Thursday, 27 February 2014

Moving (and, well, just that)

ITEM: Well, this is a tough one to write. It’s been six days since the news broke and I’m just about ready to pull it together into some kind of coherent story (although, as with the best stories, there really isn’t much to it), and explain how I see us going from here to there.

It’s the Brandon Stadium story, of course, and the shock news last Friday that a sale had been agreed and that the future for sport at the multi-use stadium looked so bleak that the greyhounds announced they would cease operating after that night’s meeting.

The truth beyond that initial bombast was that the stadium was safe for the next three years, but nothing could be guaranteed after that – subject to planning permission my favoured spot under the scoreboard would become somebody’s utility room by 2017.

The greyhounds jumped because they see their business as a slow build, taking at least that three years to grow to where they wanted it, and they were unwilling to do that with no guarantee that their hard work wouldn’t be destroyed by a great big housing estate plonked down on top of the stadium.

Since then – and things move so quickly and so, so slowly in stories like this - greyhounds at Brandon have been resurrected by another promoter, and the stadium is back to a three-sport facility.

So what do we know? We know that the stadium has been long sought after by developers, keen to bridge the gap between Binley Woods and Brandon village, although the villagers have always seemed very keen to keep that buffer in place, even if it meant the odd bit of noise wafting over their back gardens from time to time. Although no-one has tested the water with an application for housing, various other applications – alterations to the stadium, a funeral parlour on the empty land opposite, and other developments – have been rejected out of hand, with the local council (Rugby, by a quirk of boundaries) seemingly keen to maintain the status quo.

Whether housing would get planning permission or not is a moot point at this time – whoever has bought the stadium (and we don’t know exactly who they are, just that developers are involved) can presumably afford to play the long game, and an empty stadium left to fall apart, and perhaps the victim of vandalism and arson, becomes a different prospect to the council planning department than a going concern.

Did Sandhu have to sell? There’s been paper talk of a relative who may or may not have owned part of the stadium getting into legal trouble which may have forced his hand, but the simple truth is that he bought the stadium with an eye to developing it himself in 2003. He promised back then, with an eye on keeping the locals sweet perhaps, that he’d find a new home for the Bees elsewhere in the city before turfing them out of the only home they’d ever known, and that’s the promise he seems keen to keep today.

That he fell in love with speedway was fortuitous, and it has kept the Bees at Brandon until now (and, he assures us, until the end of the 2016 season), and also brought some good times – and three league titles – to Coventry. His gradual, and then sudden, disgust with the sport has nothing to do with the Bees’ fans, and everything to do with the rulebenders at the BSPA – specifically those petty, jealous, win-at-all-costs types who seem to dislike outsiders, like a speedway UKIP – and their actions will have consequences beyond the loss of the country’s premier speedway stadium. It would be simple to wish the same upon the clubs run by these slimeballs, but that would hurt people like us. They cannot help being innocent victims (although sometimes willing tools) of their promoters’ immoral behaviour.

After the way he was treated, Sandhu owes speedway nothing. Although we see every club owner and promoter as a custodian of our sport and would like to pretend they are in it for us alone, he also owes nothing to the Coventry Bees. But he maintains he will make good on the promise he made eleven years ago, and has instructed Jeremy Heaver – stock car head honcho and Sandhu’s right-hand man – to begin the search for a new site and are inviting fans to make suggestions to widen the search (even if the press release sounded like they had no idea where to start, and were asking fans to do the legwork, I’m assured this isn’t the case).

There are sites out there, seemingly ideal for speedway, and developing them for 2017 would not be complicated. However, things are never so simple and the Bees face a tumultuous few years finding the right spot, negotiating a purchase, and – probably the most difficult – securing planning permission. Ideally they’d be in for the start of the 2015 season, but these things can take time and patience will be word of the day. I still maintain it can be done, and I refuse to fall into negativity – we, as fans, need to believe, and support, because without it the Bees will cease to exist.

The Bees, of course, are not owned by Sandhu, and are currently under the stewardship of Mick Horton. Last Friday’s news must have come as a bit of a shock to Horton, because without a stadium to ride in he owns nothing but the intellectual property and a few riders. With his interest as part of the community-led consortium at Peterborough, people could be forgiven for thinking he might walk away and use the Bees’ assets at Alwalton, but he remains committed to the Bees and is reportedly – but quietly - talking of his excitement at the chance to begin a new era for Coventry speedway in a new stadium fit for the 21st century.

And that’s the thing – as much as the fans love Brandon it’s a crumbling relic of a previous era. That it’s as good a stadium as any in British speedway is both a tribute to how perfect it was when it was built in 1948 and a telling indictment of the rest of speedway’s facilities. A new stadium - from a modest start as seen at Somerset, Leicester, Scunthorpe, and others, and built up – will give Coventry the opportunity to once again lead the way in facilities, comfort, and accessibility, for fans, riders, and the media alike. At the moment, it’s a pipe dream, but Dave Hemsley has shown what can be done at Beaumont Park, and that should be taken as the very minimum a new “Hive” should be.

