Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Conspiracy Theories (and other things)

ITEM: I have a friend who is into conspiracy theories. I mean really into them. Not quite to the level of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory or David Icke, but he still believes that nothing is quite as it seems, and who am I to disagree with that? I spent some time with him last week, and around the same time something happened in speedway that I thought might be fun to approach from his world view. So here it is, speedway’s X-Files

Until the middle of last week, Nick Morris wasn’t a Swindon rider. Due to the colossal clusterfunk over Brady Kurtz’s starting average, he had found himself out of a Premier League job at Somerset, and with the only PL club able to accommodate him racing on the same night as the Robins, he’d served notice that he wanted to leave the Abbey Stadium.

At that time it looked very much like he would be going to Sheffield – the aforementioned Thursday PL club – and doubling-up with Leicester, the only Elite League club with space for him, an arrangement which suited everyone except Swindon, who seemed to have been outmanoeuvred by the rider and his advisors.

Now here’s where serendipity comes into play. Swindon had chosen, as part of the fast track draft of young British reserve riders in the EL, Steve Worrall and Josh Bates. Many had criticised the choices, believing that it had left them weaker than some of their rivals. It would turn out, however, to be an accidental stroke of genius…

Josh Bates is from Barnsley, in south Yorkshire. He expressed doubts over the distance he’d have to travel to Swindon (180 miles – although he seemed entirely comfortable with the 150 miles to Mildenhall), and asked to move to a club closer to home. Swindon, in an entirely altruistic move, released Bates from his obligation, and from the fast track draft, allowing him to join Sheffield. The Robins will now have to pick a replacement from those left over from the draft (Daryl Ritchings, Ben Hopwood or Dan Greenwood) or from those with an NL average below Bates’s 7.49 (Liam Carr or Tom Young, most likely).

On the surface of it, it looks like Swindon have done a young British lad a solid, hurting their own chances of success in the process, and perhaps co-promoter Alun Rossiter’s new role as TeamGB manager played a part in that. But let’s enter the shadowy world of conspiracies for a moment, shall we, and see what we come up with…

Josh Bates is not just local to Sheffield, his grandfather is a member of the (still unannounced publicly) consortium that have taken over at the south Yorkshire club, and in a perfect world they’d have named Bates as a team member for their predominantly British side. One problem – that shared race night with Swindon, and the contract that Bates signed with the BSPA promising to honour whichever EL club he was drafted by. Without Swindon’s agreement, there was no way Bates could have ridden for the Tigers, but do we honestly think – with our Fox Mulder heads on – that the Robins would do that with nothing in return?

Coincidentally, at the same time Sheffield signed Bates, they ended their interest in Nick Morris, leaving him with no reason to leave Swindon, who have insisted that he is going nowhere and remains a fundamental part of their team and, as an asset, future plans.

So far, so simple, and really not much of a conspiracy, more a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” arrangement, the like of which I’m sure are carried out up and down the country in this great (under-investigated) sport of ours. But what if you look a little deeper, and look at what else might have happened, installing Sheffield promoter David Hoggart as a shadowy figure, akin to the X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man.

Hoggart, as well as part of the consortium that runs the Tigers, is a member of the BSPA management committee, the go-to cabal that officiates over the finer details of the sport. One decision they’ve had to make in recent days – and it’s still not been announced just how they’re going to go on this one – is whether to allow Jason Doyle to ride in the UK this year on a different type of visa to those usually used by Australian speedway riders. Doyle, as has been documented, is unable to secure the usual visa, and the tier 5 visa is his last chance to take his place in the EL with Leicester.

Doyle has also got a contract with Somerset in the PL, and without the BSPA accepting his tier 5, he will also be unable to ride there. Having released Nick Morris earlier in the winter (as explained above), you’d imagine that – should Doyle fail in his application – Morris would be top of their list to replace him. It certainly wouldn’t be beyond my pal’s conspiracy-riddled imagination to make a leap there. Could Doyle be sacrificed to enable Morris to double-up with Swindon and Somerset? Would Hoggart abuse his power on the MC to help out the Robins, as payback for allowing them to take Bates?

Of course not! That would be ridiculous, and I only mention it out of a sense of fun, and as an example that, while they remain a shadowy cabal, their decisions obfuscated by a cloud of (cigarette?) smoke, the BSPA MC (and the SCB, with whom they share members) will always be open to such madness, along with other, more believable accusations. We’ve cried out for openness for so many years, and it doesn’t look like coming any time soon, despite an increased level of communication with the fans over the winter. Maybe one day, maybe one day…

Afterword: When I told my friend of my application of his usual nonsense to this situation, he thought of something further (and even more steeped in paranoia), that could also have gone down in the secret bunker miles beneath ACU House… The BSPA MC was given the responsibility of deciding between Alun Rossiter and Phil Morris for the TeamGB job. The early indications were that the two EL promoters on the committee favoured Rossiter, while the three PL promoters had plumped for Morris. In the process of the vote, one of the PL promoters seemingly switched his vote to Rossiter, and he was duly named national manager. What if, suggested my friend, that PL promoter was Dave Hoggart? Don’t mind my friend, though, he’s crazy…

ITEM: OneSport, the Polish marketing company behind speedway’s European Championship, also dipped their toe into the Pairs arena last season, with a one-off Eurosport Best Pairs meeting, held at Torun. The meeting was beset by problems, notably the mixed Slovakia-Slovenia pairing and the broadcast delay while some meaningless tennis match finished up, but was enough of a winner for all parties to do it all over again this year.

