Wednesday 29 October 2014

I DEMAND! An AGM wishlist...

I DEMAND that the Fast Track Draft system is retained. Not only that, I DEMAND that it remain open to those who were eligible this season, and I DEMAND that the Premier League adopt it, too.

Each November brings another disappointing AGM, despite the challenges that have faced the sport for the last twenty five to thirty years. Think rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, rather than any groundbreaking changes. Last year, however, they came up with the Fast Track Draft, the first genuinely innovative and exciting decision made by the BSPA since the launch of the Academy League twenty-odd years ago.

The principle is a basic one: give opportunities to young British riders who have been denied them by short-sighted promoters who would rather employ a shonky Czech or Argentinean. Its natural home should have been the second division Premier League, a step up from the third division National League, but the majority of PL promoters exist in some fantasy world where bringing on local talent doesn’t make sound business sense (obviously because PL speedway is entirely different from ANY OTHER SPORT where that’s a prime concern).

With the PL not keen, and the Elite League looking to save money without actually looking like they were looking to save money, it was brought in, and some great excitement surrounded the day of the draft.

The very reason is was so badly needed is one of the reasons it was flawed from its inception: a lack of riders at the required level to fill twenty reserve slots. So, for its inaugural season, some makeweights were added, more to balance the numbers than to advance their careers. It was also hindered by its newness, with several solid candidates for places turning them down because they weren’t sure what it would entail. Finally, it was hampered by its rigidity, especially in the face of season-long injuries to some of the participants, and in the case of one team going out of business halfway through the season.

All these criticisms can be addressed in its sophomore year. A more balanced field of 16-18 can be assembled for the draft, hopefully with some of those who missed out last year (for whatever reason) included, and a flexibility can be built in which would help riders develop and clubs compete, without compromising fairness.

Below those 16-18 are another 16-18 who, along with the lower riders from the EL draft, could fill reserve spots in an identical system in the PL. There really is little downside to it – if PL clubs want Todd Kurtz or Max Dilger in their teams so badly, they can be slotted into the 1-5.

As important as the opportunity granted to these riders is the continuity of opportunity. Riders knew that, unless they performed extremely badly, they were guaranteed a full season’s racing, and the likes of Lewis Blackbird and Kyle Newman invested in equipment accordingly. This is why any talk of elevating the top riders from this year’s FTD system into the main body of EL teams is so damaging. These riders have made enormous steps in their progress, all of which could be torn down by a month at number two before being replaced by the latest young Pole or old Swede. If – and I don’t even want to consider it – they are to move up, their places have to protected, or at least replacing them made so difficult as to be unattractive. It’s one thing to replace an underperforming rider when results are your business, but it’s another entirely to prematurely pull the trigger or make them innocent victims of a bigger reshuffle.

The FTD has to stay. It has to be augmented in the EL by the addition of Birks, Auty, and the like, and implemented in the PL to continue the progress made by Clegg, Greaves, and other lower-graded youngsters. To do anything else is negligence, almost criminally so.

* * * *

I DEMAND that clubs are left to decide which day is best for their individual racenights. I also DEMAND that fixtures are evenly spread, and that a percentage are completed by appropriate cut-off dates.

Talk of  a single racenight for the entire Elite League is frightening. I can see the logic: it would mean that Thursday night (for instance) is speedway night in this country, and that that may mean the “star” riders may be more willing to ride over here. However, as a good idea that’s as far as it goes. The logistical, practical, and romantic obstacles are considerable, and the potential rewards are negligible.

Who decides which night is best? Is it left to the whim of the promoters? Is it a decision made by the riders? Does TV get a say? And what about the fans? Okay, I know the fans won’t be consulted, I just threw that in for a giggle.

If it’s Monday, then do Sky continue to show live speedway on that night? And if so, won’t that damage attendance at the other three or four tracks staging live speedway? If it’s Tuesday, will riders be forced to choose between Sweden and Britain? If it’s Wednesday, will the same happen with Denmark? If it’s Thursday, what happens to those tracks that stage dog racing on that night? If it’s Friday, won’t riders be missing due to Grands Prix and other international commitments fifteen nights a season, and won’t the televised Danish fixtures clash? If it’s Saturday, those Grands Prix and FIM/FIM-Europe meetings are a nuisance, and if it’s Sunday you’re asking riders to choose between cash-rich (for the moment) Poland and our league!

And that’s without wondering about what happens if it’s not certain nights! What happens to crowds at Wolves if it’s not a Monday? And Poole if it’s not a Wednesday? And Coventry if it’s not a Friday? They go down, that’s what, and you’d have to presume considerably. The only people there will be mugs like you and me, who already go, but less of us than ever before. And, of course, the logic of Thursday night being speedway night (again, just an example) is lost if another dozen or so tracks are staging speedway on nights other than Thursday (in the PL & NL)!