Sandhu wants the new stadium to replicate Brandon and be a home to all three sports currently taking place at Rugby Road. I realise that beggars can’t be choosers but I’d prefer a speedway-specific stadium (or at least part of it) for the Bees. If the Bees’ track were separate from the greyhound/stock car track, it would be available seven days a week, throughout the year, and that freedom of use is vital to developing new talent. Although the facilities are basic (to say the least) Buxton has separate tracks for stock cars and speedway on the same site, which works well, and if the land were available it would certainly be something I’d investigate. However, the Bees are very much the beggars at this point and will settle for whatever they can get, if speedway is to continue in Coventry in 2017.

So what now? Well, the Bees have got three years. At least. They need to approach each of those years as if they were just another year, another chapter in the 67 season history of speedway in Coventry. There’s racing to watch, riders to support, and trophies to be won, the same as every other year. If the Bees are to thrive in 2017 – wherever that may be – they need to be a going concern, with the same solid support they enjoy today. Even if the unthinkable happens, and 2016 is the last year for the Bees, they should go out with a bang, as befits (arguably) the greatest living club in British speedway history.

It’s not a good time to be a Bees’ fan. Uncertainty is often worse than finality, but optimism has to be the keyword. The doomsayers will have – and are already having – their say, and there are countless examples of permanent closures of long-established tracks, but there are also success stories. Coventry will be a success story. They will start 2017 in a new stadium. And they will continue to be a force in British – and world – speedway. Anything else would be a tragedy for the sport.

ITEM: Because they can’t bear to see Coventry do anything ahead of them, Poole may also be looking for a new stadium in the near future, with the backing of the stadium operators Gaming International. Wimborne Road was also once a three-sport venue, with football joining greyhounds and speedway, but Poole Town were ejected from the stadium in 1994, and now play on a school pitch. With a longview on promotion to the football league (Poole currently play three divisions below League Two), the football club want back in, and Gaming International agree, pledging to look into redeveloping Wimborne Road or finding a new site elsewhere.

Wimborne Road is not owned by Gaming International, it is leased from the local council. As a city centre site, close to housing and commercial properties, its value to a cash-strapped local authority run by the Conservatives far outweighs its function as a local amenity. Hemmed in by its neighbours, room for redevelopment at Wimborne Road is minimal, and so the best option would seem to be relocation. This would allow the council to sell the land for commercial or residential developments, and all three sports to continue at a new venue.

I don’t know Poole as well as I know Coventry. There are copious brownfield sites around Coventry, on land overseen by four local councils. Within hours of the news breaking about the loss of Brandon in 2017, I’d seen a dozen suggestions of potential sites for a new stadium. From the little I do know of Poole, and the part of Dorset in which it resides, it’s a very different story. You would hope, though, that a suitable piece of land could be found to accommodate a new stadium for the town’s sporting endeavours.

The danger – for me, at least – is in tying themselves to the football club. Currently, the Pirates have attendances that – even when they drop below 800, as they did last season on occasion – dwarf those of the football club, who average a shade under 300. Success brings people out of the woodwork, however, as shown by small clubs like Birmingham City taking 40,000 to Wembley, and if the aim is to propel the Dolphins into the football league it won’t be long before the speedway is very much the lowest priority at the stadium. Throw in that Eddie Mitchell, a man not universally loved for his football endeavours over in Bournemouth, is keen to be involved, and there is potential for heartbreak.

There is also the thorny issue that Gaming International promised a new stadium for speedway and greyhounds in Reading, even before the closure of Smallmead in 2008, and that has yet to be delivered, even at the planning stages.

But it’s as important for the Pirates’ fans to stay positive as it is for the Bees’. As it stands, speedway is under no threat at Wimborne Road, and this kind of redevelopment story happens from time to time at every stadium in the land. To do the shady things he does to ensure Poole thrive, Matt Ford must love the club, and I can’t imagine he’d see them in trouble, even if a quick buck were to be made - the consequences of disposing of a speedway club are very different to selling on a chip shop or hairdressers.

Business as usual, then, for the Pirates and the Bees, who meet at least four times this season. Let’s hope it’s a fixture that continues well into the next decade and beyond.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Make Your Minds Up! (and other things)

ITEM: The fragile truce between the Speedway Grand Prix (SGP) series and the European Championships (SEC) has been shattered, as - out of the blue - the FIM sent a letter to the organisers informing them that no permanent SGP competitors could also occupy a permanent place in the SEC. SGP riders are able, as a one-off, to take a wild card bookings for SEC events, and vice versa, but no rider can appear in all events of both competitions. As it stands, that affects Emil Sayfutdinov, Andreas Jonsson, Nicki Pedersen, but others already secure in an SGP berth may become embroiled in the situation.