Buoyed by the success of the four-round European Championship, OneSport have expanded the pairs into a three-round affair, held early in the season to ensure maximum availability, and staged in Sweden and Germany, as well as Poland. Although it is not an official FIM competition (or even an FIM-Europe backed championship – they run their own pairs competition), the line-up is expected to be strong, with all the major speedway nations represented. Except one.

The BSPA have declined to send a pairing, and forbidden (although I’m sure that’s too strong a term) British riders from taking part unofficially. This robs the series of having the World Champion lining up, and also prevents our boys from earning some quick cash and the experience of further international competition.

I’m sure the BSPA have very good reasons for opting out. The three dates are held on two Fridays and a Saturday while the EL is in full swing, and clubs would have no facility to replace riders taking part. There is also a reluctance to countenance further intrusions into the British speedway calendar, with the SGP series, SWC, and other assorted official FIM competitions already causing terrible disruption to our season – being seen to approve of the FIM-Europe, and further unofficial competitions, would be a stretch too far. There is also the thorny issue of recompense – the BSPA and its member club wouldn’t receive a penny from the series and, if they aren’t obligated to do so by the FIM, can be forgiven for thinking with their wallets.

However, if you look a little deeper, there really aren’t all that many reasons why they shouldn’t have approached it with a little more enthusiasm, and sent a pairing out to each meeting, without too much disruption to the calendar.

The first event, on March 28th, clashes with just one EL fixture – Poole’s visit to Lakeside – and so only Richard Lawson and Lewis Bridger would be unavailable. Even if you allow for the two EL fixtures on Saturday 29th, in case of flight problems, a pairing of Chris Harris and Scott Nicholls would be available, and I’d dare say acceptable to the organisers.

The next date, May 10th, is held at the same time as Poole’s visit to Eastbourne, and Leicester a round of the World Under-21 Championship. With Poland in full swing by that point, there are no clashes the next day, and so a full-strength British pairing would be available, including world champion Tai Woffinden, perhaps with Chris Harris. For the final event, held on May 23rd, only Coventry and Eastbourne are in action, although the next day also sees Swindon, Lakeside, Poole, Leicester, and Birmingham in EL competition. Still, a pairing of Woffinden and Nicholls could still take part with no issues.

Availability still leaves the thorny issue of supporting a competitor, with the televised rounds on Eurosport eating into attendance figures, and approving their position in the international calendar eating away at available weekend fixture slots. Like Canute ably demonstrated to his subjects, you can’t fight the impossible, and with European competition law firmly on the side of self-employed speedway riders, there is only going to be one winner when it comes to clashes like this down the line. The individual federations could come down heavy on their license holders, but they are as likely to find European law on restraint of trade standing in their way (and an exodus of speedway riders to ride on a Luxembourgish license to boot). Thinking creatively, rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, is always the way to approach these problems.

Although the Best Pairs – and the European Championship, and SGP, and SWC – eat into the finances, attendances, and rider availability of British speedway, they are all also shown on (practically) free-to-air television in the UK. Just as other forms of entertainment rely on other people’s TV as free advertising, so too should the BSPA. They should take a, “like those riders you see on Eurosport? You can see them LIVE at your local track!” approach, and other such tactics. Working with OneSport and Eurosport, and their dedicated English-language commentary team, could pay off down the line, with choice fixtures trailed as part of an agreement for British riders taking part, for instance.

I wrote recently that the new TeamGB manager needed to ape what other, successful nations are doing, and having their top riders ride in a competitive international series of meetings like the Best Pairs is certainly one of those things. There needs to be a longview taken, with the benefits of having Danny King, Richie Worrall, and others on the cusp of the SWC side, taking part in these meetings, if we are going to succeed at international level once more. I’m not sure if it’s too late to change their minds, but I’d urge the BSPA to rethink on this one, and when I tune into Eurosport on March 28th (although more likely watch it the next day, having recorded it while I’m out at speedway) I’d like to see two riders wearing the Union Jack. Make it so.

ITEM: It’s curtains, then, for the Isle of Wight, at least for the 2014 season. At a meeting last week, attended by just 53 of the 200 shareholders, they voted 45 to 8 not to enter the National League this season, and so eighteen seasons of speedway have come to an end on the island.

