The decision by the BSPA to delay the start of the 2020 season came just before lunchtime on Tuesday (March 17).
Club director Ian Jordan has weighed the implications for Eastbourne Speedway and talked to Paul Watson about the effects on the sport in general, the HG Aerospace Eagles, the club’s riders and, of course, you the supporters.
Paul: A month-long suspension of speedway was put in place. Do you see that as just a ‘holding measure’ with the time without racing extended into the summer?
Ian: There is only one honest answer to that Paul and that is we simply don’t know. We have to plan and work towards different contingencies and have already started to do that.
There are signs in places like China that the virus can be stopped by complete lockdown really quite quickly, in places like South Korea by 100% testing it has almost been eradicated too, so there is hope there.
The 15th April is really a holding date, by which point another decision will be made by the BSPA / SCB. I have to say I think that so far they (BSPA/SCB) have been excellent in keeping Clubs informed; much in confidence which the Public do not necessarily see; and by making the decisions at just the right time.
Things changed dramatically in the past five days.
Prior to that, I think we all thought we could start the season and then maybe have a break down the line.
That’s clearly not now the case. Some people will criticise the BSPA / SCB for the sake of it on social media, but we have to trust them – and we do trust them – to make the right decisions at the right time.
I expect that by the 15th April we will all know a lot more.
At that time the BSPA / SCB will make another decision and we can re-assess from that point.
In the meantime we are already working very hard at Eastbourne to map and plan various contingencies.
We are lucky to have a lot of business experience now around the management table and we can pull on that and we will.
It reminds me a bit of the aftermath of 9/11 when it felt like the world would never be quite the same again. As we know now; it’s amazing how resilient we can be when we pull together.
In big business we spent those early days in 2001 working on “disaster recovery models”.
On a very much smaller scale now that’s what we are doing, and like then, I hope 90% of them won’t be needed, if you have a plan though it’s much easier than making it up as you go along.
Paul: On that basis, how do you think British Speedway will cope and, in particular, the Eagles?
Ian: The sport is not cash rich. The reality is that most if not all clubs derive the vast majority of their income from gate receipts.
In most cases, including Eastbourne, the gate receipts do not cover the expenditure.
We rely, therefore, on sponsorship, marketing and merchandising and the Directors putting their hands in to their pockets to cover any shortfall. The key will be how long the Sport is in lockdown and what happens to clubs in that period.
I can, to be perfectly honest, only worry about the club(s) I am involved with. I hope that when we restart, we will still all be there at the starting tapes.
Speaking specifically about the Eagles. On Tuesday morning we had a group e-mail chat within the Media and Marketing Team.
The mood was incredibly positive and proactive, it was actually very humbling to see the love and affinity so many people have for the club and the ideas that were generated to try to get us through the next four weeks which initially will soon be visible.
In a situation like this there are really two options: hide under the duvet and cross your fingers, or jump out of bed, get creative and start working on a plan, not just with survival in mind but with the longer term growth in mind too.
If you aim to survive, you might survive, if you aim to grow, you might grow but you will also have a much better chance of surviving.
We were so excited about the coming season and we mustn’t lose that feeling of excitement and opportunity, so whilst we cannot possibly replace the smell of Castrol R and Methanol and the sound of bikes at 7.30 on a Saturday night, there is a lot we can do to keep and to raise awareness going.
We also of course have to keep in regular communication with riders, staff, supporters and sponsors, all of whom are vitally important to us at a time when everyone is frightened and in uncharted waters.
Paul: Our riders were champing at the bit to get racing, how have they reacted?
Ian: They are all naturally very disappointed and for different reasons. Some of the younger ones just want to get out there and race, they would ride day after day if they could so in a way it’s a bit like someone cancelling Christmas on the 24th December for them.
The more experienced ones obviously want to race but for them there are mortgages to pay, families to feed and, therefore, it’s a wholly different set of worries and concerns.
As a Management Team, all we can do really is to support and help them as and when we can.
They are already a very tightly knit group and whilst there is obviously deep concern at the moment. I think that if we stick together, we grow stronger and when racing does start that bond will bring us tighter together.
Paul: What does the suspension mean for the riders and management?
Ian: It’s incredibly tough for them. They are self-employed. They have contracts to ride for clubs, but the reality is that the vast majority of their income comes from start and points money.