This had seemed likely a few months ago, but then appeared to have been resolved, a tentative understanding on behalf of the FIM that they could not enforce such a ban in the face of European competition regulations resulting in the status quo being maintained. Whether or not the FIM have since received legal advice that backs up their tough stance, or just decided to chance their arm, isn't clear. OneSport, who organise the SEC on behalf of FIM-Europe (who, to complicate matters, aren't really a part of the FIM at all), have said that they will take legal action to prevent the decision being implemented, but in the face of a complicated, and possibly lengthy, legal battle, riders will possibly be forced to choose sides.

Emil Sayfutdinov, who had already sided with the SEC when the first clash occurred, reiterated that stance, claiming that the contract he signed to ride in the SGP series was null and void because at the time he signed it it didn't prohibit his entry into the SEC. With SGP penetration into Russia very shallow, and the majority of the Polish fans and sponsors also backing the European series, it made sense for Sayfutdinov to err on the side of locality. While this may prevent him becoming world champion in the short-term (therefore joining a list that includes Adrian Miedzinski's poor decision-making), he has time on his side for a resolution between the two competitions.

Tomasz Gollob, on the other hand, has already been world champion, and so his decision to drop out of the SGP series, despite being offered a series wild card, was more straightforward. He made the decision at the time of the first conflict, but seemed content enough with that decision to not reverse it when the times two sides (temporarily) made up. Now, however, he has also said he will not take up the offer of a wild card for the Bydgoszcz GP in protest, much to the chagrin of the local promoter. Andreas Jonsson, grateful recipient of what some consider an undeserved wild card for 2014, decided to dance with the one what brung him and stay loyal to the SGP. No-one cared.

Entering the SGP series is the only way a rider will become world champion, and that should be the ultimate aim of anyone who ever pulls on a steel shoe, even if they are quickly disavowed of it by reality and gravity, not usually in that order. Two things, however, have made the SGP a less-than-desirable prospect. Firstly, although it should, as a season-long campaign, ensure that the best rider becomes champion each year, it's as much at the whim of the fates as the old one-off finals ever were. Yes, we'll never get an Egon Muller or Jerzy Szczackiel lifting the trophy again, but neither can we truly, hand-on-heart, say that the best rider in any year will necessarily become world champion.

Secondly, the money that riders earn for winning the world title, in prize money at least (you'd expect a knock-on with sponsorship and increased earning power in domestic leagues), is shocking. In figures detailed in the latest issue of the Friends Of Speedway's quarterly publication, The Voice, Charles McKay revealed that Tai Woffinden took home just $75,000 for his efforts, less than third-placed Jarek Hampel and much less per GP than Emil Sayfutdinov. Worse still, riders are not paid expenses, and so that $75,000 also had to cover travel and accommodation for rider, crew, and equipment, as well as lost income from any Elite League meetings he may have missed due to SGP commitments. It's not inconceivable that Woffinden would have paid money to become world champion - a sorry state fr a professional sport.

The SEC, on the other hand, pays well compared to the SGP, and that's without also factoring in OneSport's other big money earner, the Best Pairs. Without the lure of the world title, and with a schedule further freed up for other lucrative open bookings, it wouldn't be too surprising to see others follow Sayfutdinov and Gollob and choose the SEC over the SGP before this fight is settled. Already Polish sponsors Nice and Fogo have withdrawn their backing from the SGP, and Nice have put that money into further backing the SEC, increasing the money for winning an individual round to $10,000 (as opposed to around $7000 for the SGP). There are also the usual noises from within Poland of staging league meetings opposite SGP rounds and really forcing the riders to choose where their money comes from...

Britain, as always, remains an impassioned and amused onlooker, wary of any further encroaching onto the domestic calendar (thus not backing the Best Pairs), but also not overtly throwing their load in with BSI - though, of course, if asked I'm sure they would reaffirm their commitment to the FIM as a loyal member of that organisation. Personally, as an outsider with a keen interest in troublemaking, this is all pretty hilarious stuff. I'm sure there are others more concerned than I, but for the moment it's fun to sit back and watch two wealthy companies fight a proxy war using two organisations reaching above their status in a series of poorly-translated press releases. Ding ding! Let's a good, dirty fight!

ITEM: In other international news, Freddie Lindgren became the latest rider to decide he no longer wanted to ride for his country, whilst also enjoying the benefits of an international license granted by that country. Lindgren is being all secretive about the reason for his falling out with SVEMO, saying, SVEMO knows "what they have to do to" to get him to reverse his decision, like a Swedish version of Kevin the teenager. Meanwhile, he'll still take the position offered to him, for no other reason than he was a Swede (and therefore, by the good graces of SVEMO), in the SGP series.

New Sweden team manager Stefan Andersson, who took over from Bo Wirebrand in the winter, at least has enough backbone to declare that if Lindgren doesn't want to represent Sweden in the Speedway World Cup then he won't be welcome in the Best Pairs competition organised by OneSport. And neither will he, should the situation be resolved between the SGP and the SEC, be able to take part in the latter series. Furthermore, and most damaging, Lindgren will not be able to take part in Grand Prix qualifying, meaning that if he once again fails to make the top eight in the SGP series he will once again have to rely on a handout from BSI.