There are appears to be some conflict between the shareholders, with the chairman of a speedway club seemingly not keen to run speedway, but the truth seems to be that passion for the Islanders is more keenly felt by those who visited as away fans than those on the island. Although the task of raising £20,000 for an air-fence was a daunting one, it wasn’t impossible, and it seems to be the dwindling attendance figures that have put the club into (hopefully temporary) dry-dock.

Whatever the ins and outs of the decision, it can’t be left to stand, at least not completely. Entering a team into the National League at this late stage, and with an already shallow pool at the top end of that level of rider, would have been difficult, and Scunthorpe’s late entry has been undertaken on the understanding that they will field an initially weak side to bring through talent from their training school. As a second team, with the support of an Elite League team (ironically the Isle of Wight’s closest EL team…), they can afford to do that. To attempt that on the island would risk further diluting their already low gates, and so it’s a non-starter.

But it needn’t be the end of speedway on the island. We’ve seen on so many occasions that one year out of the sport turns into two, and then three, and then forever. Speedway has never enjoyed the best of relationships with its neighbours, and a discontinuation of the sport at Smallbrook would be fuel for the fires of those annoyed by a minimum amount of noise on a dozen evenings a year, the big twats.

Last year the Southern Track Riders held a successful amateur event on the island, and I’m sure that all concerned would be keen to do it again. Amateur events, and training days, do not require an airfence under the current SCB regulations, and so the initial outlay for that piece of equipment can be discounted from the cost of continuing speedway. Currently, there are only a handful of tracks that allow amateur racing to take place, and that number dwindles during the speedway season. The addition of the Isle of Wight to their number, on five or six occasions during the season, would enhance those opportunities, especially for southern-based amateurs, and the cost of the ferry to the island would be offset by the difference in fuel to Ryde and Scunthorpe or Northside.

It also might be desirable for training schools to be held at the track, to try and entice some of the locals into trying the sport, making it cheaper to enter a team in league competition in future years. If those training schools were overseen – or even visited – by ex-Islanders, such as former World Champion Chris Holder, the opportunities for positive news stories and raising some much-needed cash for the club open up.

Furthermore, it is not impossible to consider that the club might loan an airfence for a handful of professional meetings, held during the summer season, whether it be team challenges or open meetings. The BSPA might even like to support such an endeavour to test whether there is an appetite for non-league speedway at venues that cannot support a full season, to strengthen the sport beyond its league-centric current outlook.

I hope that something happens. The opportunities for speedway to continue is some form, while not endless are certainly considerable. It takes some forethought and, yes, a little bit of cash to make it happen but we can’t afford to lose another track, let alone one as unique as Smallbrook. Besides, it keeps Bryn Williams out of trouble, and that’s invaluable!

Monday, 20 January 2014

Putting The ________ In Scunthorpe (and other things)

ITEM: The announcement yesterday that the Elite League Riders' Championship would take place in late March, rather than the traditional end-of-season slot it has occupied for - ooh - ever, took us all by surprise, and it took a few minutes of moaning about the loss of a great tradition before anyone noticed that the L had been dropped from ELRC. This is rather more significant that the loss of a letter usually is - unless that letter is the o in count - and changes the whole ball game.

The Elite Riders' Championship resurrects an idea from 2010, whereby the top riders from the 10 Elite League clubs - and I still can't believe they're sticking with that horrible name, but I digress - are joined by a select few from outside the league. It failed in 2010 because it was near the end of the season and the top riders were unwilling or unable to fit it into their schedule. In the end, that edition went ahead as normal, with no riders from outside the league taking part. The thinking on this occasion is that, by holding it before the Grand Prix riders depart for New Zealand, some of the GP riders will use it as a pre-season tune-up, and thus deign to honour us with their presence.

Outside the 10 EL number ones, there are just two GP riders riding in the Elite League this season and of those Chris Harris happens to be captaining Coventry, hosts for the meeting, and his appearance in the line-up therefore wouldn't be a surprise. Equally, Chris Holder and Nicki Pedersen continue to base themselves in the UK despite choosing richer pickings elsewhere and they, too, should be considered solid favourites to appear. Rory Schlein is the current holder of the ELRC title, and although this is a different kettle of fish, it would be harsh on him not to get to defend that title. That leaves two slots open, and seven GP riders who may be willing to take them, which should at least ensure that the organisers aren't paying over the top for their services. Of those, only Hampel, Sayfutdinov, and Jonsson are rare visitors to these shores and could draw a crowd - God knows we've all seen enough of Bjerre, Kasprzak, Lindgren, and Smolinski!

This is an event that can be sold to the general public as the very best of British speedway and, unlike the GP at Cardiff, it is entirely under the control of the BSPA. They can reap what they sow, get the rewards - and I don't necessarily mean financially - that some hard work and clever promotion would bring. A central location, on a weekend and at a convenient time for travelling fans, and most of the best riders in the world? What a fantastic opportunity to sell the sport!