But let’s say, for arguments sake, that they do manage to overcome all this, and land on one chosen night for our speedway. Let’s say Thursday, because I have been since I started writing about this issue. Do we really think that the “star” riders will flood back to our league? Will the riders who were very keen to ride here as youngsters before deciding we were inconvenient decide that, out of the blue, “you know what, I miss riding in Britain?” Will those riders who are ride here at the moment but are complaining of being overextended decide to ignore that aching tiredness in their bones and continue to ride in so many leagues? Will those riders who’ve never even given us a glance – because why would they? – suddenly declare their love for British speedway? Or will it just become a choice of whichever two of the major leagues pays best, leading to an arms’ race that few can afford?

And who are these “stars” – who are as known to the everyday, non-speedway public as you or I (presuming you’re not Jordan or Mario Ballotelli) – anyway? Will their appearance on track double crowds? Will the dazzling talent on track hide the crumbling stadia around them? Will it increase column inches? Will Sky Sports News finally cover our sport in any depth? I think you know the answer.

No, the logistics and potential rewards of a single racenight make it a laughable concept, something that will cost more – financially and structurally – than the sport can bear. Far better for clubs, as is historically the case, to run on their regular race night, so that <insert day of the week here> night becomes speedway night every <insert day of the week here>, depending on local peculiarities. And while we’re at it, let’s keep it to a particular night, where possible, for each track: King’s Lynn ran on Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Fridays this season, depending on the availability of their Danish riders, and hang continuity or opposing teams! Workington, too, switched between racenights to ensure their double-up riders were available. This is gamesmanship, pure and simple.

What is needed is a structure to the season that doesn’t mean you have three meetings in 10 days and then nothing for a month. Fixtures have to be evenly spread throughout the season – both home & away – and, I’d argue, the league table needs to have a consistent look, “played”-wise, as far as possible. A solution to this would be to have a number of cut-off points by which time you have to have completed a percentage of your fixtures. If this means running on an off-night – and I know what I’ve just said – then so be it. Better to do that in clement weather than cramming five fixtures into the last week of September.

British speedway has grown into the thing it is organically. Our stadiums are often shared with other sports, and habits have been formed by years of attending on a particular racenight. To try and force a square peg into a round hole, for no real advantage, is silly. It’s not impossible to make a success of what we have, the way we have it, but it will take more hard work and more innovation. Appeasing the riders and ignoring the fans is a surefire way to undo everything far more quickly than it is unravelling at present.

* * * *

I DEMAND that meetings run quickly and orderly, even when Sky are in town, and that fans are kept informed when this cannot happen.

Speedway made a decision somewhere in its past, that it was no longer an entertainment, a diversion, a spectacle; it was a sport. Sporting contests usually have a time-limit – 90 minutes for football, for example – or a schedule – like the over-rate in cricket – and as such move along at a pace which leaves little time for navel-gazing. Speedway, however, runs to a loose timetable, whereby meetings will start at some arbitrary time (usually nowhere near the announced start time), and continue on at a meandering pace whereby you can never be sure just how long it will be between one race and the next. Sometimes it will be raining, or threatening to rain, and then things move quicker. But usually it’s just an uneven jumble of an evening (or afternoon, if that’s your local poison).

There used to be a rule that stated one race had to begin within a mandated time of the last one finishing, a rule that legendary referee Frank Ebdon was very keen on enforcing. I don’t know if it’s still on the statute, but if it is it’s the most-ignored rule in the book, because it often seems like hours between races on some nights at the speedway. If that rule still exists, it needs to be strictly enforced. If it has lapsed, it needs to be reintroduced. It’s no too difficult, barring incidents, which are understandable and obvious to the crowd, to schedule a race every 5 minutes. For a 7.30 start, heat 1 starts at 7.30. Heat 2, 7.35. Heat 3, 7.40, and right through to heat 15 at 8.40, or 9.00 if you really have to have an interval. If riders are not ready by this time, tough. The fans are.

Sometimes the track needs extra work to ensure racing is close and exciting. This is not a problem except when it is done too much, or if the crowd are not informed why the tractor is doing a hundred laps and paying close attention to the gates the home riders will be using in the next race.

There are also times when riders need medical attention, and – again – if the crowd are kept informed this is not an issue. No extra time should be allowed for mechanical issues or because a rider has been given two rides on the trot because his team manager can’t use rider replacement properly: again, the fans are ready, don’t insult them by putting them last.