I don't know what SVEMO have done to upset Lindgren, because he won't tell us, but even though I'm usually the first to point fingers at the BSPA, the FIM, and the like, I give short shrift to those who don't represent their country. Nothing grates on me more than a footballer announcing an international retirement - you play until you're no longer asked to - and the same is true of speedway. I was incredibly disappointed with Scott Nicholls's hissy fit last season, especially when we're not exactly blessed with international-level talent at the moment. The same can be said for the Swedes, and although Lindgren's (temporary?) retirement from international speedway strengthens us as rivals, I can't help but feel for the Swedish me.

And the fact that he'll quite willingly trade on his Swedish nationality to take part in the SGP makes it worse, like Darcy Ward skipping the Australian championships for a jolly to the USA but still expecting Motorcycling Australia to back his SP campaign (to rub salt into the wounds, he did find the time to return to Australia and injure himself in a muckabout...). If a rider no longer wants to be considered for his national side, that should be the end of their international career, period. No SGP, no SWC, no SEC, or anything else where the qualifying factor is their nationality.

Or Lindgren could go public with the reason for his woes - as Nicholls did - and we can judge him on that. You never know, there might be some sympathy ad it might just help others who could find themselves in his position.

ITEM: Last Sunday saw a rare break in the rain that's been persisting down these past few weeks, and it coincided with the annual Celebration of Speedway, held for the last few years at the Paradise Wildlife Park in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. The park, owned and operated by former speedway rider Pete Sampson, is also home to the National Speedway Museum, and the sunny weather brought a great opportunity to visit the museum, take in the celebration, and stare at a few caged animals (incidentally, there have been Lions, Tigers, Cheetahs, Panthers, Pumas, and Cougars in speedway but a distinct lack of Leopards... why is that?).

The crowd at the Celebration could be politely said to be of the older generation, with a fair few London-based fans with no local track anymore. Their passion for the sport - or at least as it's presented through a nostalgic sheen - seems as strong as ever, and it was interesting to eavesdrop on a few conversations and find out that the BSPA/SCB/ACU/promoters (delete where applicable) have always been useless! Both Peterborough and Rye House, of the current sides, had stands (of varying quality) and there was a massive feeling of enjoyment permeating the air. With all proceeds going to the World Speedway Riders' Association (previously the Veteran Speedway Riders' Association), a fair sum must have been raised to fund their various activities, including grants to former riders in need of assistance, and I'm pleased to have played a small part in it.

The National Speedway Museum is a curious thing. Full of wonder for the long-time fan, and with enough curiosities for any of the newer breed with a keen eye on the history of the sport, but I do wonder if it's not entirely incomprehensible to those who know little or nothing of speedway. Still, it's a grand thing, compact and bijou in its current premises, but growing all the time. It did set me thinking, however, about how speedway ignores its history for the large part. None of the clubs I've visited have very much in the way of their own "museums", despite the glory years for many of them - and therefore something to celebrate - being a long way back. I've visited football clubs with average attendances in single figures that have more historical information and memorabilia than any speedway club, and it's a missed opportunity to remind people how great this sport once was - and can still be.

Each club should, if room can be found at their stadia, have a display of old team photographs, old stadium pictures, trophies and other ephemera, celebrating the fact that - for a good many of them - they've been here for over 80 years. In an ideal world we'd have statues outside of each stadium, featuring a key figure in that club's history (Charles Ochiltree at Coventry, Peter Craven at Belle Vue, Elizabeth Taylor - not that one - at Berwick, and so on), but with money tight for most of our clubs a single room would suffice. While we're a long way off Premier League football, and its stadium tours packed with curious locals and photo-snapping visitors from the Far East, we could do more to make people feel part of their club - proud of it even.

See what you can do. I'll talk to a few people at my club and see what we can work out. If you do the same we might be in a different position in a year's time, and the history of our sport might open up to all who walk through the gates, and not just a pleasant few hundred attending the Celebration each year.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

No Class? No Way!

ITEM: The Polish news site, Sportowefakty, last week ran a feature entitled, "British Speedway In Crisis!", the crux of which was that our speedway is a mess. They came up with several reasons for our "crisis", chief amongst them being a lack of stars in the league. They also highlighted a restrictive points limit, problems with stadium availability, too many fixtures, and low salaries. They also asked their readers what they thought the biggest problem with British speedway was, helpfully including a "British Speedway has no class" option - their readers, incidentally, thought that low wages were the big issue.

Most, if not all, are explained away with the simple answer that British speedway operates under clearly different conditions to speedway in Poland, and in Sweden. British clubs do not operate in the same way as clubs in Poland, nor can they, and from that starting point the rest is pointless. Polish clubs are fortunate to be in receipt of sponsorship and philanthropy from companies and individuals working under (how shall I put this politely?) more lax conditions than their British counterparts, race in stadiums built by or with the support of their local councils, and are largely situated in areas where speedway is by far the number one sport - Britain is unique in the world in the extent to which football pervades society, and even Poole - the club held up to be most in control of their sporting location - will be coming under competition for sponsorship and fans from Bournemouth, Southampton, and the traditional big clubs.

