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British Speedway : Why is it in decline ?
By Ian Davey

Last October (2021) "Team Great Britain" triumphed in the "Speedway of Nations" at the National Stadium in Belle Vue. Speedway served up a great weekend of racing to a full house, building up to a heady climax as British youngsters Robert Lambert and Dan Bewley combined to see off favourites Poland in a pulsating final. Reports appeared in several national dailies to hail a long-awaited British win. Even the BBC, which doesn't even feature Speedway in its list of sports, ran a report on the British success. Usually ignored, or looked down on as a "Mickey Mouse" sport, British Speedway, for once, could bask in the sunshine of some unexpected accolades.

Great, fantastic. But before we get too carried away, the reality is that Speedway in the UK is in the doldrums and plays second fiddle (or is it third, or fourth?) to Poland, now the acknowledged capital of the sport. Three times World Champion Tai Woofinden hasn't raced in the UK for several seasons. Robert Lambert, a King's Lynn rider since his junior days, took the decision to ride in Poland two seasons ago. Belle Vue's Dan Bewley has taken the same route this season. Can you blame them? Of course not. To make progress, as well as earn better money, the very top riders have to race in the Polish league, and in its wisdom Poland has made it much more difficult to combine racing there with riding for a British club. The reality is British Speedway supporters are deprived of seeing their best home-grown talent apart from one-off individual events or international competitions. It's a sad state of affairs to say the least. How has it come to this? In this first of a two -part article I'll try to examine why, before in the second part, looking at what can be done to put things right, although some people think it may be too late for that.

Speedway's "Golden Ages"

The first "Golden Age" was in the post-war era until the mid- 1950's when the Sport attracted big crowds and was second in line to Football as a national spectator sport. By the late 50's / early 60's crowd numbers had started to decline. In 1964 The National League was down to just six tracks and there was a "civil war" between NL promoters and its rival Provincial League run by Mike Parker. But even in 1961 an early season challenge match between Norwich and Belle Vue pulled in a crowd of over 8000. What would promoters give for those numbers now!

The second "Golden Age"

Speedway in 1964 was in a perilous situation. Then an unusual thing happened. Promoters from the two leagues got round a table and decided to do something which would be in the long-term interest of the sport. That was to form one big league with 18 tracks. The British League was born in 1965 and so began Speedway's second Golden Age. New tracks opened, junior teams were formed so that by 1978 there were 19 British League (BL) tracks and 20 in its "Second" Division. Judged on number of tracks alone this was the peak of the second boom era which lasted until the early 1980's.

In retrospect it can be seen that British Speedway's decline started in the early 1980's and in 1984 ITV's "World of Sport", which had promoted Speedway as a mainstream sport for many years, took the decision to cease broadcasting it, ensuring that spectators would in future have to pay for the privilege if they wanted to watch Speedway on TV. IN 1985 the BL was down to 11 tracks, with the likes of Hackney, Halifax etc closing down, and by 1989, just nine. In my last season of watching Coventry in 1984 crowds were still healthy. By the time I took my 10 year old daughter to her first Speedway match at Belle Vue in 1990 I was struck by the sparseness of the crowd. Why did fans start to fall out of love with Speedway from the mid-80's onwards? That is the 64000 dollar question.

Part of the reason has to be that Speedway is having to survive in a very different world from 40 years ago. During that second Golden Age there were only 3 or 4 TV channels. Entertainment options were much more limited. The internet didn't exist. There were no mobile phones, no Netflix. It seems that Speedway hasn't "moved with the times".

The Speedway " nostalgics" believe that Speedway served up better racing in the 70's and 80's. I'm not so sure. Today's top riders are technically brilliant and capable of serving up breathtaking, exciting races. A Leicester-Coventry derby from the early 80's available on YouTube features a close match but with passing at a premium. I suspect that audiences were more tolerant in those days. If they saw a poor match one week they'd still turn up next time around in the hope of seeing a better one. If spectators get served up poor fare now- and that happens too often-then they have many other options available, potentially more attractive and less expensive calls on their time.

What is certain is that the British League in its heyday offered much more variety than its current Premier League counterpart. A Speedway fan in those days was guaranteed a season which ran from mid- March to end of October with a different team coming to their track each week. Current Premier League fans see the same teams (5 of them) four, five, six times in a season with the play-off system. Plus supporters had the bonus of identifying with riders who stayed loyal to their home team. That kind of identification with "your riders" is more difficult to come by now.

