Clubs in Crisis
As the 2005 draws to a close our thoughts turn to 2006 and at the moment those thoughts are far from comforting. At a time when the sport can be considered more 'mainstream' than for many a year, principally due to its high profile on Sky Sports, the futures of a number of our clubs hang in the balance. This week alone we've heard that Wimbledon are set to close and that Hull seemingly already have.
Wimbledon have been hit by another substantial rent hike, way above the rate of inflation and more than the club could possibly afford to pay. Their landlords, the Greyhound Racing Association, say the increase is necessary to cover a shortfall in the catering revenue generated on speedway nights, the 800 or so speedways fans are apparently not spending enough of their hard-earned on the hot-dogs and burgers available. The Wimbledon promotion have countered that the GRA incurs little expense in staging a meeting and that the rent paid makes a valuable contribution to the bottom line of the GRA's balance sheet.
It's difficult to escape the belief that the GRA simply don't want speedway at Wimbledon Stadium. Perhaps it's simply too much hassle for too little return? Alternative theories would probably revolve around a future sale of the stadium and how much easier it would be without sitting tenants. There seems little chance of a resolution to the dispute, it seems that too much bad blood has already passed under the bridge for that. Sadly, that will, once again, leave us without any speedway in our capital city.
The situation in Hull seems similarly irretrievable. The landlords in that case are Hull Kingston Rovers rugby club and their patience appears to have run out with speedway. The Vikings first set up home at Craven Park in 1995 and initially raced in front of huge crowds, typically these faded away over time and a much smaller hard core support was established. During those 11 seasons the club has undergone numerous changes of promotion, usually a sure sign that the venue isn't genuinely profitable. This season has been overshadowed by a rent dispute that almost forced the Vikings to shut up shop a few weeks ago. The final straw came on Wednesday September the 14th when the meeting against Glasgow was abandoned due to a shortage of electricity, the main electrical board having been sold and removed from the stadium! The Vikings now look unlikely to even complete their 2005 campaign and their long-term future looks bleak.
There has been talk of a new venue for the Vikings elsewhere in the Hull area. In light of this season's events you have to wonder whether the financial wherewithal exists to finance such a development. Even if it does there are still all the usual planning obstacles to overcome and the inevitable NIMBYs to be placated. It seems certain that we've seen the last of Hull for a while.
While the loss of Hull and Wimbledon was unexpected the same cannot be said for Exeter. The Falcons are being kicked out of their spiritual home at the County Ground to make way for stadium redevelopment. They were given notice to quit a number of years ago and 2005 has been something of a bonus year as they were originally scheduled to vacate at the end of 2004. Promoter David Short, who has done a fine job since taking over from the late Colin Hill, hopes to build a new circuit at Haldon Hill racecourse and the prospects of success seem good, although time is already against them for a 2006 opening and they may have to put the licence on 'ice' for a year. They'll be sadly missed in the Premier League.
Doubts also surround the future of some other clubs. It's no secret that Arena Essex have struggled financially since stepping up to the Elite League, only the cash of Terry Russell has kept them afloat this far. Will the Hammers still be around next season and if so in which league will they be competing? There could also be a problem at Oxford, Nigel Wagstaff now has to re-negotiate a deal with club owner Steve Purchase in order to retain control for 2006. It seems unlikely that Purchase will want to resume control himself, but will he be amenable to continuing the existing agreement? In Scotland both Glasgow and Armadale Dale Devils have struggled to make ends meet this year, neither pulling in the crowds in sufficient numbers for the standard of fare on offer. Hopefully both will make it to the tapes in 2006.
Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom. Peterborough seem to be back on an even keel since Colin Horton took control and clubs like Newcastle, Stoke and Edinburgh, who have all been close to closure in the past, seem to be in reasonable financial health at the moment. There are also hopes that we may see some new venues opening up for 2006. The most exciting of these is a possible return for the Birmingham Brummies, a side that we've not seen for 20 years and who would be racing in a smart stadium in one of our biggest cities. Tony Mole's involvement gives this project an excellent chance of success and the project seems to have real prospects. Middlesbrough are also possible returnees, that project is being guided by Chris Van Straaten and Gareth Rogers, again these are people with a speedway pedigree that lends the project an air of credibility. Long Eaton are also possible candidates for next year's Premier League and seem closer than ever before to making it, although progress does seem to have slowed a little of late. Establishing a new track is never easy, if even one of these teams is back in action next year then we should be delighted.
The rumour mill suggests that Mildenhall will boost the numbers in next year's Premier League by stepping up from the Conference League. The last time they raced in the professional ranks was back in 1992 when the club went bust after only a few meetings. Mick Horton, who struggled financially at Peterborough, is in charge of the Fen Tigers these days. He's decided they will be able to support PL speedway at their track in the Suffolk countryside, a view apparently not shared by Tony Mole when he was in charge there. Let's hope that Horton has done has sums properly and that we're not bemoaning the loss of another club this time next year.
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This article was first published on 23rd September 2005
"Great article! Terrible situation though, especially as far as Wimbledon are concerned. I always hoped being the only track in the capital and still not being too bad a stadium as far as speedway goes that they may have got a big meeting which may have included Premier or even Elite league riders. I used to go when I lived up there in the 70'/80's and followed the Dons for years. Went up a few times when they went Conference but it wasnt the same. I know Ian Perkins and his team did a great job and it's such a shame they have been totally let down by the GRA. I know the chances are very remote but let's hope they do manage to find a new home in South London."
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