Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Is That All You Take Away? (and one other thing)

ITEM: Sometimes things distil to create something more substantial. Entirely separate things on their own, when taken together, make a bigger picture and set you off on a whole new trajectory. That happened to me recently, and led me to a surprising conclusion about a new direction for (part of) our sport, and one I never thought I’d ever consider.

Firstly, Chris Van Straaten, longtime Wolves’ promoter, publicly decried the lack of fans that King’s Lynn bring to Monmore Green when the Stars are in town. Stars’ fans are by no means alone in being poor travellers, and probably nowhere near the worst culprits for that particular crime, but CVS felt it necessary to have a pop at them in a club press release, which can only hint at what his thoughts on the matter might be in private.

Second, Eastbourne hosted teams, two Saturdays in a row, who were missing their number one riders. On each occasion the rider in question was replaced by a substandard replacement, workrate notwithstanding. I’m not privy to the discussions that take place between rival clubs when arranging fixtures, so for all I know every effort to avoid this was taken, but the fact remains that two meetings in our flagship competition took place in front of substandard crowds – even by Eastbourne standards – and without the calibre of riders the entrance fee demands.

Third, the Speedway Tavern podcast released a blockbuster interview, recorded at Sheffield’s press and practice day in April, with outgoing club owner Neil Machin. Machin did not mince his words, and much of what he said could inspire many a piece on this blog for weeks to come, but one key thing I took from it was his insistence that, for a televised contest at least, speedway had to be less of a sporting contest, and more of an entertainment. In Machin’s mind, this didn’t necessarily involve the fastest riders racing to the tapes in the quickest time.

Lastly, in showing a non-speedway friend a map of the geographical spread of speedway clubs in the UK, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the crowded central region, from Belle Vue and Sheffield at its northern end, to Peterborough and King’s Lynn at its eastern apex, and possibly taking in Swindon if you squint a bit. Including clubs such as Wolverhampton, Cradley Heath, Coventry, and Leicester, with larger than average crowds, few could argue that it wasn’t the heartland of our sport at the current time.

So all these things swirled around my backbrain for a bit while my forebrain got on with doing all the things you have to do to get through the day, until it hit me at the weekend: it’s time to rethink the league. Yes, I know we’ve been here before, and we’ve re-branded and re-jigged to no real difference, but I’m proposing something different here, so hear me out…

After trying promotion and relegation, and one big league, the league system in the UK has settled into a system of “big” clubs and “little” clubs – the big clubs are those willing/able to finance the higher costs of the Elite League (presumably banking on higher rewards), while the little clubs are those unwilling/unable to take that risk. Further down we have those clubs for whom even the Premier League might be too costly, although the difference between the haves and have nots in the third tier is probably the widest gap of all.

What if, though, entrance to my new theoretical league was not governed by whether you could bankroll any losses, as has been the case at Peterborough, Birmingham, and Eastbourne, of late, but rather what you bring to the table in other ways?

The four clubs I mentioned earlier – those in the central belt, with larger than average crowds – are also pretty much acknowledged (with a few geographical anomalies) to have the biggest travelling support. Some of the other Elite and Premier League sides also take a few away with them – Belle Vue and Poole, not least amongst them – and it’s usually a happy home promoter counting his takings when these clubs come to town.

Some of the clubs in the Premier League – Edinburgh, for one – are Elite League clubs in all but name, but have stayed down in the second division because it would be geographically suicidal to step up without their local rivals. It was the same argument given by Leicester in the winter for their desire to join their midlands rivals in the Elite League, but is rarely trotted out at EL level. Why not?

Why should Wolverhampton, to choose a fixture from this week, have to trot down to Eastbourne twice a season, their fans having to make a round trip of almost 400 miles in good numbers, when the Eagles do not reciprocate? Conservative estimates of the number of Eastbourne fans at Monmore Green on Monday night were in single figures, which – even allowing for the days of coach convoys having gone the way of CB radio and Spangles – is disgraceful.

Should Elite League clubs have to guarantee a certain number of away fans, making up the difference themselves if the magic number is not met? Lakeside have gone on record as saying that when Poole are in town they get their biggest attendances, but the Hammers’ first visit to Wimborne Road last season saw less than 800 paying fans in attendance, way down on the Pirates’ usual crowd. How is that a sustainable business model?

