A Reward for the Ratings?
In a recent edition of the speedway star was, secluded discreetly on the second page, a petite seemingly regular article. The report, whilst tiny in stature must be considered immense in significance. It notified the magazines faithful that our treasured sport is now Sky Sports third most watched activity. Further explaining that armchair viewers have boosted the sport from a lowly eighth, to an especially impressive third position in the all important rating figures. Speedway now finds itself neatly situated behind football and cricket, all in all refreshingly rapid progress within just five years.
The information has been brought to attention and subsequently discussed by the dashing Poole Pirates promoter Matt Ford who seems continually involved and innovative in the Sky Sports era of club promotion. This isn't the first time optimistic viewing figure information has been strewn amid our shale community. The news first became apparent when it was fed into the volatile, rumour generating machine that is the often detrimental British Speedway Internet Forum. Like a majority of the keyboard cowboys contributing their personal opinions I really tried and sought to believe this bold ratings revelation, but simply couldn't and subsequently remained highly sceptical.
It appears from the size and minimalist presentation of the aforementioned article that the good people at the Speedway Star share this scepticism. After all a subject that is so pivotal in British speedway's future progression, immediate survival and continuing drive for rejuvenation surely deserved heaps more detailed analysis than the magazine chose to provide.
Was this article so small in size and somewhat nonchalant in tone because for fans of British speedway it has never completely felt, or been made vividly apparent, that our sport is a prominent and significant element of Sky's sporting collection? Are we simply gate crashing Sky's squeaky clean, grotesquely vein party and spraying our wealthier sporting relations with a roost of sacred shale?
The flair and silky smooth production the company ooze has allowed speedway to find a rare lump of powerful grip on a predominately slick, ill prepared track and in no way do I intend to undermine Sky's valued influence. However, from a viewer's perspective, Sky doesn't seem whole heartedly interested or entirely engulfed by speedway. During the drab winter months there is little to keep the hardened fan sufficiently entertained, the premier league receives extremely limited coverage and the conference league sadly not even a mention.
Quite how highly the sport is regarded and what position it holds amongst Sky's extensive range often seems ambiguous. Furthermore the budget for speedway appears to be minimal, usually limited camera angles, a basic studio and the lack of an interactive menu (selection of pictures, match highlights, fanzone) leaves the sport lagging in terms of presentation when compared with other activities. In their glossy, star studded monthly magazine, Sky allocated a measly one page to previewing the approaching season and the editors felt the necessity to occupy half this space with the opinions of Premiership footballers. A cheap and unimaginative attempt to strike a comprehensive bond between the two sports.
Salt was rubbed further into to wound when a picture of Nicki Pedersen was accompanied by a caption naming him Bjarne, small mistakes such as these may seem insignificant but provide insight into Sky's attitude of occasional apathy.
If the latest ratings revelation is correct then Sky Sports cannot claim extensive advertising and heavy investment is the catalyst of success, instead must recognise the power of Speedway's pure entertainment value.
The questions must be posed, do the bigwigs at Sky understand, but more importantly, respect speedway? Is there a lack of understanding between the two sides which is simply bridged, translated and resolved by hard cash? Speedway's entertainment value is being manipulated and exploited in return for a minimal sum of money, because the initial television deal was struck at a time when British speedway was hunting for a lifeline and Sky Sports searching for the old cliche of a minority sport to bolster and add diversity to their treasured collection.
It is certainly true that Sky Sports are getting a tremendously cheap deal out of speedway, quite simply a bargain. Second in the channels most viewed list is Cricket, a game which the BSKYB Corporation paid an incredible 220 million pounds in order to obtain the broadcasting rights. In terms of viewing figures we are told speedway sits directly behind cricket. With the speedway contract up for renewal at the end of 2005 the sport must push for a significant increase on the 1.1 million pounds received when the television contract was initially negotiated. Controversial chief Terry Russell must seek to drive a harder bargain whilst avoiding the tendency to adhere to the organisations every command. Quite simply the sport must gain some control, display dignity and not be held ransom.
Let's just assume Mr Russell is able to grab a healthy eight million pounds from Sky Sports bulging kitty. This money should be distributed throughout every aspect British speedway, defiantly filtered down to the conference league so the production of grass roots can continue to prosper. If the cash is circulated solely amongst the elite league then the inevitable widening gap of divisions will occur. Elite league stars will demand grotesque sums of money whilst young prospects struggle to buy machinery. If and when the deal is renewed a constructive and realistic financial plan must be utilized that allows British speedway as a unit to move forward and thrive. To keep the cash within the elite league would be detrimental; the speedway family must help one another and avoid the tendency to regard the elite league as a separate entity.
Maybe I've been a little hard and unfair on Sky, after all It takes around fifteen people to cover a live meeting and many sports would kill for the coverage speedway receives. Yet it is crucial that the sport doesn't stagnate, the building blocks have been laid for stability, further progression and an exciting new era. British speedway must push forward and Sky has to be a part of this, both parties must avoid the tendency to dwell on these encouraging ratings, instead exploit this opportunity to its full potential.
It is a fair assumption that speedways real glory days of the 1950's were eventually halted by the introduction of additional entertainment, primarily television sets. However after half a century of highs and extreme lows the influence of television is slowly, but firmly, placing speedway back where it belongs, amongst the most popular sports in the country. The irony speedway fans is colossal and it proves you just can't keep a good sport down.
This article was first published on 14th May 2005
"Great article, I don't think anyone can argue with that. Fundamental problem in speedway? The Russell influence is too powerful. If Mr Russell has seen a substantial cash sum come towards the sport for "brokering" the agreement between sky & speedway, where is it? It certainly hasn't gone to the riders, who surely deserve it most. So where? Let me think..."
"Well thought out, written and said. Hats off."
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