasons for not going to speedway any more, but supporting a rubbish team is not one of them. Whatever else they may be, they're still seven blokes on bikes, riding some approximiation of speedway racing, and if the money is there to pay to watch them, there's really no reason why you shouldn't. Caring is another thing entirely, but that's between you and your emotions.

So if you're going to stick around and throw your money at your team, can you expect your say on whether they're any good or not? I don't see why not, don't see why not at all. You pay their wages (unless you're a fan of a "bankrupt" team, in which case nobody does) and you're entitled to your say. Riders, team managers, and promoters are more than happy to accept praise but oddly reluctant to take criticism. You might suggest that this is because some of them are narcissistic pricks who believe they are above censure, but they'd like that even less.

We pay a lot of money to watch our speedway. I've paid out well over £500 watching the Bees this year, and some have paid far more, attending every meeting, home and away. I'd say pretty much anything short of a threat to life and limb is an appropriate response to what we've had to put up with, and I'm probably letting them off lightly at that. But should we be critical, and what does it actually achieve?

It depends if the riders, managers, and promoters are listening, of course, and many of them are not. But if they are, some stinging criticism can be a motivating tool and a wake-up call to a rider going through the motions. And for those beyond redemption, who are clearly not pulling their weight and busing your hospitality? They're fair game. The difference between the two is quite obvious to those of us who've been watching sports for a while, and for a Bees' fan this season the riders who have genuinely struggled have escaped criticism - our scorn reserved for those who are (and let's not be polite about this) stealing from us.

As for the promotion, they've come in for a lot of stick that I'm not sure they've deserved. Mick Horton isn't perfect - he's nobody's dream owner, and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that. He doesn't have the deep pockets of a Rick Frost or a Stuart Douglas, or stupidly generous sponsors like Poole, and hasn't resorted to spending money he hasn't got, like Birmingham. The Bees (and, separately, the Storm) have been run to a realistic budget and having got his initial team building wrong, and stayed loyal to riders who probably haven't warranted it, has found his team bottom of the league and been unable/unwilling to break his budget to do anything about it. I'll be the first to criticise any promoter who is taking liberties but it's a judgement call, and I'd rather be on the side of right than encourage any risk to the future of the club. This, for some people, means Horton isn't the right man for the job at a club with the history and expectations of Coventry, and they have every right to voice that. But, unlike riders, replacement promoters are few and far between - far better to try and work with what you've got than take a jump into the unknown.

So, yes, it's been a torrid time. But the Bees are still standing, and speedway continues at Brandon every Friday in the summer months. There are times when you have to take a look at the bigger picture, and this is never more true than in times of crisis, which - and it seems like we say this every winter - speedway is facing right now.

ITEM: Niels-Kristian Iversen has always seemed like one of the good guys - somebody you never hear of any trouble with, either off-track or on it. So it was surprising that he decided to go against the wishes of his Elite League side last week and ride in the DanskeLiga for Esbjerg instead.

The BSPA and the DMU, who oversee speedway in Denmark, have an agreement that - as long as fixtures are in the calendar before March 1st - British meetings take precedence over those staged in Denmark, except for national championships. Danish riders have a separate agreement with their own federation that they will race in at least four DanskeLiga fixtures a season, a condition of them riding on a DMU license. With most DanskeLiga fixtures staged on Wednesdays - King's Lynn's primary racenight - Iversen was always going to struggle to satisfy his minimum requirement. However, Esbjerg's fixture list shows five meetings that do not clash with Stars' dates, and so he should have been able to avoid this dispute with ease. Mads Korneliussen, who is also Danish and also rides for King's Lynn, has had no such trouble, and neither, you'd assume, would Nikolai Kilndt have had, if he hadn't been axed for poor form.

With Iversen disappearing for their home clash with Coventry, King's Lynn were forced to report him to the BSPA as withholding his services in order to get a facility to replace him. Swindon had to do similar earlier in the season with Hans Andersen (having already swallowed one vanishing act, ironically at King's Lynn), and the two have received identical punishments. Previously, the sanction was a 28-day ban from all British speedway, but this has been amended to a ban of just two home meetings - the idea being that the rider misses out on his biggest paydays while away promoters are not robbed of a drawing card. Iversen's ban has been reported to be a two-week ban, and thus appears different, but this is only because the Stars have no away fixtures in that period.