Why couldn't Speedway sustain its Golden Age? A hotly contested Speedway race is a minute's worth of pure adrenaline rush and no other Sport can match that but a "processional" race holds little interest except for the most die-hard supporter. So Speedway is potentially a great product but to ensure it delivers to that potential means it needs careful management, a clear strategy, marketing and investment. Sadly, despite the sterling efforts of some Promoters, the Sport has lacked overall direction. Contrast it with Formula One Motorsport, an inferior product in my view, which is now promoted to millions of spectators across the world. Unlike Formula One no one has really been in charge of Speedway to make sure it has a long-term future. Everyone has heard of Lewis Hamilton but unfortunately not many British people have heard of Tai Woofinden.

In the meantime over the past 20 years Poland has gradually taken over the mantle of Speedway World Capital, relegating the UK to second class status. Poland has a smaller population and economy than the UK but Speedway attracts big crowds there including lots of young people. It has certainly benefited from a more positive approach with local municipalities providing stadiums with good facilities in stark contrast to many UK tracks.

The Current State of Affairs: Many articles have been written about Speedway as a "dying sport". Even if its obituary has been written too soon, what can't be denied is that it's in a state of ill-health in this country. Speedway currently has three leagues, the Premier League (PL) with just six teams, and the Championship with ten. Leaving aside the National Development League for up and coming riders, the distinction between the top two leagues is something of a charade. The vast majority of PL riders are "doubling up", or more accurately " doubling down" in the Championship. At the start of the season all seven of Leicester's riders were doubling down from the PL which begs the question as to why Leicester should be in the Championship. The fact of the matter is there is very little difference between the PL teams and stronger clubs in the Championship like Leicester. Doubling down has another adverse effect. It makes it more difficult for up and coming riders from the NDL to break into a Championship team. In fact Speedway needs more doubling up and less doubling down.

Speedway's unsustainable model: At the start of the season each club announces its team of seven riders. However, as the season wears on one thing is certain- that riders will get injured and put out of action for several weeks or even months. This is a dangerous and high risk sport. Given the shortage of riders Clubs then have to resort to "rider replacement" putting more pressure on the remaining riders, or more likely, having to bring in the infamous "guest" rider. In August Birmingham had to resort to using four guests and rider replacement. When they came up against Plymouth, the "Gladiators" also fielded four guests and operated rider replacement, meaning that each side had just two of their own contracted riders. This renders the result meaningless. Putting it simply, the model British Speedway starts out with at the beginning of the season is simply unsustainable and means certain matches fall into the "travelling circus" category. The presenter of Speedway on "Eurosport" recently asked why it was the only sport which operated in this way. She gave a good analogy when she said you couldn't imagine Christiano Ronaldo playing for Man United one week and then "guesting" for Man City the next. That would be absurd, unthinkable. Yet Speedway is indulging in the "unthinkable" week in week out. Guest riders are not new, and I don't pretend there's a quick fix, but it is an aspect of the sport which brings it into disrepute and for non Speedway fans it's just another argument to prove you can't take it seriously.

Deteriorating attendances: This is a fact, sadly. Last season Eastbourne closed. This year it has been Newcastle's turn. Swindon has just announced Speedway will never return to the Abbey Stadium. Birmingham attracted just 355 people for its match against Edinburgh. It's easier now for people to vote with their feet if the entertainment on show doesn't enthuse them enough. In my view it's better if Speedway is prepared to look itself in the eye and address its problems, the key one being that too often it doesn't deliver on its potential to thrill spectators. The Cardiff Grand Prix this year was celebrated for Dan Bewley's success in winning the event. However the quality of the racing was mediocre to say the least. Leaving aside engine failures and falls, there was only one race which saw an overtake after the third bend in a total of 23 heats. The Grand Prix is British Speedway's showcase event, the chance to reach out to a wider audience but it failed badly with a track bordering on the dangerous. Yet the re-run British Final at Belle Vue produced some stunning racing and some of the Premier League matches featured on "Eurosport" this season have equally served up close and interesting racing. In the space of a week in August I witnessed two cracking matches at Redcar and Oxford which has bucked the trend of track closures and come back from the dead. So, of course Speedway can serve up some great entertainment but the fact that this doesn't happen consistently enough never seems to be acknowledged. In May I tuned into "Eurosport" to watch my home team King's Lynn go to battle at Wolverhampton after a promising start to the season. At the end of the programme Kelvin Tatum said "Well, we've had a good first night of Speedway". We hadn't. Only two out of 15 heats had any sustained interest, thanks to Thomas Jorgensen. That is just not a good enough ratio.