Key to the success of the event is the ticket price, and this is where the BSPA can earn themselves some goodwill, and reward fans for backing their cost-cutting plans made at the AGM. However you dress it up - and you know I'm a big fan - the introduction of the fast track draft at reserve for the 2014 EL season is cost-cutting, but hasn't been accompanied by a corresponding reduction in ticket price for regular EL action. This is understandable, because the league was already operating beyond its means, and the vast majority of fans have accepted the reduction (for the best of reasons) and will turn up in numbers for their weekly fix of speedway. While the individual clubs may not be able to reduce the ticket price for their own meetings, the collective mass of the BSPA can afford to be charitable, especially given the fiasco that was last year's ELRC at Swindon.

The price for this kind of event has crept up to £25 of late, which is a lot of money at the best of times but never more than now, and with the cheapest tickets at the British GP only the price of a pint on top of that, it doesn't look much like value for money. With that in mind, and the poor PR that resulted from the 2013 ELRC and the reduction in quality of the 2014 EL without anything being given back to the fans, I would suggest £20 is the very most they should charge, with anything under that being a massive late Christmas for the loyal fans that have stuck with British speedway through thin and thin. It's also a price that wouldn't make too many new fans baulk at paying.

Just how the BSPA choose to play this will set their stall out for the rest of the season. Get it right and the current positive feeling that most people have about the 2014 season will continue into the summer. Get it wrong and the consequences could be worrying for the whole sport...

ITEM: There's always a but. There shouldn't be, but there always is. Scunthorpe Stags are to ride in the 2014 National League, which is fantastic news after they sat out 2013. Scunthorpe have been a mainstay of the third tier, even after the senior Scorpions side took the step up into the Premier League, and a season without them was an interruption in the flow of talent that has come through the Eddie Wright Raceway, although recent graduates Olly Greenwood, Max Clegg, and Danny Phillips found rides elsewhere, and the presence of the Castleford Kings in the MDL, operating out of Scunthorpe ensured it wasn't too broken.

Between them, Buxton and Scunthorpe can account for much of the young British talent in both senior leagues, and have given many of the National League's mainstays their first outings on a speedway bike. That they have struggled to finance their league campaigns in recent years is concerning, and reflects very badly on the rest of British speedway, and thus it is with some credit that Matt Ford - he of perennial pantomime villains the Poole Pirates - has stepped in to help finance the Stags' NL foray for 2014 (and hopefully beyond).

But - I told you - there's more to this than Ford stepping in to help a National League compete this season. If that was his intention, he has a club right on his doorstep (well, over the water a bit...) that is in desperate need of a saviour, and one that he has used as a pathway for young Australians on more than one occasion. And more than just enabling a Premier League club to run in the National League as well, an intercession at the Isle of Wight would save a whole club. But - there it is again - the Isle of Wight has no track record of producing its own talent - the logistics of travel to the island, and a smaller catchment area than north Lincolnshire/east Yorkshire, combining to prevent the same conveyor belt that operates at Scunthorpe, and therein lies the real reason for Ford's magnanimity.

Of course, nobody expects something for nothing these days, and if the price of Ford's involvement at Scunthorpe is cherry-picking the best talent coming through Richard Hollingsworth & Wayne Carter's training schools, then that's the way the business cookie must crumble. But - and there it is, for last time - it means nothing if there isn't a sea change at Wimborne Road in their use of British riders, both in actually using them in the first place and treating those they do use with a little more respect, patience, and care. This is the worrying aspect of the deal, not that Ford gets first pick of the best boys. What we absolutely don't want is a situation like that in Premier League football, whereby the big clubs are signing up the best young players and not using them, when other clubs would offer them far better opportunities.

Still, it's early days, and I'm willing to give anybody a chance. Well, almost anybody and usually Poole would be one of the exceptions, but for the future of British speedway I'm willing to play a waiting game and hope against hope that this all works out for the best. I'm sure it will - after all, they have a team manager who knows "what all kids do these days", so who better to mentor them?

ITEM: By now you'll have seen the 2014 fixtures and slotted them into your diaries. I hope you used a pencil, though, because they seem far from the finished article, aas visitors to this blog over the weekend may have discovered. Whilst Kings Lynn, Lakeside, and Poole can certainly be happy with their schedules, I'm not sure fans of Belle Vue, Birmingham, Coventry, Ipswich and Leicester can feel the same way, and I'd imagine there's a fair amount of tinkering still to be done until all concerned are happy.

One team I really feel for are Redcar, who signed Richard Lawson as their number one expecting his availability for all their fixtures this season, only for his contract to be transferred to his Elite League club Lakeside, and now have to go into almost a third of their fixtures without him. It's a risk you take when you sign a rider on loan, of course, but I can't help but feel there should be a cut-off for this kind of thing.