All this could be avoided if British speedway clubs only hired riders who were willing to put British speedway first. We know that, on the world scene, our standing has fallen, and we're very much a poor third behind the Swedish and Polish leagues in terms of rider wages (if not rider payments, but that's another story) and attracting the big names. There is a case, however, for unilaterally declaring ourselves number one, and insisting that all riders who ride here have to honour their fixtures, regardless of any other commitments. The DMU, SVEMO (Sweden), and PZM (Poland) have all ignored agreements with the BSPA this season that British speedway should come first in certain situations, of which the Iversen case is only the latest, and so we cannot trust them to abide by them in the future. I'd argue that riders have to contracted to put us first, with hefty punishments for those who default.

Only then can we be sure that, if King's Lynn are scheduled to ride against Coventry five months into a season, all contracted riders will be present and correct, and the paying public not robbed of the spectacle they expect and deserve. As it is, we're false advertising through no fault of our own, and those who are taking us for a ride have to be shown the door if they can't deliver on their promises.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Wars, Fours, and other things

ITEM: In the June 9th edition of this blog, I wrote that it wouldn't be too long before BSI, organisers of the Grand Prix series, and OneSport, the Polish marketing firm and revampers of the European Championships, went to war over the same pool of riders being used for both events. Lo and behold, respected Polish website Sportowefakty reported on Tuesday that BSI had made overtures to the FIM about preventing "their" riders from taking part in the rival championships. BSI mouthpiece Phil Rising denied such a request had been made but it's hard not to repeat the old maxim, "well he would say that, wouldn't he?"

According to Sportowefakty, the Polish league is fully behind their fellow Poles, and is considering a tactical response, which may include either banning SGP riders from their leagues, or moving their league programme to Saturdays rather than the Sundays it currently sprawls across. This would be disastrous for BSI, with riders forced to choose between riding in the Polish leagues (who still remain the biggest payers in world speedway), with a sideline of the cash-rich SEC, and competing in the Grand Prix series. Miss out on the world championship or earn enough to see you okay after you retire? Its a tough choice. It's all brinkmanship, of course, but a switch to Saturdays for the Polish league would allow British speedway to return to some kind of normality, with the big events once more taking place on a Sunday afternoon. And releasing British speedway from the yoke of BSI would, also, be desirable.

BSI haven't been happy with OneSport and the European Championship ever since it was first announced, and at the Czech Grand Prix things came to a head when Paul Bellamy, BSI's managing director, tried to have Adam Krużyński, from SEC sponsors NICE, thrown out of the paddock, only to find that Krużyński was also a representative of the GKSŻ, Poland's equivalent of the SCB. With BSI looking to expand the series - they announced last week they'll be going to that hotbed of speedway Finland next season - there's only so many weekends available to stage such big events, and a clash is inevitable.

For now, it's a split purely along east/west lines, with Poland and Russia, the economic powerhouses of European speedway, soundly behind OneSport, and the Danes and Swedes backing BSI (Ole Olsen, keen for BSI to use Vojens for the Danish SGP once more) gave an interview to a Danish site expressing disinterest in the SEC). I'm sure as the story develops, the various powerbrokers will switch and change as the situation suits them. If it comes to a straight fight, I'd hope the ACU/BSPA would remain neutral, and let the dust settle before making any kind of decision. There's no point getting involved in this kind of spat - if you lie down with pigs, you get dirty...

ITEM: What do you do with a Sunday afternoon when you fancy a bit of a road trip? Well, if the National League Fours are on at Stoke, what else could you do?

I last went to Loomer Road in 1990. May 5th, to be exact, when - in one of our random trips to anywhere that just having passed your driving test tends to lend to - Pete Ballinger and I drove up the M6 to see the Potters take on Hackney. If I'm honest, the place hasn't changed all that much since that last visit, if at all, although I'd wager that any greyhound looking to chase a hare around the outside of the speedway track wouldn't much fancy the steeplechase-like muddy puddles found on the "dog track" these days! Still, I love these kind of places, and would much rather spend an afternoon in a stadium like Loomer Road than one like Torun, for all its modern conveniences. Speedway is a dirty sport, a little bit naughty at its best, and the surroundings should reflect that.

The Fours was my 30th meeting of the 2013 season, and half of them have been at National League level. Last year I did close to the same amount in total, but only one and a half at NL-level. Its safe to say that the NL has been the saviour of a lacklustre Elite League season, at least for this Bees' fan, and possibly others. And, yeah, the Storm will most likely end up as trophyless as their big brothers, but it's been quite a ride, quite an adventure, and has taken me to glamourous locations like Buxton, the Isle of Wight, and now Stoke. The Storm tracked a very much depleted side in the Fours - numbers 3, 4, 6 and 8 in their averages when others tracked their 1-4s - and ended up bottom of the pile, but it didn't detract from the afternoon as a whole, which is one of the better things about following the NL.

