Reality has to be dealt with, solutions have to be sought, blame is not the answer, but we can learn from mistakes because if our sport doesn't then the future looks pretty bleak. Listen and learn should be the key if our sport is to avoid spiralling down even further to a point of no return.
To start we need to recognise that there are three essential groups that need to have their say. From the outside it always seems that it's the promoters that make all the decisions, which somehow the riders have to fit in with and hopefully the supporters will accept and remain loyal enough to put their hands in their pockets and keep paying at the turnstiles.
Of course, we should not forget those that give of their time as volunteers like the doctors, the first aiders and the referees and track staff that all contribute to ensure our sport can take place.
We have to remember ours is a professional sport, it is a business with the financial risks taken by the promoters. Risks that should be rewarded. The riders take the risks on the track and deserve decent conditions and financial reward. The backing of the sponsors, while important, the sport essentially relies on the supporters coming through the gate in large numbers. They deserve good facilities, a well-prepared track and exciting and skilful racing.
It's a simple business plan, a commercial arrangement with each group having to play its part, but if one element starts to fail then the success of the plan begins to collapse. Speedway seems at the moment to have been failed by the promoters, the riders and the paying public.
I wish I had all the facts and figures needed for a forensic financial analysis, but I don't since in so many ways our sport lacks transparency and accountability.
For example gate numbers are never disclosed nor, to my knowledge, is the amount of money each track now gets paid from TV. The BSPA should open the books.
Unfortunately, all too often we hear about tracks that are constantly under threat of closure because of lack of support. Such threats serve only to lower morale. Surely you promote with good news and success not failure.
Some riders have great, but costly deals, but then on the other side of the coin there are those, so we hear, that end up not being paid what they are owed.
Riders are professionals they have high cost - bikes and their maintenance are not cheap. It is therefore little wonder that currently many riders tend not to have too much team loyalty and (out of necessity) decide to ride whenever, wherever and for whoever they can.
As a result, supporters currently are all too often left wondering who will be riding for their team before they get to the track on match night. As a consequence supporters have lost the team pride we had when a full team was paraded at the start of the season and reasonably intact each week for us to cheer on until October.
Riders at one time were committed to just one team for most of their career. We loved to give them our support at every meeting and cheer on the second strings and reserves as they desperately tried to do their best. We watched them gradually develop into good team riders who we could call our own. It is the reason why we are called supporters always loyal to our riders and team come what may. Having your own team with the same riders, unless injured, should still be very important for team speedway.
Speedway also needs regular race nights for its core supporters. The majority of supporters still class it as a sin to miss a match. The loss of a set weekly race night can be a big challenge when work commitments or family arrangements can make it impossible when the race nights are switched.
We've lost much of the glue that use to hold us together during the season. Individual meetings were good mid-season promotions, often used to track star riders not normally seen racing against each on our home tracks. They were crowd pulling events attracting supporters from many tracks enjoying the chance to see competitive individual racing. The extra meetings also increased the riders' earnings.
The Internationale at Wimbledon and Coventry's Brandonapolis for example were always well attended annual highlight events for many of us. Each track seemed to have one of these special nights - Oxford's was "The Kings of Oxford".
Test matches were also good crowd pullers adding to the variety of racing during the season with supporters travelling away from home to watch two countries battle against each other. Such matches also helped to maintain interest and add variety.
The old Speedway World Championship point accumulating qualifying round format were also an important part of the season. Staged by the promoters for them it was an added attraction and a nice earner. The old system allowed supporters to feel more involved with the hope that one of their riders could qualify for the World Final. That vital interest and involvement for most of us has long gone.
Now the Speedway GP has taken over and again income has been lost to the promoters, but more importantly than the extra rides and money gained from the old style world championship the GP no longer helps add interest and support to our domestic calendar.
The Sky TV rights did provide much needed money, but has now dwindled with BT not prepared to pay the same amount of money as Sky. The money was very good and helped the promoters keep our top league teams going. However, did it provide a financial cushion that led to promoters not advertising our sport locally. Without viewing Sky Sports many potential supporters didn't know that Speedway was still taking place most weeks just down the road in their stadium.