With 34 clubs racing every week, and far less than the 228 riders it would need for no rider to be duplicated in any team list, there are bound to be times when riders have to find themselves in two places at once. However, with all 7 weekdays being utilised somewhere, and Bank Holidays and weekends affording a variety of start times, the amount of clashes should be far less than it currently stands at, notwithstanding the massive job compiling this fixture list in the first instance. The majority of clubs with Grand Prix riders have managed to avoid any clashes, and you could forgive Coventry to a degree given Chris Harris wasn't a GP rider when this process was started (and I'll be disappointed if he misses a single fixture given how irreplaceable he is on that average), but for Belle Vue to travel to Coventry and Lakeside on GP weekends seems silly and you can only wonder what went through Mssrs Morton & Gordon's head when they agreed to that!

The majority of the rest of the clashes are with fast track draft riders, and you'd expect these to lessen once clubs learn the value of investing in young British talent (see Poole, above!), and of course if the draft continues (and the MDL, NJL, and NL continue to unearth talent) the number of available riders to fill those 228 slots should grow year on year, and thus the clashes reduce. For now, we have to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience and trust in the powers-that-be to smooth the ride as far as possible. Still some work to do on that front.

ITEM: Eurosport can't get enough of speedway! Having picked up the SGP series after Sky dropped it last year, and added the European Championships and their own Best Pairs competition to the schedule, they've announced that - in Europe at least - they'll be showing Swedish Elitserien speedway in 2014. With the Best Pairs expanding to three rounds, this should take the number of live speedway meetings on Eurosport to well over 30. If the UK arm of the channel is showing the Spedish sweedway (sic), too, then Eurosport would eclipse Sky as the premier broadcaster for speedway in this country, a complete switcharound on just two years ago.

All this makes you wonder if the BSPA might not have thought outside the box a little when it came to the broadcast of speedway on British TV. With a little investment it's not beyond the realms of possibility for the league to have produced its own broadcast-ready for Eurosport (or any other interested party) to show. There may be added complications with showing it live, but the beauty of a small-scale, off the radar sport like speedway is that not showing it live isn't going to impact its audience figures too much. It's not like a football match, with its every second revealed in full glory on news, social media, and in newspapers - a speedway meeting, for the casual audience, could have happened months ago, for all they know, and still retain its freshness.

All this is conjecture, of course, because as far as I'm aware, the 5-year deal with Sky blabbed to the media by Matt Ford still stands, whatever the delay in announcing it may be. A missed opportunity, then, but certainly something that - should the landscape look anywhere similar in 2019 - needs to be investigated, if new markets and new fans are to be found through TV.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Rights and Wrongs of Rossiter (and other things)

ITEM: The wait is over and we have a new TeamGB manager. I've fallen into the dirty habit of calling it TeamGB for no other reason than everyone else seems to do so, always reluctantly, and that's the worst possible reason. It should be England, of course - no rider from any other nation has ridden for the representative squad for quite some time now, but the inclusion of Scottish (and, latterly, Welsh) clubs in the BSPA - and with the national team farmed out to that organisation like a naughty stepchild - means that it really should be just Great Britain. But that sounds odd, and unwieldy in the face of Poland, Russia, Sweden and the rest. But I digress.

So, yes, Alun Rossiter is the new Great Britain manager, and the news of his appointment was met with almost total positivity, with some reservations and exclusions. Rossiter is the right man for the job in all the ways Neil Middleditch was the wrong one. Over the last half dozen years he has shown he is willing to include homegrown riders in his club sides, and has actively lobbied for them on occasion. Contrast that with a team manager whose club sides have been shockingly, abjectly defined by the absence of British riders - if you are charitable you could argue that Middleditch had no input into Matt Ford's Poole teams because anything else looks like he deliberately favours riders from his rivals on the international scene. Middleditch wasn't unique in his seeming reticence to use British riders whilst occupying the national team manager's job - Rob Lyon, in his brief spell at the helm, filled his King's Lynn sides with all kinds of non-Brits, although he, at least, had the defence that he was managing a second division side at the time.

Rossiter, on the other hand, has a decent record when it comes to using - and therefore trusting in - British riders. This season is some kind of aberration - his two mandated youngsters are his only homegrown riders - but he has worked with, and with some success, Chris Harris, Edward Kennett, Ben Barker, Lewis Bridger, Simon Stead, Kyle Howarth, Josh Auty, and Ashley Birks, as well as the late Lee Richardson. He has also mentored Nick Morris, who may well have been a mainstay of the British SWC side but for a tough decision made by Alex Harkess in the spring of 2011.