This could not have happened at a worse time for them.
At this level to be competitive and professional you need at least 3-4 bikes or the ability to assemble 3-4 bikes and that cost is astronomical really, between £5-7,000 per bike. If riders double up or down, there are extra bikes and extra expense.
That money has been spent, then there are spares and things like helmets and other racing apparel. Every rider will need a van, some the club pay for, others the rider pays for.
Some of the lads have jobs but the nature of their profession (Speedway) means that they are not likely to be full-time jobs with all of the added benefits a contracted employee enjoys, so if and when the Coronavirus outbreak causes job losses and companies to cut staff, it’s a vicious circle, the part-time guy who usually works in the winter as he is a Speedway Rider, is most likely to be the one losing his job.
We are not a sport that can offer riders salaried contracts like soccer, rugby, cricket.
At this time I wish we were; but we can’t pay them what we don’t have and as we don’t have gate receipts it is incredibly difficult and frustrating. We can help them in other ways and a small example of this will be to ensure that we keep them as updated as we can about help they can seek as “self-employed contractors” which is effectively what they are.
Many people will be losing income, losing jobs and suffering over the next few months. Our riders and many of our staff, and of course sponsors and supporters will suffer too. We can only wish everyone well.
No one on the business side of the Club takes a salary or any regular pay. Last season, as part of the start up of the Club we did have some regular salary costs which we no longer have.
Les nor myself as Directors nor any of the current Management Team work for anything but occasional expenses; and in reality Les and I have paid in a lot more than has been taken out to set the Club up and to maintain it, and we will continue to do so where possible.
The medium and long-term future of the Club is paramount.
There are roles that are paid of course, but they are linked to matches and therefore gate receipts, so whereas last year we would have had ongoing wage expense, we are now a lot leaner and that will help us immeasurably in the months ahead. A few things have to be paid for in terms of specific technical IT expertise, but we are able to cover those as part of our contingency planning going forwards.
Paul: There could be a lag between government restrictions being lifted and league racing resuming. Would you consider staging Open meetings to help the riders earn and for the fans to see Speedway?
Ian: We can only stage meetings once the ban is lifted and even then would have to apply to the BSPA/SCB for the necessary approval and Licensing.
The ACU have also suspended all Licences, that is to help reduce costs to Riders, but they too will have to sanction when Racing can resume.
Of course, we are also tenants of Arlington Stadium too, so we would need to ensure that the Stadium Management gives their approval; and that they themselves have all of the necessary approvals and required certification to continue, as Government and Local Government will have to approve any continuation/restart of public events; as at the moment you cannot just ignore clear Government advice and instructions.
We are the only all British 1-7 in the top two leagues and that means that we can stay in touch more easily.
One thing I do passionately hope, and which is a point we will make, is that when racing can resume that the Governing bodies do think first and foremost about British riders and find any way possible to give them a chance to earn some money at the earliest opportunity.
I’m absolutely not disparaging any rider from abroad far from it, but logistically it may take 10-14 days or longer, once the green light does go on, for some teams to get everyone back here and ready to race, so I do hope that in that period our British lads can be given ample opportunity to earn some money whist the rest of the Leagues reassemble.
We will do all we can to facilitate that if we are allowed to, once things improve.
Paul: Eastbourne gained some valuable sponsorship this winter. How have our sponsors reacted?
Ian: As I have said before without their help and support there would be no Speedway at Arlington, certainly not at Championship level where the costs are huge.
The safety net of National League Racing, at which the Club had four fantastic seasons is now all but gone as an option as the plans are to move to two tiers and not three.
So the help from Sponsors is more significant than it has ever been.
I have spoken / messaged a few and we will be speaking to them all in the coming days. We have already had significant sums from some as there are major start-up costs each season and it is a long time from October to April with no gate receipts but a lot of bills to pay.
So Sponsorship is, in some cases, part paid up front and then in instalments and in other instances on drip through the season either monthly or on a match-by-match basis.
Above all we have to reflect on the fact that our Sponsors have businesses too and in some cases they are going to be badly affected by the Global pandemic. It is a case, therefore, of worrying about them and being mindful and sympathetic to that fact.
First and foremost, their business and staff is by far more important to them, which is understandable and clear.
The responses we have had so far have been incredibly supportive and we can’t thank them all for all they have done and are doing but we are in uncharted waters here.