And that's before you consider how much money is owed by how many Polish clubs to how many riders! The same is true in Sweden, with the financial stability of many of their clubs far more parlous than any of ours. You also might want to consider how the Polish season ended last year, with their play-off final abandoned because one side refused to ride, before you allow that particular speedway nation to begin throwing stones from their glass stadiums...

In the spirit of proving that article to be misguided, if not completely inaccurate, it's perhaps time to look at some of the positives about British speedway - things we can be proud of, building blocks for us to stabilise and progress the sport beyond any thoughts of a crisis. There are so many good news stories, even if the salacious tidbits are more fun to rake over, and they sometimes slip through the net, and certainly go without fanfare. So here, in a rare moment of not moaning or pointing out the obvious faults, are the things that make me optimistic about the future of British speedway:

*** We have a thriving amateur scene. In previous years this allowed weekend hobbyists the chance to live out their dreams, with sliding experiences provided by the likes of Olle Nygren, or retired riders to carry on doing something they were probably not going to be paid to do anymore. Recently, however, it has become the first step on the ladder for prospective talents, with training schools and practice days at Buxton, Scunthorpe, Northside, Rye House, Leicester, Coventry, and Iwade feeding talent into the Midland Development and Northern Junior Leagues, and beyond into the National League. Scunthorpe even promote a well-subscribed and well-attended Winter Series, and will fill their 2014 National League side from the best of the unsigned competitors from the series, and on recent evidence it would be no surprise to see some of those riders become Elite League regulars by the end of the decade.

*** We have 32 clubs competing across three leagues, more than any other speedway nation. Despite the (hopefully temporary) loss of the Isle of Wight over the winter, we actually have one more team coming to the tapes in 2014 than in 2013. With Plymouth and Scunthorpe re-entering the National League, and Leicester and Peterborough switching places, it's a solid foundation to once again be proud of. The overall number of clubs has held up well in recent seasons - we've lost 9 (Exeter, Hull, Isle of Wight, Newport, Oxford, Reading, Sittingbourne/Iwade, Weymouth & Wimbledon) but gained 7 (Berwick, Birmingham, Cradley [sharing at Wolves], Kent, Leicester, Plymouth & Redcar), but increased the number of "non-league" tracks from 1 (Lydd) to 3 (Northside & Iwade). Poland had 22 tracks in 2005, and still has 22 today, although it has been has high as 24 teams (albeit with the help of clubs from Latvia, Ukraine, Hungary, and the Czech Republic). Sweden had a high of 23 tracks operating in 2008, but will go into 2014 with just 18 (and one of those is in Finland!)

*** Whatever you think of him and whether, as Leigh Adams spitefully suggests, he owes his success to the Australian junior system, we have the World Champion! Plenty of young Australians go through their junior programmes and don't make it to our shores. Fewer still break into club sides, and you can count those that make it to the very top level on one hand. I would argue that Woffinden's success owes more to the opportunities afforded by racing at all three levels in this country than the start he got in Western Australia - how many come over fully-formed? None, and that's because a racing career in Britain is paramount to succeeding at the highest level for the majority of the world's stars, whether they be Australian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, or - whisper it - British. And now, just like once in a blue moon, that's paid off and its British speedway that can boast the world champion.

*** We're going into a brave new world this season, giving youth a chance at the top level for the first time in a generation. This builds on the good work that the National League has done over the past dozen years to turn itself into both a nursery for emerging talent and a competitive, commercially-viable league in its own regard. The twenty riders taking to the track next month for their Elite League teams will not all make the grade. Most likely, 75-80% of them will find their level is more Premier or National League but for the sake of progressing four or five decent talents a season, the fast track draft is an exciting development in British speedway. Sweden, too, is embarking on the same path, and Poland has been doing it for years. Are we late to the party? Yes. Is that a bad thing? Not if we do it right from now on. It's a massive positive and the majority of fans have treated it as such.

Now I hope you're feeling as positive as I am about British speedway in 2014, maybe we can address Sportowefakty's specific concerns?

*** Restrictive points limit: by this they mean any points limit, because the Polish EkstraLiga has just abandoned theirs for the 2014 season, leading to the ludicrous prospect of a Torun team (the very same club that walked out on the play-off final last year, incidentally) with Holder, Ward, Gollob, Sayfutdinov, and Miedzinski as their top 5. A points limit of any kind is essential when there is a league of unequals, financially-speaking, and while Poole have dominated in recent years (through fair means and foul) but 8 clubs have made the play-offs in the last 4 seasons (only Belle Vue, absent since 2005, have been truly cut adrift but hope springs eternal). Furthermore, despite some close calls, only one top flight club has closed down for financial reasons in the history of the Elite League - it remains to be seen what effect abandoning the points limit has in Poland at season's end...