The winners - as at the Pairs in June - were Dudley, although they can count themselves lucky that fellow finalists Mildenhall and King's Lynn were missing their number one riders on the day. They were also the recipients of a generous refereeing decision in that final, when only Jim Lawrence (for it was he) and the Heathens fans saw anything wrong with Lewis Rose's blocking of Ashley Morris, resulting in Rose's exclusion and a fight on the track. Yes, a fight! Morris swung an arm at Rose after they'd crossed the line which caused Rose to stop his bike and jump off, ready for action. The two butted helmets as several mechanics/hangers-on sprinted across the centre green to get involved, only for Nigel Crabtree - former Stoke legend now working at the track - to clear house, throwing them this way and that, and preventing a free-for-all. Exciting! And then, to add further fun into the mix, King's Lynn team manager Dale Allitt played pantomime villain to the Dudley fans, some of whom scarcely need provoking (twas always thus), but happily it stayed on the right side of entertaining.

Sadly the same can't be said of the racing, where gating was paramount, and passing at a premium. Still, Paul Starke, James Sarjeant, and Charles Wright managed to getsomething out of the track during the afternoon, and I've witnessed many, many worse meetings this season. If the racing wasn't great, then the programme was even worse, failing to even provide the right spaces to fill in riders' scores, and giving misleading information throughout. It was matched only be the communication on the day, with lengthy delays going unexplained, and while most of us are well used to such crap by now, any newcomers miht have wondered what they'd gotten themselves into.

For myself, though, it was an enjoyable afternoon, in the company of friends, watching young lads (and some sweet-stealing old heads) race for pennies, in a stadium that has seen better days. British speedway in a nutshell, really, and I wouldn't change a thing. Well, maybe I would, but you know what I mean...

ITEM: So I finally got to see the wunderkind of British speedway, Robert Lambert, last week, and the lad's impressive. He took one race to size up the Brandon circuit, when he was narrowly beaten by Joe Jacobs, and then reeled off three straight-forward wins. He missed the gate in heat 15 before stalking Olly Greenwood and slipping through the tiniest gap to join Lewis Kerr for a 5-1. Like I said, impressive.

Riding on the continent every weekend, Lambert is getting an education that other lads of his age (save for Daniel Spiller, another hot prospect) are missing out on - genuine competition at such an early age. It's galling that German crowds are getting to see the lion's share of his early career, but rules are rules, I guess, and that arbitrary line between 14-years old and 15-years old must be adhered to at all times. Far be it from me to suggest that even some 35-year olds are incapable of racing a speedway bike, and that maybe a proficiency test might be a better way of deciding when someones ready to ride in front of a crowd...

Nex season Lambert will be of age to ride in the Premier League but will only be able to double-up between the leagues if there is a change in the rules to allow it. Once again, we look to hamstring our youth rather than encourage them, with Adam Ellis falling foul of that same rule this season. We have a crop of youngsters coming through that need every bit of help we can give them - we should change all the rules we can and discriminate against older and foreign riders if necessary! The best advertising is a successful product, making waves in the media, and - given the chance - these young lads will do that job for us. Here's hoping common sense breaks out at the AGM.

ITEM: Saturday sees the Grand Prix Challenge at Poole, where sixteen of the world's top riders compete for the measly three spots available to form riders for next year's Grand Prix series. The event is held this year at Poole and just about everyone will be hoping for a different winner than the last time it was held in the UK, when an even-then ancient Magnus Zetterstrom triumphed at Coventry and stunk up the GP series for a whole year.

The three home riders in the field - Janowski, Jonasson, and Kasprzak - have to be considered early favourites, although Niels-Kristian Iversen (looking for all the world like he won't need to qualify for next year), Kenneth Bjerre (a maximum man on his last visit to Wimborne Road), and Troy Batchelor (who has covered for Poole's absent number one Chris Holder) may have something to say about that.

It's a solid field with few who stand little-to-no chance of qualifying, which makes it all the more shameful that such a paucity of places are on offer to qualify for the world championship - just 20% of the total places in the series. Perhaps one thing that might come out of the BSI/OneSport war is a more egalitarian world championship series, rewarding current form over historical, and allowing that fairytale title win once more.

