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.

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