The biggest issue facing speedway is that it can’t attract new fans. I’d also argue that it’s having trouble keeping hold of the ones it’s got at the moment, and issues like standing around, being kept in the dark as to why, often on cold nights, when there’s a cheaper night out at the cinema up the road, are paramount. This is the sort of thing you sort out, not bringing back greedy Greg Hancock or can’t be bothered Chris Holder. Make your product work from the ground up, not the top down. Speedway should be a fast, exciting night out. It should start promptly and never let up, high-octane and thrilling. Get that right and half the battle is won.

* * * *

I DEMAND that clubs be properly licensed to compete, and that riders, officials, and others should not be afraid to speak out if they know that things are not right.

We lost Birmingham this season. They may be back, they may not. It was a loss to the riders who had team places with the Brummies. It was a loss to the promoter who, despite how you feel about him, ploughed several hundred thousand pounds into the club, and a loss to those still owed money as a result of the club going into liquidation. Most importantly, it was a loss to the fans who invest more than just hard-earned money into a club, they invest time and love, and that loss cannot be adequately compensated for by anything other than the return of the club they support.

The thing is, Birmingham going out of business surprised nobody. They were on shaky financial grounds last season, and it’s astounding that they came to the tapes under the same management this time around. You could put the blame solely on the promoters, who took the decision to compete knowing that it could be unlikely they would ever turn a profit (or even a sustainable loss), but the largest proportion of blame surely has to lie with the BSPA, who licensed them to compete. If I, a sometimes-gossiphound who is fed titbits by some of those in-the-know, knew how bad things were last season, surely the BSPA knew the full extent of the damage? And they still licensed the same promoters to run again this time around?

I don’t mean to pick on Birmingham and their former promoters. I use them as an example because it’s current and apposite, but I could just as easily bring up Peterborough (in any of its last few incarnations), Newport, Reading, Oxford, or any of the other tracks which have closed or given out those dire warnings that they may not be able to continue without new investment.

The thing is, most of the money in speedway stays in speedway. It just flows around to different people involved, formally or informally, in the sport. The exception is our money, which never comes back to us - once we hand it over at the turnstile, it’s lost, with only the loose guarantee of an evening’s entertainment in return. Therefore, the state of a club’s finances are never unknown to those in the sport, and action should be taken in a much quicker fashion than seems to be the case of late.

A good example is riders, who soon know when their pay packet is short. They daren’t speak out, because fines and bans are handed out for that kind of insubordination, and instead are reduced to playing games which punish the fans more than anyone, like only bringing one bike instead of two, or refusing to do heat 15, or flying to Los Angeles two days before a major final.

Club officials, and those “in the know”, are also discouraged from speaking out because speedway, which operates under a veil of secrecy that the 1950s Magic Circle would be proud of, does not like dissenters. Or outsiders. Or anyone a bit different, really.

Proper licensing of clubs may rob some of us of our clubs under some promoters, but it should mean no club goes out of business mid-season. Transparency of accounts, at least to those properly entitled to see them, would mean that problems are identified and addressed before the become insurmountable. It’s something that real sports do, so isn’t it time speedway caught up?

* * * *

And now some others demands…

I DEMAND that there be a minimum points limit as well as a maximum one. We have to ensure that teams can compete and be seen to compete.

I DEMAND that attendance figures be published. The only reasons not to are to fiddle VAT (which I would never accuse any promoter of doing) or through shame. Which one is it?

I DEMAND that any rider contracted to ride in our leagues agrees to put our fixtures ahead of any others, save for FIM meetings. Riders should also be discouraged from entering competitions that have little effect on their career progress. Put an end to this fantasy of squads and instead value the riders who do ride in the UK, and insist they value British speedway.

I DEMAND that speedway follows football and sees a programme as added value to the paying customer rather than the only way to follow the evening’s action. No frills racecards should be available on request – programmes should stand on their own merits as content-rich and a memento of an occasion, as they do in football.

I DEMAND that all accompanied under-18s be let in free to all meetings. Children do not get full-time jobs until they are 18. The government requires all under-18s to be in full-time education or training. They do not, largely, have money of their own. To charge under-18s anything is a tax on their parents, and will do nothing to ensure we have a next generation of speedway fans.

I DEMAND that all shared events – including National League – are made compulsory and have priority over any other non-FIM meeting staged on that day. Missing a shared event, such as the PL Fours or PLRC, to ride abroad should be punished with a suspension. Put the fans first.

Finally, I DEMAND that the sport stops taking its fans for granted, and starts realising that, without the hundreds of thousands of pounds we bring in through the turnstiles, there would be no speedway for the promoters, riders, and other hangers-on. British speedway exists because of us, and it should be run for us. Get this wrong at your peril!

1 comment:

  1. 1000% correct speedway breaks my heart its a great sport ruined by moronic local residents and councillors and 90% of the so called promotors. Richard Branson save us