At £25 a ticket the best we can hope for is that the racing, at least, will be close and unpredictable, and in good condition Wimborne Road should allow for that. This is the closest we get to the old-style one-off World Final these days - let's hope the meeting lives up to that billing.

Monday, 12 August 2013

FL, PL, Regulations & Tribulations

ITEM: Where to start about Freddie Lindgren! The Swedish star, a loyal servant to British speedway (although, of course, he's gained both experience and wealth from that arrangement) over the past decade, and recipient of a testimonial earlier this year, cocked a snook at his Wolves paymasters and decided to fly to Russia a day earlier than expected for the second round of the European Speedway Championship.
The logistics of getting to Togliatti, three hours even from Moscow and on roughly the same longitude as Tehran, are difficult but Hans Andersen, Sebastian Ulamek, and Tai Woffinden (riding in the same meeting as Lindgren on Friday) had all worked out a way to fulfil their Elite League commitments and get to the track in good time for the championship meeting. It appeared Lindgren had too, but a change of heart left Wolves travelling to Coventry with a National League rider at number one. As it happens, the Bees made hard work of seeing off their opponents, but the end result remained the same - no points for Wolves when they're chasing play-off glory.
In the meeting itself - which wasn't the best in terms of on-track entertainment, but still a good spectacle in front of a noisy, capacity crowd - Lindgren started well but faded, failing to make the semi-finals, and looking for all the world like he'd wasted his time going there early. I'm sure Wolves' fans allowed themselves a wry smile on top of the joy they must have felt at Woffinden - hurried travel arrangements and all - making the final.
So why did Lindgren choose to let down his team and their fans? The answer is simple: money. The revamped European Championship is backed by Polish marketing firm OneSport, who are looking to carve themselves a slice of the pie that BSI have been noisily consuming for the past fifteen years. Lindgren is struggling in the Grands Prix and is unlikely to regain entry to the series for 2014 unless the organisers take pity of him as the token Swede in the series. Therefore, it's in Lindgren's best interests to keep OneSport happy because a seeding into the SEC for 2014 is his best chance of making some money next year.
Where does that leave the Elite League? As usual, second best. There have been rumours for a while that Lindgren was looking at 2013 to be his last season in the UK, possibly sniffing the way the wind is blowing, at least for top riders, in world speedway. With the FIM reported to be looking at ways at restricting the number of leagues each rider can compete in, Sweden and Poland would seem to be the logical choices for a Swedish rider, with the UK - despite the earning potential from upwards of 30 meetings at decent rates - a distant third. That's fine as long as Sweden and Poland remain the cash cows they have been recently, and nobody can begrudge a rider a good living.
What is most concerning, however, is that Lindgren was only able to ride in Saturday's meeting with SVEMO (Sweden's governing body) permission. This should have been withdrawn once he opted out of the EL match at Coventry but wasn't. SVEMO (and the PZM and DMU) have agreements in place with the ACU that contractual commitments be honoured wherever possible, in accordance with the FIM calendar introduced this season. With the DMU allowing Hans Andersen to ride for his Danish club instead of Swindon - against that agreement - earlier this season, it's clear that the FIM calendar is being taken more seriously by some nations than others. The question, then, is what to do about it...
The ACU (or, more realistically, the BSPA) could begin to refuse to allow SVEMO- or DMU-licensed riders to compete in their competitions, for the very good reason that these organisations are not adhering to mutual agreements signed by all parties. Given that, top riders apart, the majority of the Swedes and Danes riding abroad do so in the UK, and that most of them would be unable to make a living from the sport without Elite and Premier League bookings, the impetus on those riders would be to lobby their federations to honour the agreement or switch to a neutral license, depriving the federations of much-needed license fees.
It's early days, and the landscape for 2014 in the UK still looks very much unsettled, and it may be that the attitude of the top riders is beginning to suit the aims of a league system that could very well do without them. Freddie Lindgren and Hans Andersen may very well, through their selfishness, cost some of their peers a comfortable ride for decent rates, in favour of chasing new money all over eastern Europe. You reap what you sow, they say - I only hope that's true in this case.
ITEM: The National League Fours is one of the third tier's Big Days Out. All eight teams will be represented, and a good crowd can be expected to be in attendance at Stoke's Loomer Road stadium. Missing from the event, however, will be two of the league's top stars - Joe Jacobs and Stefan Nielsen - and all because of a humdrum league meeting in Glasgow the same day.
The Premier League, for a second division, enjoys a position over the other leagues it doesn't really deserve. Riders are said to double-up with Elite and Premier teams, with the emphasis placed squarely on the "up", although that's a turn of phrase that doesn't really mean what the PL claims it to be. PL teams have first call on riders doubling-up, even if those riders are assets of the EL team they also ride for - the logic, one presumes, being that they are by and large heat leaders for their lower division clubs and therefore more difficult to replace than in the positions they occupy for their EL teams.
This is a logic not followed through for those riders doubling-up between the Premier and National Leagues, where - once again - the PL gets first call on their services. I'd argue that this, more than the EL/PL relationship, makes sense. Riders improve by racing against better opponents, and those NL riders also riding in the PL will benefit from the increased competition. But shouldn't that also be the case for PL riders doubling-up in the EL? The Premier League, it seems, is having its cake and eating it.
Mildenhall will cover for Nielsen on Sunday, although as their number one rider he will be missed, but Coventry look to be an outside bet already, with Rob Branford dislocating an elbow riding in, yes, the Premier League, and also missing the big day. This will leave Coventry tracking a quartet ranking 3rd-6th in their averages, instead of the top four the competition is meant for. If the league system stays anywhere near the same next season, the hierarchy of priority needs to seriously looked at, with a top down approach overruled by all shared events. To leave it as it is rewards mediocrity and will do nothing to help our sport find the forward momentum it so badly needs.