*** Problems with stadium availability: I presume they mean we can't get together and agree on a single raceday for our league, ignoring two very good reasons why we probably wouldn't even if we could. Firstly, when would we have that raceday? Speedway was traditionally a weekend sport, with the top flight when I first started watching racing on Friday and Saturday (and two Monday tracks), but Sundays are the Polish raceday and the majority of Fridays and Saturdays taken up with FIM competitions. League speedway on any other night would be a non-starter, at least in my opinion. Secondly, Polish (and Swedish) clubs also seem content to promote only a handful of home meetings a season - a minimum of seven but scarcely many more - and that's because they are sporting clubs, and always have been/ By contrast, British speedway grew out of promoters (retaining the title) staging speedway for commercial gain, and to restrict them to a handful of meetings across a viable season of 7-8 months is folly (well, for anyone other than Bob Dugard). If clubs do have a problem with stadiums, it's that they are tenants, not owners, and this is something that needs to be addressed by all promoters (even those happy with their current arrangements, because things can change in a heartbeat) but I don't see it as a stick to beat us with. As I said, Poland is fortunate in that its culture is of providing municipal arenas for its sporting clubs - we no longer have that, if we ever had it at all...

*** Too many fixtures: the simple answer to this is, "for whom?" Because I don't know about you, but I want weekly speedway at my local track, and I'm fortunate enough - with the addition of National League speedway last season - to get it. Sportowefakty estimated a top racer would get 30 meetings in the UK (a very conservative estimate - upwards of 40, more like) and thus struggle to fit them in with the SGP, Poland, and Sweden. As I explained above, there's a good reason why we have so many fixtures - they expand to fill the calendar. There is the possibility that an Elite Elite League could be formed, with a handful of fixtures by a handful of teams, who run regular Elite League fixtures the rest of the time, but that plays into the hands of those looking to pick their meetings and all kinds of other associated issues.

*** Low salaries: clubs (should) pay what they can afford. If a rider wants more than they can afford, the club says no, or finds a sponsor willing to make up the difference. To inflate salaries to the level riders are getting in Poland, where there's no guarantee they'll actually receive it, is stupid. No, it's worse than stupid, it's suicidal. While their should be some wiggle room within a budget, to completely abandon it because riders can get more in another country is not the act of any competent promoter. Despite claiming their budget for 2013 was comparatively low, it was clearly more than Birmingham could afford, and the future of the club was at risk for nothing more than runners-up - best loser, as I call it. Far better to keep British speedway sensibly budgeted, and if that means paying far less than the fantasy speedway of the Polish leagues, so be it. Riders can still make a very good living from riding in Britain, and those that can't should perhaps consider whether "full-time speedway rider" is a title they can afford to give themselves. After all, when British speedway was at the top of the tree, in the 1960s and 1970s, only a handful of top flight riders in each team were full-time professionals...

*** A lack of stars: All but one of the 15 regular Grand Prix riders will ride in the EkstraLiga this season, with just 6 riding in the Elite League. However, all but two of those SGP riders have ridden in the EL in the past three years, and there are nine EL riders who have ridden as SGP regulars in that same time period. It's undoubted that certain SGP stars put bums on seats - witness the reaction to Emil Sayfutdinov's appearances for Coventry in 2011 - but equally the visits of Peter Karlsson, Przemyslaw Pawlicki, and Craig Cook will be just as keenly anticipated by EL fans this season. The concept of "stars", when you are dealing with a minority sport such as speedway, is entirely subjective - it shouldn't be beyond the ken of the collective brain of the BSPA to create new stars from the putty they have to work with, and the first step towards that is to stop fetishising those who, for whatever reason, we don't see every week.

There you have it. This year's reasons to be cheerful. British speedway isn't perfect but I'll take Birmingham versus Swindon over Torun versus Czestochowa any day (although Lakeside versus Eastbourne might be a different prospect...). If we had an equivalent of Sportowefakty (and how I wish we did!) I would like to think that we would be above taking potshots at our rival leagues. British speedway, despite what 18% of Sportowefakty's readers think, definitely does have class!

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Long Goodbye (and other things)

ITEM: If I felt anything towards Gary Havelock as a rider it was probably slightly negative. In my first full year following the sport, he was persona non grata, serving a ban for failing a drug test. I have no definite position on drugs in sport, and certainly not "social" drugs, although the effects of marijuana on the reactions of a speedway rider may be more serious than a footballer taking the same drug. When he returned, it was to a Bradford team I despised - mainly because their Odsal home was the last place a Bees team of that era would win away, and also because they employed Paul Thorp, the el-Hadj Diouf of speedway, and thus Havelock was tainted by association.

