British Speedway in Crisis

Over the past eighty or so years, the popularity of speedway racing in the UK has peaked and dipped like a roller-coaster. Obvious high points include the early pioneering pre-war days, where tracks sprang up all over the country, and huge crowds flocked to city centre venues to witness the raw thrill of competitive motorsport. The sport also enjoyed a major boom time throughout the seventies and early eighties, with Dickie Davies on World of Sport regularly bringing the sport into peoples living room on terrestrial TV. The likes of Barry Briggs, Ivan Mauger and Peter Collins were genuine household names. For a long time, speedway was the second best attended sport in the country, behind football.

For the past 30 years though, the sport has been on a gradual overall downward spiral in terms of popularity and mainstream appeal, with the odd short lived up-turn along the way. Speedway still has a dedicated and loyal following, but a scan of the terraces at most meetings reveals that it is largely an aging demographic.

It has been widely reported that only one club out of nine in this years Sky Sports Elite League didn't run at a loss and several of these reported losses have been well into six figures. The whole league structure is plainly unsustainable in its present form for the majority of clubs and a clear, long term strategy is desperately needed so that the sport as a whole can firstly survive and then hopefully grow in the future. As the country comes to terms with the tough reality of the economic situation, we could have been forgiven for thinking that the club promoters would try to tackle some of the key issues at their recent annual conference and set a clear course, to take domestic speedway into the next decade and beyond.

Immediately after the conference, a quickly drafted press release seemed to paint a positive picture, with Birmingham moving up to the top division replacing Ipswich, who had been widely expected to drop a level, for financial reasons. What the press release didn't mention however was that two of the strongest teams, Peterborough and league champions Coventry, had apparently walked out of the conference, unhappy with new rules which were being rushed in for next year.

The British Speedway Promoters Association (BSPA) are well known for continuously tinkering with the already complicated rule book every year. Although at first glance team speedway is a simple sport (two riders from each team race each other, going around in circles over a certain number of heats...) it has a ridiculously complicated set of rules, which are in theory meant to equalise team strengths by calculating each riders "average" score over a season and putting a cap on the total rider averages for each whole team. This would prevent a team signing the top seven riders in the country, as their overall points average would far exceed the points limit.

Because of this, teams will try to find loopholes to exploit the system to their advantage, such as signing a young foreign rider on a low "assessed" average or signing a rider from a lower league, again on an assessed average. So extra rules are sometimes brought in to try and prevent these loopholes. If this all sound like a big mess, thats because it is. The crux of the problem is that all of these rulings are suggested and subsequently voted on by each promotion themselves and they will often vote for changes which will  favour their own team in the short term, rather than what is in the long term interests of the sport as a whole. The situation is further complicated by certain promoters having a seat on the management committee, who are meant to steer the whole process in a fair and non-partisan manor.

Now normally all of this is sorted out behind closed doors, the problems are swept under the carpet and the public at large is generally none the wiser as to what has actually gone on. But the fall out from this years conference has the potential to do very serious damage to the sport and what little mainstream credibility it still has. There appears to have been a major breakdown in relations with Coventry and Peterborough pursuing legal action against the BSPA.

Instead of trying to mediate and find a suitable compromise, the BSPA have issued a number of provocative and clumsy press releases stating that Coventry and Peterborough won't be competing in the league next year and that Kings Lynn will be moving up to the Elite League to bring the numbers up to the eight teams that are required to fulfill the Sky Sports TV contract. The fact that Birmingham and Kings Lynn both took cost cutting measures recently while they were operating in the lower league and had not declared any intention of moving up to the Elite League before the conference, seems to suggest that they are being "supported" to make what appears to be a very risky jump up to the top division, presumably to keep Sky on board and have enough teams in the competition, although eight teams is barely credible...

So instead of speedways administrators tackling the real issues, such as trying to attract a new generation of supporter, encouraging youngsters to take up the sport, improving media awareness, attracting major sponsors, improving track preparation standards, improving safety at tracks and attempting to reduce the cost of equipment for competitors, they have had a major falling out arguing about tedious rulings that the vast majority of fans couldn't care less about. Any long term damage that is done will have been entirely self inflicted, at a time when the sport needs inspirational leadership and a collective sense of purpose if it is to survive at all, let alone reclaim some of its former popularity.

What is needed in the immediate short term is a large portion of humble pie all round, followed by a suitable compromise between the parties in the best interests of the sport. Bearing in mind some of the ego's on both sides of the fence and the apparent bitterness that has been allowed to develop, I don't hold out much hope. Perhaps the people best placed to bang a few heads together are Sky Sports, who can not have been at all impressed with how these issues have been handled. How are they going to explain to their viewers that last years league champions are not competing? Surely the obvious short term answer is to keep the rules that were used in 2010, as far as it is possible.

In the longer term, it is clear that the sport desperately needs a truly independent panel of experts who will govern in a transparent and non partisan way, and set in place a long term plan to revive speedway in this country. To save British speedway - from itself. Rant over.


  1. a well deserved and directed rant all the same!!.
    i would put the bspa, along with the acu, and most of the speedway promoters in a big bag and throw em off a cross channel ferry!!!.
    they all let their ego's get in the way of dragging bikesport up the foodchain.
    my idea would be to keep lynn and birmingham in the elite league, and then bring panthers, and the bees straight back in aswell.
    a premier league with just 8 teams speaks for itself!!!!.
    take a look at premier league rugby union, to see how well sport can be run.
    f......g muppets!.

  2. Well said Stevie Coles, and what a great rant KTL... I think you have summed up the frustrations of many British speedway supporters. The Elite league is about to implode and I think the Coventry owners will try and start some kind of pirate operation, throwing caution to the wind and operating outside of the ACU, BSPA and FIM, just like Mike Parker did in the 60s... It seems like they are the only ones brave enough to speak up and it's about time somebody stood up to that lot of feckless idiots and reminded them that it is the supporters and riders who are important in this game. Bring it on!

  3. I can only the echo the previous comments, particularly the last post on the parallel to the position in the early 1960's and the old National League. As a simple fan (of a now closed track) I don't know the details behind this latest debacle, but the sport's credibility with the public, Sky and the media in general must be suffering.

  4. Toys and Prams come to mind... The BSPA have even removed all links to Coventry and Peterborough from their official website, how pathetic! Don't they care about the fans of those two clubs at all? ... fans that have paid good money into the sport for years and will probably now walk away forever. Bring on the revolution I say.