Oxford for example for many years just relied on the Oxford Mails pre-match write up and post-match report, but not everyone read the Oxford Mail. At one time there was posters all over the place advertising the next meeting. It may seem old fashion but it did work. When people knew Wimbledon was the next visitors, the gates would swell when the stars were due to appear. Ronnie Moore, Barry Briggs, Peter Craven or the current World Champ could add hundreds on the gate.
Promoters Annual Chance
It seems to have been the case for too long that when each year the promoters meet that the real need and the chance for serious structural change is ignored. This year the few tweaks still continue, restrictions on which riders you can have or which night you can meet and teams changing leagues. Will the changes now, like other years, prove to be a mistake as the season progress or worst still cause tracks to close like this year with Rye House?
All too often we have even suffered some of the ridiculous gimmicks blamed on the needs of TV. It seems the paying supporters views come last when the BSPA meets. Meanwhile our numbers are dwindling as we grow older and the youngsters have little encouragement to join our ranks especially as they currently have a lot of competition for their time and money. Sadly, we are no longer the family sport we once were.
The enforced change of race night and not having a meeting every week during the season will, I am sure, add to our woes. The need for supporters to be at work during the week doesn't change just because your race night has. Shift work patterns and zero-hour contracts for those employed have has also served to fracture attendance and the regular meeting habit as well.
Another worrying side effect, and I believe a serious one, is that without regular weekly meetings the Speedway Star trackside sales are disrupted and that part of the magazines revenue lost. We cannot as a sport see our speedway magazine go under.
The Star magazine provides detailed information and lasting continuity for the fans in a way the websites can't. At one time every promoter placed a weekly advert in it, but that hasn't happened for a long time. It was a financial help for a magazine that has done so much for our sport. It deserves the support of the promoters as well as it readers.
Time for Change
We need to open up and change the way UK Speedway is governed. For example, is it still right to have the BSPA on its own is in control of our UK leagues? While promoters obviously must be involved in the decision-making other representatives with independent professional sport and financial development skills should be drawn in. More outside involvement and expertise would help create a vision whilst helping to moderate the promoters' short term vested interests.
The need is for a long-term plan, since the future of our sport will not be overcome in the short term and the problems cured overnight. An elected rider should also have a seat on the UK's governing Speedway body with, dare I say, a seat for a supporter.
The years ahead are not easy to predict. Who knows what the post UK's Brexit economy will deliver for instance or how it will affect our sport and the opportunities for riders from Europe or the UK. Plans need to be in place to train the extra British riders we need, especially if work permits for overseas riders become harder to obtain.
For me a speedway league must have a serious purpose, but with only seven premiership teams competing against each other for the whole season is just not enough. It has become all too predictable and unfortunately the premier has lost its appeal it has become all too familiar and dull and we have lost the fans' willingness to make the time to support our sport each week. Currently all too often the visitors field riders who rode the previous week for another team.
Ideally we need a speedway teams in as many towns as we can locked into competitive local rivalry to draw the crowds home and away. Such competition is vital if we are to gain the paying support that we, the UK promoters and riders desperately need. Every effort must be given to ensure that no team or promoters fail. We are probably far too late, but a support fund to help overcome promoter's short term problems to help ensure survival at least to the end of a season might have helped.
The two main leagues need to come together to give support to help create healthy team rivalry and a real competitive challenging atmosphere among the fans right across the country.
In my view I believe we need to a split for the first half of the season between North and South and to make for more interest for the top teams from each division to then compete against each other for the second half of the season with the lower teams creating a league to do the same. This would even up the teams and provide upper and lower team champions, but more importantly add variety to the all-important league racing.
We have to make our sport as varied and as meaningful as we can. We need credible leagues with as many teams as possible competing, knock out competitions, individual open meetings and championships. Lastly but not least we need speedway venues to hold meetings every week during the season and continue to ensure that ours is a family sport that we can afford to enjoy.
This article was first published on 26th November 2018
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