There have been slight reservations expressed by some - myself included - that Rossiter got the job ahead of the outstanding candidate, Phil Morris, but that should not denigrate Rossiter's suitability for the role. Quite why the BSPA management committee decided against the Welshman will probably never be revealed but, let's face it, they've hardly covered themselves in glory over the years. Luckily, this is one situation where the second most-suitable candidate, in my opinion at least, is very much up to the job. That won't please the folks down Poole way, though - they're waiting for Rossiter to slip up, certain he will, because their beloved team manager wasn't up to scratch. One thing's for sure, Rossiter would have to try very hard to have a season as bad as Middleditch had last year - all he has to do is finish ahead of Latvia and he'll be the most successful Great Britain manager for quite some time...

ITEM: Regardless of who got the job, the task ahead is a big one. For whatever reason you’d like to choose, Great Britain’s standing in world speedway – Tai Woffinden notwithstanding – is close to an all-time low. Being beaten in the SWC by Latvia and the USA was an humiliation it will be hard to come back from, but the path is clear – because other countries have already lain it for us.

Poland are the reigning world champions. They take their national side very seriously and have just announced a get together for their senior and junior national sides. Not for practice, like the Danes do twice a season, but to help the riders bond as a unit. Rob Lyon did get the British lads together for a training session a few years back – one that resulted in an unfortunate injury for Adam Roynon, not that that should stop it happening again – and if the top two sides in the world are doing it, who are we to say its not essential in today’s speedway?

The Poles also planned ahead for their SWC Final triumph by taking a full test side to the Czech Republic, annihilating the hosts on the Prague track where the final (and race-off) were to be staged. This year’s final and race-off are hosted by Bydgoszcz, and one of the first points of order for Alun Rossiter should be arranging a test match – against Poland or a Polish Select – at the Bydgoszcz venue. Funding may not be readily available from the BSPA, but an enterprising sponsor could reap the benefits of such an endeavour.

The Poles, Danes, Russians, and the rest of the continentals, also take the supplementary competitions available to them very seriously. The BSPA sanction British entry into the World Championship, SWC, and its under-21 counterparts, but largely ignore those events under the auspices of FIM-Europe. The European Championship, a junior version, a senior pairs competition, and a junior team event are all open to British entries, should we be interested, and there is little doubt that continental competition, with the experience of riding abroad and against unfamiliar opposition, is invaluable to those riders on the fringe of the British squad.

These are all things that other nations are doing – nations who have deserved every moment of their successes over the years because they’ve worked for it. They represent the very minimum that we have to do to catch up with, and hopefully supplant, those teams at the top of the world rankings.

I’d also look to some events staged on home soil, whether it be full test matches or a series of SWC-formula four-team events, designed to ease the riders – and the new manager – into the role, by familiarising themselves with the format and conditions of racing.

If we don’t look to our rivals, and ape what they’ve been doing, we may as well not bother, regardless of who we have in charge of the national side. A successful Great Britain, on the world stage, will pay off down the line, and a little investment up front is nothing compared to the potential rewards. Time to think big.

ITEM: I feel like an overgrown child the night before Christmas right now because tomorrow, at 9am, the 2014 fixtures are released! I'm hoping for some common sense this year because, God knows, last year's were a mess! Coventry had ridden a quarter of their fixtures before Birmingham had even really started, and an imbalance of fixtures spread throughout the season meant most clubs had gaps of three weeks to a month between home meetings, and Lakeside completed their season before August had finished! Hopefully the addition of four extra home meetings this year, plus some sensible scheduling, will mean that is a thing of the past, and most fans can look forward once more to regular fixtures at their local track.

Like me, I'm sure many fans will be poised over their computers with a diary in hand, copying the fixtures in, and marking the most attractive for special attention. Some of my best times last year came watching the Storm on the road, and although the National League fixtures won't be ready until after the January 31st deadline for new applications, I can see this being the case again. Leicester will be a new away trip for most Elite league fans, and Peterborough a welcome return to the itinerary of Premier League supporters. With Mick Horton and Neil Watson promoting teams in all three leagues, it will be interesting to see if there are any occasions when they are expected to be in three places at once - last year, with only two sides, a rain-off delayed fixture at Kent meant that both Coventry sides took to the track on the same night, with the Bees at Belle Vue of far less interest to most fans.

Compiling the fixture list can't be an easy job - no other sport has to cope with competitors appearing for two, or even three, teams at the same time, and I would be interested to see a diary piece of just how the horse-trading takes place, if a particularly-open promoter were so inclined. I imagine there's some conniving and stubbornness in amidst a huge heap of accommodation and coöperation, and to see it play out would be nothing short of fascinating.

9am, then, and Twitter will be abuzz. Me? I'm looking out for Coventry’s visits to Birmingham and Leicester, and when Peterborough are north of the border. Oh, and who Poole have got in the middle of June when I'm on my holidays down there - perfect chance to test out whether it is possible to see the track from the multi-story car park...

ITEM: Still no news on who has – and who hasn’t – got their visas to race in the UK in 2014, with Jason Doyle, Rohan Tungate, and Alex Davies amongst those possibly caught out by a technical hitch in their applications. The fault lies in the timing of the applications, rather than the merits on which they should be granted, and the clubs involved really have no excuse given the well-publicised issues surrounding Sam Masters and Mason Campton last season.