There are also those who have sponsored Heats, Air Fence Banners, Race-Suits etc, we will certainly be in touch with everyone in the coming weeks and will continue to communicate with them.
We can’t speak to everyone immediately but would hope to do so in the next 2-3 weeks and if anyone has any specific concerns, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul: If the previously announced fixture list does not go ahead and instead a truncated season is run, how will season ticket holders be recompensed?
Ian: Firstly, it is appropriate to again thank everyone who has supported the Club through the winter months and into the new season by purchasing Season Tickets and 10 Match Tickets.
Ironically; the last batch of 10 Match / Season Tickets arrived and were posted out only yesterday, so if anyone ordered one and hasn’t received it by early next week please let us know by mailing email@example.com That also applies to the Competition winners at the end of last season, whose Tickets were posted yesterday too.
I think the 10 Match Ticket scenario is easier at the moment to deal with, simply because I think we would all be hopeful that we will get to the end of October and will have had at least 10 home matches. Should that scenario start to look less likely come June or July, then it is a matter we will deal with at that time.
In terms of the Full Season Tickets again I think we will know a lot more in 4-6 weeks time.
If we get to the point where there is going to be no Speedway in 2020 or minimal Speedway we will seek to put together a scheme whereby any unused matches can be carried forwards in to 2021 or if things get significantly worse, we will seek to instigate some form of refund policy.
In the immediate term, I would hope that within a few months that we can formulate specific plans and decide then. Rest assured that whatever happens we will be open, honest and transparent at all times.
Paul: Speedway clubs have large pre-season bills which have to be met before racing starts. How much in round terms has Eastbourne spent on the 2020 season and on what?
Ian: There are an awful lot of ongoing costs with Speedway in the season and out of it.
There are meeting costs which obviously we only have to pay when there is Speedway.
Before we have paid a rider a penny, for example, every home meeting would cost around £5,000 in terms of stadium rent per match, match insurance, medical cover, tyres for both teams, referee’s fee and other costs involved in getting a meeting on.
We also have to ensure that the gate money for a home match covers the costs of the corresponding away match points money. Then there are rider travel costs (home and away).
So, before we start up, we will have to revisit that and look at those costs if the likely scenario at start up is that cash will be tight and, therefore, crowds lower.
The model we have right now, built over the winter before this pandemic struck, will look a fair bit different and possibly leaner than it does now, especially if the season is significantly truncated.
In terms of what we have already spent, which is something every Speedway team has to do, there are significant costs during the winter that supporters may not be aware of.
It is important, I think, to explain and to be as transparent as we can, bearing in mind we have to keep some things confidential in terms of riders, etc.
The Sport is regulated and overseen by governing bodies to whom we have to pay upfront fees for the season.
We also have to pay for things like printing, advertising banners, racesuits, some merchandise for the track shop. There are insurance costs such as Public Liability that have to be paid up front too. A lot of this is paid for from income from season ticket renewals and sponsorship received to date.
The riders have self-employed contracts but some of those understandably include agreed fees and provision of vans etc that have to be paid out in the winter, or which commence around now.
Had this scenario happened a few months earlier it is the case that many payments may have been waived or deferred until the situation was clearer; but I would say that in the past 2-3 months all of those accrued costs would total in the region of £15-20,000.
You can’t order and plan everything to arrive the week of the first meeting, so a lot of expense is loaded in to the 2-3 months before the season starts, bills that have already been paid or part paid.
The good news is that having paid a lot of bills already and knowing what other set bills we may still have to pay or part pay on agreed terms, is that much of those set-up costs are accounted for.
The not so good news is that, of course, we have absolutely no idea how long the shutdown is going to last and during the next few months the bills don’t stop coming in, but the income does.
One specific area is that we have to pay loan fees for riders who belong to other clubs or to the BSPA in the case of clubs that have closed who they were registered to.
We have two assets of our own (Tom and Jason) but the other lads loan fees to their clubs would cost in the region of £6,000 as they are based on averages, so if the number of matches is halved, we will still have to pay as much as for a full season.
This is one reason why we will in time seek to build our own asset base but that has had to be shelved for now as every penny will have to be cherished until we know when we can race again.
We can and will, therefore, seek to find ways to mitigate this which I will come on to.
Paul: What’s our best guess at when the 2020 season will start and what do you think it will look like?