ITEM: Okay, if you've been reading the last few blogs you'll know that I've been suggesting new rules that could be adopted for the 2014 season. I do this with no expectation that they will be, or even that those with the power to do so will even be aware of what I'm writing (although I suspect that not to be the case!) but rather because I - as a paying fan - can see some things that are wrong with the sport, and how they might be put right. You never know - if the wind of change is blowing in the right direction we might get some common sense in our sport one day!
* Sort out the racesuits
                    On the surface of it, racesuits are a good idea. Having all the members of your team look more or less identical is good for the image of the sport - how would it look if Manchester United took to the field, each player with different coloured shorts and a slightly different shade of red to the shirts? - but it only works if all the members of the team look more or less identical. With teams chopping and changing riders, and with guest riders an inevitability in our sport, quite often teams are taking to the track with a mixture of team kevlars, race jackets, or those horrible raceshirts (or even, in the case of Birmingham on Sky last week, an oversized football shirt!). There are two obvious solutions: 1) if we are to continue with team racesuits each team must provide spares for guests and new signings to wear until they have a racesuit of their own. Speedway riders don't come in too many varieties of body size, so this shouldn't be too difficult. 2) use race jackets, like the old days (and as still used in the PL and NL), and if Sky insist on black legs, then mandate that all riders' individual kevlars have to include black legs. Or we could carry on looking a bit of a mess?
* Put a time limit on meetings
                    One of the biggest complaints from fans is that meetings take too long to run. Sometimes meetings run long because of incidents - burst airfences, injured riders, etc - but often they just run long. Perhaps the referee is too officious with restarts or not quick enough on the two-minute warning, or perhaps the interval drags on. Whatever the reason, except in very exceptional circumstances, this is unacceptable. In most forms of entertainment, you know when it will start and pretty much when it will finish. If speedway is to attract the casual punters' pounds (and keep its own fans happy), it needs to sharpen up on the timing. The referee is key to this, with the two-minute warning the best weapon in moving a meeting along. Not allowing riders back into the pits after a quarter of a lap is also a good tactic, but whatever the weapon used, it needs to be deployed. Cricket has a minimum number of overs per hour that have to be bowled, and teams can be fined for not keeping up with it - I'd suggest a similar tactic in speedway might prove very effective with cash-strapped promoters. Fifteen heats should take no more than ninety minutes to run - with a 15-minute interval, a 7.45 tapes up results in a 9.30 finish, leaving ample time for a second-half, a drink in the bar, or an early getaway, depending on the whims of the fans.
ITEM: I have no interest in becoming friends with speedway riders. I don't particularly want to work for any speedway promoter, paid or unpaid, and no real desire to lead any kind of fans' movement. Watching speedway is my hobby, and I find that if I get involved in my hobbies I end up ruining them for myself and others because I can't get my own way. That's not to say I wouldn't accept the same sort of deal offered to John Berry in the 1980s, to oversee the entire sport with no interference from the promoters, but that's more to do with my megalomaniacal tendencies than any desire to work in speedway.
I write this blog for my own amusement and because if I didn't I'd explode through frustration at the tiny things that annoy me about our sport. I also do it because I like to talk about speedway, but rarely is it motivated by any kind of selfish urge to push through my own agenda. Rarely. I have one weakness, of course - Poole Pirates. Or rather three or four individuals associated with that club. I begin to lose all rationality when it comes to Poole, a surely understandable reaction to Matt Fords attempted murder of my club in the winter of 2010/11, and especially when it comes to a rider who should have used up all his second chances a long time ago.
I'm not alone in this - across the Elite League fans are sick of the Pirates and their shenanigans, and if you were charitable you could say they are pantomime villains, the team everybody loves to beat, and that having them in that role is healthy for the league and the greater narrative of a season. However, you can go too far down that road and there is no coming back. Instead of being the team everybody likes to beat, they become the team nobody wants to see, despite the star attractions of their top riders. Let me dip into a wrestling analogy for a moment, if you'll allow me that indulgence...
In wrestling there are heroes (babyfaces) and villains (heels). The job of both is to get "over" - for a babyface that means having the crowd behind you as you mount your inevitable comeback against the dastardly heel, and for the heel it means having the crowd boo your every move, worried for the safety of their beloved babyface. The animosity the heel generates is called "heat" but there is also such a thing as "fuck you heat". This is where the heel has misplayed his role to such an extent that the crowd genuinely hate him. They don't want to see the babyface beat him because they don't want to see him at all. He is bad for business and won't last long unless he enjoys some special protection by the promoter.
I can't speak for everyone but to me - and certainly a very vocal minority of Bees' fans - Poole have slipped into fuck you heat territory. We don't want to see them any more than we have to, which is obviously troublesome given Nigel Pearson's "editorial judgement" of focusing on "winners" to the detriment of everything else, but at least if you only draw them once at the start of the season you can expect to get that over with and not see them again at your home track, right? Well, no, as it happens, because - as part of the loan deal that sees Greg Hancock become one of them - Mick Horton has instigated an annual challenge match against the Pirates, not quite understanding his core audience, it seems.
And this is where I wish I could use this blog for my own selfish ends, wield any power I might have to stop this happening. As it is, my power is restricted to not going on the night, even though the meeting is included in my season ticket and so I can't even deprive Mick Horton of any cash as some kind of feeble punishment. I love my club, and if it's a fair evening and the mercenary Hancock deigns to appear, they should get a good crowd and some much-needed cash. But, not for the first time in life as a sports fan, I just wish that principles could overcome cash. I won't give up wishing but every blow is another step towards not caring any more, like so many before me. And that would be a very bad thing.