With Australians, Americans, and Russians the last of the speedway nations to actually need visas, it might be worth considering whether the BSPA can adopt a similar approach to that taken by Scottish football and apply, as an organisation, for a certain number of visas each year, with the BSPA as sponsor, to ensure that this situation does not occur too often. These visas would then be divvied up according to the merits of each application, with the clubs unable to apply for further visas. In one swoop, a limit on the number of non-EU riders and ensuring that those who do come have few problems doing so.

As it is, with riders changing clubs – and therefore sponsors – these hitches are bound to happen from time to time, and fans of the clubs affected may miss out on worthy additions to our leagues. Still, what does it matter if Jason Doyle has to stay home if Joey Ringwood gets to ride?

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Australian League? (and other things)

Welcome back! Hope you all enjoyed your holiday season, however you choose to celebrate it. With it being a slow news period, I asked for requests for topics to be discussed, so this week is a readers' special!

ITEM: League racing dominates speedway in the UK, and in most of the major speedway nations in Europe. Elsewhere in the world - in Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa, for instance - it's individual competition that rules the roost. That's especially true in Australia, which is ironic given their riders' predilection for league racing in this country. For all the talented stars they've produced over the years, the Australian scene has never established a system of league racing - and Jamie Wood wanted to know why...

League competition dominates spectator sports in Europe, and especially in the UK. The roots lie in sport's professionalism in the late 19th century, when the simplest way to ensure that players you paid to play for you didn't turn out for someone else - and have enough guaranteed fixtures to ensure it is worthwhile to contract the players in the first instance - was to form a league. Members of that league would adhere to rules forbidding the poaching and moonlighting of players, and agree to a certain number of fixtures, the results of which would decide a champion. It sounds simple enough to us now but when William McGregor proposed it for football in 1888, more than one Victorian gent fell off his penny farthing. The Football League (never the English Football League, because it was the first) wasn't the earliest organised sporting competition along those lines - some baseball had had leagues prior to that - but it was the first big league, and gave birth to everything that followed, good and bad.

Where football went, team sport fell into line. Rugby League gained its name from the league that was formed when the Northern Rugby Football Union broke away from its southern, amateur counterparts in 1895. Six years earlier, cricket inaugurated its County Championship, although amateurs and professionals played alongside one another until the 1960s. English Rugby Union organised into league competitions as late as 1987, heralding the collapse of "shamateurism", an illusion of non-professionalism which fooled no-one, which eventually happened in 1995.

Early speedway was promoted as a spectacle, and its overseers still retain the title of "promoter", unique in a team sport and more often found in boxing or wrestling. They would stage competitions as a boxing promoter staged "cards", with the best riders of the day brought in to draw the crowds. Pretty quickly, and with speedway tracks opening the length and breadth of Great Britain, promoters sought to protect their best assets - no sense in promoting a star rider for your card if he could appear the next day ten miles down the road - and the formation of the English Dirt-Track League in 1929, quickly followed by the Southern League the same year, ensued that wouldn't happen - at least not without non de plumes and tracks "running black". Being part of a league also means that every fixture should be "not to be missed", with every ride counting towards glory at the end of the season.

And that's pretty much the story of British speedway, league competitions all the way, save for the odd blockbuster open meeting here and there, and - of course - the League Riders' Championships, often seen as more competitive than world finals. Internationally, speedway remains predominantly an individual sport, which perhaps explains why it isn't more a source of pain that our world champions have been few and far between - we are so focussed on league competition that our failings on an individual level just don't amount to a hill of beans. At least, it's a comforting thought to cling to!

In Australia, however, league racing never took off. There are a number of reasons that might explain this, chief amongst them that their premier talent - exactly the ones you might expect to keep hold of by forming a professional league - jumped on a ship to the mother country, where there were richer pickings to be found. It also doesn't help that Australia is a huge country, and its major settlements few and far between. The top league of one of its national games - Australian Rules Football - was predominantly a Victoria State league until the recent past, and without the backing of major sponsors and television contracts, it's unlikely that national leagues would have taken off in any sport down under.

With the decline in interest in our sport worldwide (and, yes, even Polish crowds are down on Communist times, even if today's sponsorship and revenue would have been beyond the wildest dreams of Zenon Plech and his compatriots), a simple answer to "why isn't there league speedway in Australia?" is, "if it were possible, it would have happened before now." Although distance is something of an issue, at least inter-state, there are enough meetings promoted in most states that a league campaign could be viable. In New South Wales, Kurri Kurri staged over a dozen meetings in the 2012/13 season, with Nepean and Gosford also promoting speedway in that state. Down in Victoria, Mildura and Undera Park stage full seasons, with Broadford chipping in to make a decent amount of meetings in that state. The real issue, then, must be of an unwillingness on the part of promoters to stage league meetings, and an assumption - correct or not - that the fans will not turn out for such events. It should also be noted that, unlike the UK and Europe, speedway in Australia (and New Zealand) is rarely bikes only, with the rest of the card often filled by sidecars (especially) and also sprint cars and other four-wheeled machines.