Ian: It’s pure guesswork Paul as I have alluded to.
I think that if we are racing in June, we will have got away lightly. We have scope under current regulations to run to the 31st October and I think it is inevitable that will happen.
We saw last October (2019) incredible rainfall, yet in October 2018, as fans will remember we raced about nine matches in 27 days to win the NL League and Cup double.
The Championship was a pretty full schedule up to the first week in September with then a space for Play Offs and Cup Finals, etc.
It was based on two matches home and away against five other teams in the southern section and one match home and away v the six teams in the northern section, so there is massive wriggle room and flexibility there, once we know exactly what the time available is.
I saw, like everyone else interviews from Rob Godfrey and Stewart Dickson yesterday, both BSPA Management Committee members, indeed Rob is Chairman, and what is very encouraging to hear is that they are already working on plan and contingencies and they should be applauded for that.
I personally think we will end up with a truncated league season, possibly doing away with the two home and away in the South – and similarly in the North – as the first “meat from the bones so to speak” and they can then either look at no Play Offs just a straight League or if it is a shorter season than we all want, may be a Southern League of 6 Teams and a Northern League of 6 Teams and a Play Off between the top two?
This is all conjecture though really and we’ll leave it to the BSPA to come up with the best and most pragmatic solution at the time and support them all we can to do that.
What is massively frustrating is that we did have a couple of absolute “aces up our sleeves” in terms of so far unannounced fixtures to share with fans in the coming weeks.
I won’t spoil that surprise and the massive excitement they may generate and hopefully it can and will still happen in 2020 but if not in 2020 then we will aim to absolutely have something similar in 2021.
One in particular we have worked for months to arrange, so fingers crossed that hard work pays off.
Paul: You have I have spoken about the club continuing to be proactive during this period with the intention of keeping Speedway and the Eastbourne Eagles in people’s minds while we wait for tapes up. What initiatives are planned for this barren period?
Ian: We have a number of things planned Paul and fundamental to that is both being transparent and also keeping everyone as informed and as entertained as we can be.
By the time you put this interview out we will have announced something special generated and focused around 7.30pm on a Saturday night, on Eagles TV.
We will by the already planned date of 31st March be announcing and making available our planned 2020 season clothing and merchandise range and they will be available ONLINE via Mail Order.
That generates vital income for the Club of course.
If and when things start to improve, we will definitely reschedule Press and Practice Day and inform every one of that.
We have an incredible Media Team, a ton of archive material and a superb web and social media platform that few can rival. We will optimise that to the full.
We will continue to work commercially and on the Community Programme to develop the very exciting Children 11 and Under free season ticket scheme and we will seek to network and work with local businesses, who like us will be hurting especially, if things drag on in to the summer months.
We have the “lockdown period” to get through first and once that eases we will be ready to hit the ground running.
I’m a glass half full never half empty guy.
The golden eras for Speedway attendances have often been after periods of hardship, none harder than World War Two and more recently the terrible economic times of the end of the 70s and early 80s. It is a sport that generates excitement and passion and can tie-in after bad times for that “special buzz”. We have to be ready to optimise that, to buy in to it, to generate it and we will do all we can.
One area where we can help our Riders is the Teambuilder Lottery.
We were considering making changes to that as numbers have declined over the winter, understandably with no meetings.
However, it generates a prize element and funds for riders, so in the coming days we will see if we can ramp it up again as it can generate help for the riders when they most need it.
We have accrued some funds already, which will be passed on to riders at the end of the month, and hopefully we can generate a bit more in each following month.
The Directors, Management, Riders, Sponsors and Supporters all face an incredibly tough few months, financially, mentally, healthwise and Speedway will not be a priority at this time, but we’ll do all we can to make sure it’s ready when the resumption comes and in the meantime wish and pray that everyone comes through it, fit and healthy and well.
Paul: Do you have a plan to create a big publicity splash when racing resumes?
Ian: I think that will not be the case. We have been trying to make a big splash all winter and will continue to plan and work for it as best we can.
Clearly, we will adjust to these subdued times but if we do things as we have planned and hope, you won’t actually see a big splash as the splash will have been there for the past few months and won’t stop.
I think if you make a big splash when racing starts, it’s too little and too late.
Onwards and upwards is the motto.
Image Credits: Mike Hinves, Tiffani Graveling Photography & Jon Gall