Monday, 5 August 2013

False Averages & False Advertising

ITEM: I want to start this week by writing a little about Ricky Ashworth. Now, as far as I can recall, I don't think I've ever seen Ashworth ride. I may be missing a memory here and there - perhaps a guest appearance in the Elite League - but I've never seen Sheffield ride, and haven't seen Berwick for over twenty years, so I'm probably right about that. Regardless, that doesn't diminish my respect for him, or mean that - as a fairly successful, not totally past it Brit - I haven't been keeping my eye on his career.

As the vast majority of you will know, Ashworth was involved in a serious accident at Scunthorpe on Friday night, and - at the time of writing - remains unconscious in a Hull hospital. While there appear to be no broken bones, he has already missed a chunk of the season with a head injury, and doctors are understandably cautious. Hopefully, though, what I've just written will soon be rendered pointless and he'll be sitting up in bed enjoying a cup of tea and reflecting on how much it's going to cost him to get that bike up and running again. I witnessed what I thought, at the time, might have been a fatal crash earlier this season, when Adam Roynon fell and was unavoidably hit by a trailing Josh Auty at Brandon. The sick feeling I felt then is something I don't want to ever experience again, and it returned a little on Friday night when I read about Ashworth's crash. I don't know the full story, and unusually for a gossip-hound like myself, I don't really want to know the details - I just hope he's up and about soon.

Last night at Berwick just happened to be the annual collection for the Speedway Riders Benevolent Fund, and the Bandits' fans are renowned for giving a heft amount (so much they were granted to the SRBF benefit meeting earlier this season). I've heard the buckets were brimming with cash and it really is no surprise. Accidents like this bring it home to us just how important it is that we look after these guys. Some of them may be knobs of the highest order but as a unit the risks they take (albeit well-paid in some cases) should carry with them a monetary safety blanket should they need it. The next time the SRBF bucket is passed round at your track, please dig deep - a little goes a long, long way.