So British Speedway has been on a downward trend for several decades. This decline has continued into the 21st century. Sky Sports, given poor viewing figures, dropped Speedway altogether in 2017 and the sport is relegated to minority viewing on Eurosport. It is struggling just to survive. Can its decline be halted or is it too late? Can it ever seek to recover its "glory days"? I'll try to supply some answers in Part 2.

 

This article was first published on 30th October 2022

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  • David Cohen:

    "Ian Davey has a good stab at what hundreds of others before him have also done - tried to state what has gone wrong with British speedway. And no doubt, those hundreds before him had just as many different opinions, and I count myself amongst all of that, on various fourms and publications over the years. He certainly has a point that, compared to F1, no-one central body seems to be in charge of the sport, which probably hasn't helped. There's always comparisons with other sports, but this can sometimes be divisive.

    Given the cost of living crisis, speedway is not value for money, with around 20mins worth of actual action, at best. I've been to Stock Car meetings which give you far more for your buck. Millions (and I don't think I'm exaggerating here) of people in the UK don't even know what speedway is! I await Part 2 with interest, and although we should never say never... It's dead, but it won't lie down."

  • Barry Whiffin:

    "Ian, This is a well written and very fair facual summary, so much better than many that are just keen to bash and blame promoters. I will look forward to the second article and hopefully some practical discussion on the future."

  • David Pickles:

    "An excellent article from Ian, and one that older fans especially, will echo. Its almost impossible to pinpoint when the rot set in, and looking back its almost impossible to believe that over 92,000 fans packed into Wembley in 1981 for what was to be the last ever World Final there, and yet 5 years later attendances at some tracks had collapsed.

    John Berry once told me that his plans to revamp the sport would have worked, whether they would or not is open to debate and I never got the full story, but I think promoters made a huge mistake in 1986 by voting not to at least put him at the head of it. His vast experience could only have done good.

    Since those days of course we've had machinery changes, start rules change and quite frankly interminable delays between races all combine to ruin speedway as the spectacle it once was. Of course old romantics such as myself look through rose-tinted glasses as far as the quality of racing is concerned, but I well remember tramping home from West Ham and Hackney some weeks disappointed with the fare on offer, only to return the following week to witness a corking meeting. The product hasn't basically changed since 1928 and to me is still the best sport by far on the planet, but it needs somehow to attract the youngsters and that I'm afraid will be very difficult with the plethora of alternatives on offer as Ian has rightly pointed out.

    We have been betrayed in reality by the media who no longer publish the results, and TV companies in particular. The BBC has always made a point of ignoring us, begrudgingly showing highlights of The Internationale in the 1970's but very little else, and ITV really haven't been much better. Sky should hang their heads in shame for not just abandoning us but not even featuring us on their sports news channel any more either. I think the best we can hope for is that current interest and attendances are maintained for the foreseeable future."

  • Steve Haire:

    "The decline of speedway! Yes , a very sad state of affairs and I look forward to reading Ian's suggestions on what he thinks needs to be done to hopefully get back to something like the glory days. I have posted many comments on this website over the years.

    Most sports and businesses reinvent themselves to generate interest to a younger generation. Instances being the 'locals' pub has disspeared and have now become 'Kitchen and Bar', Vehicles are switching to electric, Cricket brought in the 1 day game, Rugby changed the name of teams and have mascots and in some cases cheerleaders, Rugby along with Football has started promoting Ladies teams with television channels willing to broadcast games. British Speedway has not adapted, they brought in play-offs as the Americans do, but even that now is a joke as you have 6 teams in the Premiership (name adopted from football) and four go into play-offs.

    The decline I feel is down to three basic facts, speedway has always penalised teams that are good (originally a gate handicapping of top riders, rider control and then team averages) the only team sport I can think of that does this. Promoters never promoted the sport, they relied on papers reporting events and thirdly they never had the foresight to purchase or build stadiums, always renting them.

    It's hard to know now how to improve the situation, promoters have never listened to the supporters, they've always been concerned about their own business interests and not as the sport as a whole. The only thing I can think of to improve their lot is to try and sell the sport to television companies or to start a 'British' Speedway channel that people can subscribe to, so you can live pause and record. Of course you need to improve your product which means no limits on teams strengths, you simply run on what you can afford.