Australian tracks active in the last 5 years

So that’s it, then - no league in Australia so they all come over here, cap in hand. A decent speedway rider in the UK can expect to be paid for a good 50 meetings season, if not more, and with the slim pickings available at home its not hard to see why young Australians pack up and make their way half-way across the world to our leagues to make a living. There's a myth that this makes them hungrier and more deserving of a chance than our local, lazy youngsters, but it's just that, a fallacy. It's a simple equation - if you want to make a living at riding a bike, you have to leave Australia. They should be given no extra chances because of their "sacrifice" and we should only accept the best. Perhaps then, if there were half-decent riders still knocking about down under, they might make something of their scene after all...

ITEM: Monster Energy staged their second Monster Invitational meeting over the holiday period – an event deemed so important that Darcy Ward would miss his national championship for it (although still gratefully claim the support of Motorcycling Australia in his Grand Prix endeavours, no doubt), and won by Britain’s own Scott Nicholls, a non-GP, non-Monster-sponsored rider, which must have pleased the sponsors no end.

The field was seeded with GP stars and international quality riders, as well as the pick of the home talent, and with the US proving that they can stage a meeting of this quality year-on-year, Matt Davis wondered if it augurs well for a US GP before too long…

The simple answer is “yes”. There are three things you need to stage a grand prix in the modern era – a local promoter willing to pony up the cash to series leeches BSI, good sponsorship to help recoup some of that cash, and a track to stage it on. On the first two counts, California looks a great bet to stage the next non-European GP, with former rider Kelly Inman, race director at Industry speedway, doing a sterling organisational job on the Invitational events, and Monster Energy willing to back him with walking cash, but it’s the lack of a European-size track in a stadium-style venue that will hold them back.

Previous FIM events in the US have been held at the Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach and at the LA Coliseum, but it’s been over 25 years since either were used for our sport. Existing tracks in the US tend to be on the small and “homely” side, unlikely to impress the corporate suits BSI would be eager to attract to a showpiece event on the west coast (although they still go to Vojens, so what do I know?). According to SGP mouthpiece Philip Rising, efforts have been made to find a stadium large enough to accommodate a European-style track and satisfy the needs of the organisers, but have so far come up empty, with all suitable venues pricing themselves out of the market if they were interested at all.

This is where Monster Energy – and BSI – could really put their money where their mouths are. Kevin Costner was told by a ghost that “if you build it, they will come,” and if the combined bank balances and enthusiasm for speedway that those two giant corporations appear to have can just think outside the box for a moment, they might find that building a purpose-built venue might just have the long-term benefits that such an investment requires.

To make stadiums pay in the modern era they have to be multi-use, and that would be especially true in a nation where speedway is – for now, at least – a sideshow. But it isn’t beyond even the most rudimentary architect to develop a speedway stadium that is easily converted to stage other events, which would bring in the revenue required. It’s a brave step, and would require a hefty initial outlay, but surely not too much more than the total rental costs for four or five GPs in a large stadium in that area?

So, given all that, the answer isn’t an immediate “yes”, but I don’t think it will be too long before one obstacle or another is overcome and the US sits somewhere between New Zealand and the first of a billion Polish GPs on the GP calendar. Just who that will be good for is another question entirely…

ITEM: Regular readers will know that if there’s one team I have absolutely no time for it’s Poole Pirates and their scheming owner, Matt Ford. But Nick Wellstead challenged me to reveal my secret hidden love for the Pirates and so here, in no particular order, are the 10 Things I Love About Poole Speedway:

1. The chippy at the top of Wimborne Road
2. That one of their fans was literally a tramp
3. Erm…
4. Struggling now…
5. Ooh, I used to quite like Lars Gunnestad!
6. …
7. No, that’s it

ITEM: There was one other request, from Seamus O’Robson, who asked, “if you were a promoter, how would you attract new customers, what entertainment would you add to a meet and still make a profit?”

Now if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past couple of years writing this blog, and talking to promoters who read it, it’s that this promoting game is a lot harder than it looks. Like anyone who attends speedway, I have my own ideas about what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong, and that has filled countless blogs over the months.

There is still more that promoters could do, and things they should stop doing, and probably – somewhere between them all – is a near-perfect set-up. And that’s the first step I’d make in speedway promoting – get together and share ideas, adopting what works and getting rid of what doesn’t. There’s a good example of everything somewhere in this country – it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise how effective Porky at Wolves and Dudley is at energising a crowd and keeping them involved between the races, for example – but somehow bad practice still pervades, in some areas, at every track.

So, yeah, cop-out answer, but get together and share ideas!