[As an afterthought, and if anyone from the SRBF is reading, can we have another collection at Coventry, please? The last one was held on the same day as the Peterborough collection, and a good chunk of Bees' fans had already given at Alwalton! I'm sure, given the chance, we could match any track's contribution and bring the BenFund meeting to Brandon...]

ITEM: I wrote last week about Greg Hancock's return to British speedway with Poole, and how it was very much a marriage of convenience, despite the hype supplied by people who should know better. Now we know, of course, that it didn't happen, at least not when it was supposed to have, and this is a very interesting thing indeed.

The big story on Tuesday evening was that Hancock's paperwork hadn't been completed - that a delay at the British embassy in Stockholm was putting his debut at Wimborne Road, against former club Coventry, in serious doubt. As it turns out, the paperwork wasn't completed in time, and Poole were able to have their cake and eat it by reverting back to their side without Hancock, using rider replacement for the injured Chris Holder. But all the hullabaloo surrounding the televised Wednesday appearance of the former world champion obscured a telling example of how our sport treats its fans, largely with contempt and like mushrooms (best kept in the dark).

Because if Hancock's paperwork wasn't completed for the Wednesday night meeting at Poole, how was he supposed to have made his debut - as advertised - at Kirkmanshulme Lane, against Belle Vue, two days before?

As it happens, the Belle Vue meeting fell victim to the rain, but at no point before - or after - the postponement did anyone from Belle Vue, Poole, or the speedway press even hint that Hancock might have not been there? Of course, I may be being uncharitable, and the Manchester club were fully intending to announce to what probably would have been a bumper crowd that they shouldn't attend if Hancock was the only reason for doing so. Or maybe they didn't know, and would have had a rude awakening when the Poole team arrived without him? Or perhaps, as with so many other examples down the years, those travelling to the track would have been faced with a hand-written, A4 notice, blu-tacked to the turnstiles, announcing Hancock's absence?

Although I doubt Hancock's return will have as much impact as some less-careworn commentators, it is a story that can be sold to good commercial and promotional effect. What we can't afford is to false sell such appearances, because that sort of carny approach makes you more enemies than customers. Trying to sell a 43-year old to a weary public might smack of rearranging to deck chairs on the Titanic, but that iceberg is a way off yet and we don't want to do anything that might hasten its arrival, eh?

ITEM: So if you've been reading for the past few weeks, you'll know that I've been suggesting changes to the rules that might see the sport in a better place next season. I don't claim to have the answers, and I imagine promoting a speedway club is a horribly complex and unrewarding affair, but a gentle nudge - even into debate - is something I can very much do. The promoters will soon sit down for their pre-AGM meeting, where the things they'll discuss at the AGM itself are tabled, and hopefully here's a wind of change blowing through the conference room at Rugby. If not, get the fan on, Price!

* Ban the tuning of engines
                    One of the biggest talking points in speedway at the moment is cost. It's becoming more and more expensive to enter the sport, let alone compete at any level, and that cost is passed on to the promoter, and then onto the fan. If we can bring costs down for the rider, it is argued, then we can bring costs down at all levels, and this is obviously something that no-one can argue with. So why do we put up with the parasitical practice of engine tuning? Would it not be possible to insist on all riders riding in British leagues to use factory-sealed engines? I'm not technical expert, but I imagine there is a way you can tell if an engine has been fiddled with - if we can do that, surely we can enforce a "no tuning" rule? The advantages are obvious and enticing. Every bike would, presumably (again, I'm a technical idiot here), have the same potential speed and power, and thus the playing field between those who can afford (or choose to invest in) tuning and those who can't (or don't) will narrow. The negatives are that it would make redundant several former riders making a living off this sort of thing, but given their potential customer base falls with every passing year, is it not merely a mater of time for them anyway? Is this possible? I'm seriously interested to find out.

* Give riders ONE average
                    I wrote above about the pitfalls of using different averages in different leagues. It's a complicated mess than could easily be avoided by weighting the points scored in the various leagues rather than the averages they contribute towards. So, for example, rider A has an Elite League average of 4.00 (gained from 40 points from 40 rides) and a Premier League average of 10.00 (100 points from 40 rides). This gives him two different applicable EL averages when the conversion factor of 0.6 is applied - 4.00 and 6.00. However, if the PL points are converted first, and then added to the EL points, he gets one usable average of 5.00 (100 points from 80 rides). It's not a perfect system, and the difference in figures shows that Peter Adams golden conversion of 0.6 is often wildly inaccurate, but it works better than the chopping and changing between figures we use now. Alternatively, we could just use an EL average in the EL, and a PL average in the PL, but that seems far too simple somehow...

