THE PATHFINDER REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
After 90 years of relatively successful commercial operation, Speedway racing is facing a tide of challenges which threaten its long-term continuity. Virtually every branch of UK motor sport is enjoying sustainability and continued success, with the exception of Speedway racing. From a point of being second only to football as a UK spectator sport in the 1950s and 60s, Speedway has endured a steady decline to the point where its long-term survival is under threat, which makes its current dilemma a rare anomaly in field of motor sport.
The major challenges which British speedway racing faces are as follows:
Promoters are facing the challenge of falling attendances. This is due in large part to the ageing profile of traditional supporters and the failure to attract a younger audience. The sport must therefore present a programme of league and cup competitions that will be appealing and attractive to both the existing cohort of supporters and a new generation of younger supporters.
Team promoters are facing the dilemma of spiralling costs, set against a backdrop of consumer-sensitive limitations on admission prices and minimal opportunities to boost revenue through sponsorship or other commercial activities. It is therefore of vital importance that means are found to reduce costs in areas that are controllable, whilst simultaneously identifying new streams of commercial revenue.
It is perceived that the overall standard of British Speedway Racing is falling behind that of some other countries. Improving the skill and experience of British riders is therefore seen to be a priority. It is acknowledged that skills will only improve as a result of riders competing at the highest level in order to broaden their racing experience and “raise the bar” .
Supporters of Championship clubs are dissatisfied with the low number of fixtures being offered, with 2018 having been the shortest season in the history of league speedway in Britain.
There is much controversy around the use of guest riders in official league and cup fixtures and the use of Rider Replacement regulations in some circumstances.
There is a perception within speedway that there exists a growing shortage of available riders of a consistently high calibre to maintain the level of competition which supporters demand. This has led to a significant proportion of riders competing concurrently for different clubs in both the senior leagues (“doubling-up”). Whilst there is certainly a case for allowing emergent talent from the National League to also compete at a higher level to gain greater experience, the practice of relatively senior riders representing two clubs concurrently in different leagues is generally perceived by the sporting fraternity – as well as most speedway supporters - to be an unsatisfactory arrangement which conflicts with the natural sporting ethos of allegiance to a single team. In most professional sporting circles the notion of participants representing more than one team would be anathema to the spirit of competition.
In 2018 there were in reality approximately 340 riders registered with the Speedway Control Bureau. Of these, approximately 240 were registered professionals and 100 were either registered as amateurs or youth riders.
Of the 240 professional riders, their activities in 2018 were broken down as follows:
o 25 riders took part in Premier League racing only
o 29 riders took part in Champion League racing only
o 46 riders took part in both Premier and Champion Leagues
o 1 rider took part in both Premier and National Leagues
o 14 riders took part in both Champion and National Leagues
o 3 riders took part in all three Premier, Champion and National leagues
o 66 riders took part in National League racing only
o 69 professional riders remained unlinked to any league team
o Of the professional riders linked to league teams, 12 are over the age of 35 (7 in Premier and Champion leagues, 5 in National league). Against this, there are 53 riders under the age of 16 taking part in youth competitions.
It is strongly recommended that British speedway racing in 2019 should be consolidated into two leagues: a) the National League (NL), run on much the same formula as in 2018 and consisting of the same 9 or 10 teams; b) the British Speedway Champions’ League (BSCL), which will consolidate the previous Premier and Championship teams into a single league, consisting of 18 – 20 teams.
Considering the numerical limitations on the availability of experienced riders, this proposal will require a radical change to the way team strengths are compiled by promoters and club management. However it will also open opportunities for emerging NL talent to compete at a higher level and gain greater experience.
It is therefore proposed that the BSCL teams will in 2019 sign a team of five riders in the main body of the team. These will be predominantly riders who have had experience in previous years’ Premier and Championship teams. Based on 2018 Champions League averages, it is proposed that the combined averages of the five team members will not exceed 34 points.
In addition, the teams will sign a “reserve team” of three riders, taken predominantly from the NL, and whose combined average (based on 2018 National League averages) will not exceed 22 points.
It is suggested that matches in the BSCL will be contested over 13 heats, but will be preceded by a match of three heats contested between the two teams’ reserve riders, with each of the three reserve riders having two races. Having viewed their respective three reserve riders in action, team managers will then nominate two reserves to fill the no. 6 and 7 places in the main team.
The five riders in the main body of the team will have four scheduled rides and the two reserves will have two scheduled rides each (but may be nominated for additional reserve rides). Riders in Heat 13 will be nominated by team managers.
Most importantly, it is recommended that from 2019 the practices of using guest riders and rider replacement in league and cup competitions will be completely abandoned. It is considered vital for the integrity of the sport that teams are seen to compete on their own strength. Riders who leave the team’s service or suffer long-term injuries can either a) be replaced by new signings of riders on equal or lower averages on either permanent or temporary contracts, or b) be replaced by promoting one of the three reserve riders to the main body of the team and replacing the reserve rider with a NL rider of equal or lesser average.
To facilitate the efficient operation of two leagues it will be necessary to establish a fixture demarcation arrangement to avoid conflicting demands on riders’ services. It is suggested therefore that NL matches should take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday, whilst BSCL matches will take place on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
IMPROVING ATTENDANCES IN THE LONG TERM
UK speedway has an exciting product which could improve its attendances enormously if it could be more ambitious about reaching out to new mass markets with an effective message. Speedway has been singularly unsuccessful in engaging with the non-sporting community and could take lessons from many other sports in the ways their respective interests are promoted to a non-sporting population. Some useful suggestions:
The business community: There are over five million small and micro businesses in the UK. Every speedway promoter should make a point of joining the local Chamber of Commerce and other business groups such as the Federation of Small Businesses. This gives opportunities to address the massive business market with offers of sponsorship packages and group discounts for social speedway racing evenings. Clubs with decent bar facilities could offer to host regular business networking evenings to enable local businesses to promote their products and services to their fellow members, staying on afterwards to watch an evening’s racing and enjoy a social sporting event. Until speedway is established as a mainstay of the local business community it will be viewed as a ‘poor relation’ and a no-go area for businesses seeking serious promotional opportunities.
Education: Clubs should be arranging for riders to make visits to local schools with talks, films and presentations. Signing autographs, handing out invitation flyers and offering free tickets as raffle prizes all helps engage with the younger community.
Shopping Centres: All shopping malls and Town Centre managers present periodic features and displays to interest the shopping public. By contacting the marketing department of the local shopping mall, clubs will be able to secure opportunities to set up displays for the shoppers to see films, sit on a bike, meet the riders, collect autographs and invitation handouts, etc. This helps to bring speedway into the public arena and engage with a potential audience that has probably never considered speedway as a serious leisure proposition.
Local and National Press: most newspapers feature results and match reports, but there the speedway coverage ends. Clubs should be regular contributors to letters columns and the occasional submission of feature articles looking behind the scenes of speedway and giving a view which extends beyond the run-of-the-mill match reports.
Local influencers: Town Councillors, MPs, Mayors, industry leaders and sporting heroes: all are influential and clubs should never miss an opportunity to invite them along to present prizes, ‘Rider of the Night’ awards, etc., making sure their photograph and endorsing statement appears in the press.