I didn't much care when he won the world title - that Bradford thing again, although a win for a Brit was as welcome as it was wasted - and as I drifted away from the sport in the mid-90s I didn't give him so much as a second thought. When I drifted back again, he was riding in the second division and not really forefront in my attentions and his career-ending crash, although serious, did not garner the headlines subsequent and similar events have. He has spent the last year stinking up the Brandon pits as the worst team manager in living history, and will get another chance to do that again this season. I've adopted an "ignoring the fact he's even there" approach to that, which is probably the only sane thing to do.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that I don't really care much for Gary Havelock one way or another, although I'm aware that there are those that do, on both sides of the moral spectrum. So the extreme reaction to the clash of his farewell meeting with a rearranged Elite Riders' Championship, mostly on the pro-Havelock side it must be said, is puzzling to me, especially given the bigger picture, and perhaps its worth looking at the whole situation point by point.

After a twenty-odd year career which was ended prematurely by injury, no-one could argue that Havelock doesn't deserve some kind of farewell meeting. What is odd is that he chose to have it at Poole, a club he hasn't ridden for (other than a handful of double-up appearances) in 12 years, and not at Redcar, where he spent the last 7 seasons of his career and a club connected to Middlesbrough, for whom he made his debut in 1985. You can only assume that, besides Coventry (where he is unlikely to find many sympathetic wallets), he picked the club with the biggest fanbase that he had some connection to, eager to maximise his revenues. Or maybe Poole are his favourite and best (which is a kick in the teeth for Redcar and Coventry fans!)?

Having accepted the validity of the meeting - if not the choice of venue - the date he picked was a good one, as shown by similar meetings being staged the next night (testimonials for Kylmakopi, Risager, and - initially - Korneliussen), and by the initial date chosen for the new curtain raiser to the Elite League season, the Elite Riders' Championship. A week before the Grand Prix riders leave for New Zealand, and with them eager for competitive action as a warm-up (I treat suggestions that they test engines in these meetings with the disdain they deserve), all the meetings staged that weekend should attract a smattering of top-line talent, and Havelock's was no different, with Holder and Ward accepting invitations to ride.

However, picking such an attractive date has worked against the riders staging meetings that weekend, with Mads Korneliussen moving his to the week before to avoid clashing with the ERC, and both Risager and Kylmakorpi's bound to be hit by the announcement of the International Cup at Kings Lynn (more on that later!). Havelock seemed to have escaped such trouble until Sky entered the fray, looking to launch their season of speedway with the ERC, showcasing the best of the EL and the best of the rest. You may have thought that the original Sunday afternoon staging would be a good time to show the ERC, but Sky - who, it has to be said, know more about these things than you or I - decided Friday night would be a better slot. This is the slot they wanted to move the Grands Prix to last season, and chose not to renew their deal when that proved impossible, so it's obviously something they've had their eye on for some time. There is also talk that they may be showing the International Cup (that again!) on the Sunday, but this is yet to be confirmed.

The choice between honouring Havelock's date and placating Sky TV should be simple, and in a perfect it would be - people over corporations every time. But the world we live in is far from black and white, far from simple, and there are so many things to be considered ahead of a straight, moral choice. Chief amongst them is money, and keeping Sky happy. If - and it's a massive if - Sky get the promotion and presentation of the ERC broadcast right, it should attract both TV viewers and fans through the turnstiles for the regular season, at all three levels. Even if they make a half-arsed job of it - and I'll leave it to you to decide how likely that is - there's still the not inconsiderable benefit of pleasing sponsors and keeping your key (only!) broadcast partner happy.

This puts the BSPA in an impossible situation - they're either going to disrupt the year-long planning of Havelock's farewell meeting or risk losing the positive benefits of staging the ERC in a prime-time Friday slot, with Sky (who picked the slot) keen to showcase what they've got to offer. If you think long-term (which they don't usually do), and with the benefit of the whole of the sport in mind (again, an unusual occurrence), it's upsetting Havelock and his fans every time - the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, despite the gutwrench I'm sure many at BSPA Towers felt when they realised the consequences for Havelock.

BSPA vice-chairman Jon Cook has gone on record - after initially blaming Terry Russell and Go Speed International for the clash - as saying they didn't realise just how much planning had gone into the meeting already and presumed that, with two months' notice, Havelock could move his meeting with little difficulty. There was also some chatter over the weekend that Russell assumed the date was free because Havelock's meeting, despite the advertising in the Speedway Star, had not been lodged in the draft fixture list he had possession of (it appears on the BSPA site but wasn't in the list published in the Star).

Whatever the reasons, the date for the ERC is now set, and the disruptive energy wielded by Havelock and his supporters would be better used trying to ensure that the transition to a new date, whenever that may be, is as smooth and as painless as possible. The power lies with the BSPA and if they decide to go in heavy-handed they can ensure that no meeting takes place on the same day as the ERC. For the moment at least, the BSPA have promised to aid the switch of Havelocks meeting, and I can imagine that, behind the scenes at least, there'll be some financial compensation agreed where necessary. What needs to happen now is for both meetings to go ahead with all the fanfare they deserve and for the schisms to be healed as best as possible. Speedway must come first and anything else is a distraction - its vital that this new Backing British era of the EL gets off to a good start and if Havelock can play a part in that I can think of no better legacy.