* Reduce the amount of matches contributing towards a rolling average
                    I can see why rolling averages were brought in - far too often teams were able to take advantage of an early season slump by a particular rider and utilise him at reserve on a seemingly false average (operating under the assumption that form is temporary and class is permanent, I presume). However, what it has actually done is to penalise whole teams with poor early season form, and especially punish some riders who are recovering from often quite serious injuries. What seems to have happened far too often is that teams struggling at the bottom of tables have been unable to strengthen because the rolling averages carried by their riders are unrepresentative of their current form, whilst teams further up have been able to take advantage of certain riders' upturns in form to further improve even an already successful team. This can;t be conducive to evening out team strengths, which is why we have a points limit in the first instance. The theory of assessing a rider's current form over a full season's worth of meetings is, of course, sound. However, given the uneven nature of the fixture list, and that some newcomers to the leagues have averages based on ten or twelve meetings rather than the twenty-eight currently used in the EL (and more in the PL), unbalances the principle towards uselessness. I would argue that twelve meetings is a far better bellwether of current form than anything longer, and would still rule out artificial manipulation of averages.

ITEM: The SCB sprang into action this week, altering the result of the King's Lynn vs Peterborough meeting from July 24th, and overturning a home victory into a big away win. The biggest winners from this decision are Poole, who find themselves within spitting distance of the play-offs now that one of their rivals for the spot have lost vital league points. The SCB also acted quickly and decisively when Belle Vue farcically postponed their home meeting with Poole, lied about the reason, and then failed to admit their guilt. Strangely, the SCB haven't acted yet on Poole's own shoddy postponement, against Lakeside, when the rulebook suggested they were unentitled to do such a thing. A cynical man might even think that the rules are bent in Poole's favour, but enough of that - let's look at what King's Lynn actually did wrong.
The Stars were missing their young Danish prospect Niklas Porsing. As always, they sought to find a decent guest and landed upon former squad member Kozza Smith. Although Smith averages just 3.43 his current form in the Elite League is much better than that, and so even though they were giving away 0.57 from Porsing's assessed 4.00 average, the Stars were confident that Smith would do a job for them. And so it proved, with his 13 points the difference between winning and losing. King's Lynn submitted their team to the BSPA before the meeting, and it was checked by referee Dave Watters, and both approved the line-up (or at least failed to notice any irregularities in it). However, the peculiarities of the regulations are such that - despite it being an EL meeting, featuring EL teams, on an EL track - the average that King's Lynn should have used was Smith's Premier League average. Which, when converted using the calculation used between leagues, is 4.45 - 0.45 over Porsing's average.
What muddies the waters even further is that both Porsing and his fellow King's Lynn reserve Andreijs Lebedevs have assessed averages, with the Latvian being assessed half a point better than the Dane. This difference is vital, because if they'd both been assessed at 4.00, Smith would have been allowed to guest for Porsing. Furthermore, Smith's converted average is based on his rolling average from 2012/13 - on his current Premier League form he'd have been fine to guest even on that average. It's all numbers, right? And everybody gets numbers wrong once in a while. Except that this mistake should have been caught long before the teams took to track - by the BSPA, the meeting referee, and both team managers - and nobody noticed a thing wrong. The meeting went ahead, fifteen races were raced, and the fans went home happy (well, the home fans, at least).
It's often said that speedway has too many rules. The rulebook is quite thick, but most of it refers to things that don't really affect the day-to-day business of a speedway meeting. The issue is not the amount of rules, or even the complexity, it's the contradictions inherent within, where one rule appears to say one thing, and another turns it on is head a few pages later. There's plenty wrong with speedway, we all know that. But, as I've argued before, what speedway gets right so often is that we race 15 heats with 4 riders doing 4 laps, of varying quality I grant you, but mostly with the same exciting result. Once we begin tinkering with the results of races or meetings after the fact, when there was ample opportunity for all parties concerned to raise an objection beforehand, we begin to make a mockery of things. I'm not excusing cheating - I'm asking for vigilance but acceptance if things are missed. Speedway fans want to see two teams of seven riders racing whenever possible - they don't much care how those seven riders are put together, for the most part. By reducing the sport down to the minutiae of a contradictory rulebook, we just look silly.