When Coventry visit Birmingham their crowd is swelled way beyond its usual level, and - to be fair - the Brummies bring a few down the M6 when they’re at Brandon. The same is true of Wolves & Birmingham, of Coventry & Wolves, and of Leicester and all three so far this season. Belle Vue, too, travel in some numbers, and the reciprocal return should only increase when they are able to change racenights. Throw in Cradley Heath, with their rabid fanbase, and you have a solid base from which to start my hypothetical new league…

Can we seriously consider an artificially-created competition, which may not feature the best clubs but simply the best-supported? Our current criteria for deciding who rides at the “Elite” level is no more egalitarian, and allowed politics to prevent well-supported Leicester stepping up last winter in order to keep a Peterborough team averaging 500 fans a meeting, losing an arm and a leg every time they opened the gates! Adding in Neil Machin’s “entertainment” criteria, it needn’t even pretend it has to have the world’s best riders, simply those committed to full-blooded performances each time they take to the track, with the aggregate crowd levels at the lower end of the league being enough to support solid, appetising teams.

In uncertain times, clubs sometimes need to look after themselves, as well as keeping one eye on the wellbeing of the sport they are mere custodians of. I would argue that a geographical split, with certain anomalies allowed for – such as Poole competing in a largely centrally-based competition - to the mutual benefit of all parties, is not just desirable, it’s sensible. A northern and southern competitions, to run alongside the central league, and run at their own level of competition, would also make much more sense than the stretched-out, travel-max system we currently have.

“But how would we know who the British champions are?”, I hear you say! My answer is, firstly, “who cares!” and, secondly, I’m sure we could come up with something as artificial and contrived as our current play-off system!

There are loyal fans of clubs I’ve excluded in my sweeping reorganisation of our leagues that will be furious, and I’d hope they would be. As always, this is how I see it, and don’t expect (although I hope) to find agreement with my lunatic ravings. But clubs need to maximise their incomes more than ever, and – to a Birmingham or Coventry - two visits from Cradley Heath look so much more appetising than Lakeside or Eastbourne…

ITEM: The Finnish Grand Prix, held the weekend before last, wasn’t a classic. As far as the racing could be considered, it was a failure. But those who travelled had a good time in Finland, and would go again, although perhaps not for the speedway. The sport’s loss is vodka and sauna’s gain!

All joking aside, it has to be a concern for the organisers. The track was laid in November, under the supervision of Ole Olsen, and nobody seemed to realise that it wouldn’t ride well until official practice. Back in the day, any track staging a world final – or equivalent meeting – had to first stage a test run, for exactly this kind of thing, but we live in a different era, obviously, and have to live with the advantages and disadvantages that brings.

The attendance figure, billed as a sell-out by the home promoters and parroted as such by the British broadcast team, was anywhere between 8 and 11,000, in a stadium that can hold 17,000, but I’m told that the promoters and BSI, the series organisers, were happy with the figure. Worryingly, though, it looked more than half-empty on TV (a consequence of being almost half-empty and the biggest, most populated stand being out of camera shot), and streams of fans – mostly locals, from accounts of those who were there – were seen leaving well before the end.

In most other entertainment fields, an important “show” - like the first GP in a new market – will be heavilty “papered” if ticket sales fall short of expected levels (“papering” is giving tickets away, usually at the last minute), or the seating arranged to have maximum effect for the TV crowd. The desired effect is to make those who didn’t make the trip feel like they should have, and rush to buy tickets for the next show they can make. These won’t be unknown tactics to BSI, coming from a more entertainment-focussed background than a sporting one, but they’ve yet to filter through to speedway (and other sports, too).

Still, there seems to be a commitment to make the Finnish round of the GP series work, and – as I said – those who did attend had a great time. If they can get the track right, the locals may be tempted back in enough numbers, because as beautiful as Finland may be, the prices there will not draw the foreign visitors to make it pay.

There was a suggestion that crowd levels were hit by the late withdrawal of Emil Sayfutdinov, for whom they expected a horde of Cossacks to cross the 176 miles from the Russian border to Tampere (Saint-Petersburg is just another 70 miles further away), although the majority of Russian speedway tracks are in the south of the country, nearer to Kazkahstan than Scandinavia. Indeed, BSI are apparently making noises about taking the series to Togliatti, the heartland of Russian speedway, though this may not be the best time to try to do business with Russia, what with the whole sanctions thing going on right now…

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