ITEM: So, as expected (and as blabbed by Matt Ford before Christmas) the Sky deal was renewed for another five years, which will see at least 25 live meetings beamed into your houses from Elite League (and the odd token Premier League) tracks from March to October. Added to Eurosport's 23 live presentations (SGP, SWC, SEC, and Best Pairs), this will see a record number of live speedway meetings available on satellite and cable TV (with the prospect of more should British Eurosport carry the Swedish Elitserien, as their European counterparts are).

There's also a little something else planned, which hasn't been trumpeted with quite the same gusto as the 5-year deal, which will see even more live speedway available for those who know where to find it. Go Speed International, representing the BSPA, have signed an agreement with At The Races (Sky's horse and dog racing arm) to present live and recorded speedway meetings from the Elite and Premier Leagues for the purposes of online and shop-based betting. The initial plan was for a live PL meeting every Saturday night, although that may have changed in the evolution of the deal.

One possible reason for the low key announcement of the deal - the BSPA's own site are still not carrying details and I don't expect the Speedway Star to this week, either - is that I believe they haven't as yet secured a partner for the deal that is willing to carry the pictures, although Bet365 are thought to be interested. Certainly, enquiries to insiders at William Hill and Ladbrokes turned up nothing, although commercial confidentiality could always account for that.

On the surface of it, it's not a bad idea. It can only enhance awareness of the sport amongst a new demographic (and the image of the traditional gambler is far from the truth these days, despite how alluring the idea of smoke-filled shops attended by the half-drunk dregs of society may be), and bring a new revenue stream into the coffers. Privately, there have been concerns expressed by some at the BSPA about getting into bed with bookmakers and what - real or imagined - effect that may have on race-fixing (the old adage of "you never see a poor bookmaker" has never been more true) but these have either been ignored or allayed.

The biggest positive is that it may prove that streaming is not only extremely do-able but also desirable for a sport which hasn't found the jump into the 21st century the easiest thing to do. According to those who handle such things, the revenue brought in by subscription streaming to British ice hockey clubs is not inconsiderable and would go some way to eating into the losses or - perish the thought - earning a profit for many a promoter, with those fans who do attend regularly unlikely to swap their fix of the sights, sounds, and smells of live speedway for sitting behind a computer screen.

This is a brave new world (at least for speedway, the rest of the sporting world have been wading in for some time) and any new approach to getting the unique appeal of our sport out to a wider audience has to be applauded. It's a brave move, that has accompanying risks and drawbacks, but we should encourage the enterprise at least. The betting industry is everywhere these days and if we can hitch a ride without selling too much of our soul we have everything to gain.

ITEM: That International Cup thingy, then! This is the mini-tournament that was proposed for Peterborough before the panthers withdrew from the Elite League, and was originally envisioned as having two Polish sides (Zielona Gora and one other) and two British sides (Peterborough and one other) facing off over a weekend at Alwalton. With Peterborough no longer in (nominally) the same league as the Polish champions, an alternative had to be found and so the idea has washed up at King's Lynn, on the weekend of March 22nd-23rd.

As well as Zielona Gora and the host club, also taking part are German side Wolfslake Berlin - the capital side have a talent-sharing agreement with the Polish champions, and both use the name Falubaz - and a select side, the make-up of which has yet to be announced. Details are scarce and contradictory at the moment, with the Saturday meeting either being two semi-finals (with the winners meeting on Sunday) or a four-team tournament (the top two sides of which will face off for the trophy the next day). With Zielona Gora having a squad much bigger than even a seven man team, you'd have to err on the side of the former, perhaps with Wolfslake absorbing the extra Polish teamsters.

As someone much quicker than I suggested on Twitter, the select side would seem to provide a perfect opportunity for an early-season get-together for TeamGB, with a seven-man team made up of established team members and promising youngsters selected to match an Elite League quality side. This would give Alun Rossiter an early look at his charges, given the lack of them at Swindon this year (and at Elite Shield opponents Poole), and a good run out for potential team members ahead of the SWC at Saddlebow Road in July.

There is also talk that the tournament - or at least the "final" on Sunday - will be shown on Sky, possibly in conjunction with a Polish broadcaster. Some have suggested this is why the ERC was moved to a Friday night, although Sky's schedules on Sunday afternoons are full of mainstream sport, and it's unlikely that even if room were to be found for speedway it would get much of a fanfare, certainly not that befitting a banner meeting. Still, as a curiosity, it might find its audience, and can only add to the rich tapestry of speedway on TV this year.

We're certainly not going to be short of curiosities this season, with a dozen testimonials and farewells taking place, as well as the usual assortment of challenges, individual meetings, pairs meetings, and four-team tournaments, which belies the usual wisdom that we're beholden to league speedway, I guess. Long may it continue, because if variety is the spice of life, speedway needs its seasoning!