Tim Holdsworth considers the challenges facing a sport in transition and what it might mean for facility provision, management and planning.
How do you solve a problem like speedway? It is a sport with a long history and a small but dedicated fan base. It offers the speed and excitement of motor sport in the raw. Small, local venues put the spectators close to the action, immersed in the noise, smells and thrills of motorcycle racing stripped to the bare essentials.
However, for all the enthusiasm of its aficionados, speedway is undeniably a sport in decline. Participation and audience numbers have been dropping consistently for a decade or more. Its clubs – even British Speedway Premiership clubs – are struggling to survive. Many of the venues that host speedway events are in crisis and TV coverage has tailed off, taking with it a vital source of the sport’s revenue.
We are a long way from speedway’s heyday, when top riders were household names. If you were to find anyone able to name a top rider now, it is more likely that they would be able to recall a champion of the past, probably from the last century, rather than name the current world champion.
Small sports with limited participation numbers and niche audiences can, and do, survive in a modern sporting context but no one would deny that it is a huge challenge to make it work.
The precarious nature of speedway’s finances makes it vulnerable to competing interests, not least from developers with an eye on venues that seem ripe for alternative use. In recent decades significant numbers of speedway tracks have been lost, along with the teams that used to draw the crowds; 15 speedway teams have folded since 2005.
It is a similar story with other sports that use or share such track venues. Stock car racing and greyhound racing have also experienced decline, making the viability of the stadia that host them (individually or collectively) increasingly precarious. In recent years even the most ardent speedway fan could understand why increasing numbers of people might see speedway venues as something of an anachronism in the context of the modern sporting experience.
All this might suggest that when reviewing the viability of a speedway venue in the face of proposals for redevelopment, the planning authorities would be faced with the proverbial open-and-shut case. However, for any developers eyeing a speedway stadium as a prime target, the nature of the sport creates something of a conundrum.
Sport England’s national planning policy framework makes it clear that open space, sports and recreation buildings, facilities and land should not be built on unless it can be shown that: the existing facility is surplus to requirements; are to be replaced or improved; or that alternative sports provision is to be created.
The argument that a speedway track is surplus to requirements is made problematic by virtue of its rarity. If so many speedway tracks have been lost, its supporters can argue that those left are all the more important; with only a few remaining, how can any existing track be said to be surplus to requirements?
Replacing or improving facilities to make them more attractive to spectators and better suited to other uses is an option but one that comes with a hefty price tag. Who would be willing to invest the millions likely to be needed to create a modern sporting venue if the sports that it will host are struggling to find an audience and a business model to make them viable?
Alternative sports provision might seem to be a more attractive approach, particularly in the promotion of and engagement in sport and physical activity across the wider community, but again the investment required to create new sports venues is significant and not often found at the top of a developer’s priority list.
If developers were kept at bay and there were sufficient funds and support to create a modern speedway venue, could such a stadium be viable? The experience of the National Speedway Stadium in Manchester suggests not. In 2016 Manchester City Council invested £7m in the stadium, which includes a 3G pitch as part of the offer. However, the speedway club has reportedly struggled to meet its obligations as the venue’s key tenant. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, it seems speedway was not in a position to make the most of an updated facility.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a sport with a long and vibrant history is facing a very difficult future. As clubs continue to struggle to survive, audiences go on falling while the other sports that used to make speedway venues viable – most commonly stock car racing and greyhound racing – face similar hardships. On this evidence, speedway would seem to be a sport from the past.
But perhaps all is not lost; at least not quite, not yet. Other sports have shown that it is possible to create a future for a sport with a long history. Most evolve to meet different circumstances and expectations. Bigger sports than speedway are constantly addressing the need to find new markets and new audiences; squash, cricket and triathlon, to name just a few. Some manage to reverse their own decline by transforming their marketing and spectator experience; snooker and darts might be examples.
Small sports with limited participation numbers and niche audiences can, and do, survive in a modern sporting context but no one would deny that it is a huge challenge to make it work. Even before the pandemic, a great many sports and venues were considering their options in the face of an uncertain future. As a sport, speedway would seem to have more problems than most. It will need radical reinvention if it is to find some new household names to sit alongside those slipping out of the collective sporting memory.
Tim Holdsworth is a senior consultant with KKP. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org