    My situation is at the moment I have no means to stream and I can't get to see any live speedway although I do subscribe to Premier sports to watch Swedish and Danish Speedway . I look forward to Ian's ideas on how to save our beloved sport. "

  • Phillip James:

    "I agree with your comments and wish speedway could provide fans with a meeting each week like we used to have, this is why crowds are down once a month is just not good enough to keep people coming back. I think the promoters need to find a group of ex-riders and supporters to decide on a new rule book and the promoters to rigidly stick to it"

    * Peter Sparkes:

    "An excellent article. A lot of the points I would concur with. I also attended the Cardiff Grand Prix and the British final. One was very poor entertainment and the other was as good a meeting as I have seen. I will give you a few observations from my time watching speedway, my first match was 1975.

    The first is that most fans in all sports are only casual supporters. I think speedway has lost 95% of its casual fans. I think this is one of the main reasons for the decline. Looking at cricket as a comparison. There are an awful lot of fans who are only interested in winning and have very little interest in the detail of cricket. For example I attended a 20 20 cricket match last summer. The entertainment in my opinion was very poor, a one sided game, no contest between bat and ball, team A won because they scored a few more boundaries than the other. I was a long way away, could see little, no interest in drinking and I was totally bored.

    Another example I can point to, this time speedway. I attended a match between Peterborough and Edinburgh. A hard fought match with the Monarchs just winning. Lots of overtaking on a very good track. The majority of Panthers fans did not enjoy the match. A fair few probably stopped going because their team could no longer win the league. My first season was 1976 when I watched Birmingham. The team was poor and so were results, the entertainment though was excellent. Crowd levels dropped a lot from the previous year when the Brummies were winning the league I suspect that I am in a minority (probably a large minority) but look for good racing.

    I have been to Belle Vue and I have never seen a bad meeting. The key to me is good track preparation, where the two racing lines inside and outside should have equal opportunity. I have been to a lot of tracks where first out of the gate always wins. I went to Coventry a lot in the late 70's and saw some very boring racing. The team was doing well and crowds were good. What does that say?

    The plus points to speedway are:

    * On most tracks you can see 100% of the racing

    * Most other sports are better on the television, cricket especially.

    Some items that I think have caused the decline:

    * Lack of atmosphere - Cradley v Birmingham and Coventry v Wolves derbies, to mention a couple were very good Loss of local newspapers - during the 70's the coverage at Birmingham was brilliant, full back page spread most weeks. As a casual fan you could not miss it. The decline of the Birmingham Evening Mail I am sure prevented the Brummies from attracting casual fans. On the plus side the Express and Star coverage of the Wolves is excellent so casual people in the area still know there is speedway, not the case in Birmingham in my view.

    * Loss of Saturday night is massive. Certainly if Belle Vue raced on a Saturday night it would encourage me to go, travelling back over an hour on a Monday just takes too long

    * Loss of Terrestrial television - Football just takes over and Cricket has also suffered. May be worth trying to get a highlight package on ITV4.

    * Loss of the stars - Everybody had heard for example of Ivan Mauger and Kenny Carter. Very few know Tai which is very sad.

    Some items that may improve things:

    * Given the limited fixture list I see little point racing in March and October. During June, July and August try and race once a week. Although this is unusual, no other sport expects customers to come every week.

    * Look to have the British final with all British riders. Belle Vue may be too small. Try Bradford and pay Tai and Robert the money they want.

    * Look to have a couple of major individual meetings on a Saturday during the summer. Try Belle Vue, get all the best riders, it will be a gamble.

    * Look to have something above the premiership. Only the really well supported teams, perhaps four teams. Home and away, very high limit. At least three GP riders per team. Try to get it on a Saturday. Charge say £30, get it on television as well.

    * Don't stop races and warn riders, just let them carry on and at the end of race just exclude them. Will soon stop riders trying to cheat. Nobody wants to see a drawn out heat. Technology would improve the issue. Same as athletics, if they react to soon exclude.

    * Covers for tracks. I know it would not prevent all rain offs but it would stop the track been unfit due to rain for days before. If my local cricket team can afford covers then so can speedway. Nothing worse than driving to see a track which is unfit and it is not raining. "

  • Donald Cooper:

    "£30 admission? People won't pay £20 now, that's one of the main reasons people don't go now ."  

     

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