Eastbourne Eagles: Covid saved us - but government help amounted to diddly squat

Eastbourne Eagles’ withdrawal from the rest of the 2021 season and subsequent news that Eastbourne Eagles Ltd is to close has come as a shock.
Ian Jordan and Lee Kilby / Picture: Mike HinvesIan Jordan and Lee Kilby / Picture: Mike Hinves
Ian Jordan and Lee Kilby / Picture: Mike Hinves

Eastbourne Eagles Ltd Director Ian Jordan sat down with journalist Paul Watson to answer questions about the club’s withdrawal from the 2021 Championship season. We will be running the Q&A in full over the next few weeks. Here is part one.

Paul: Eastbourne Eagles Ltd took over the promotion of the speedway at Arlington for the 2019 season. How successful was that and what position was the club in to start 2020?

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Ian: We started in November 2018 when Martin and Connor decided to step down as the NDL at that time looked like it was going to be a much weakened league.

In brighter times: The Eagles line-up early in the 2021 before financial problems hit / Picture: Mike HinvesIn brighter times: The Eagles line-up early in the 2021 before financial problems hit / Picture: Mike Hinves
In brighter times: The Eagles line-up early in the 2021 before financial problems hit / Picture: Mike Hinves

Jon Cook and myself were asked to take it on and we did, with Jon focussing on speedway and myself on the business. It cost around £20,000 to set that up and that was all my investment. Jon built the team and negotiated all of the deals with the riders and we started off well.

By late May 2019 it became clear that following a decision to also run Arlington Stadium with Martin that the relationship of Jon being a director of the Speedway Company (Eastbourne Eagles Ltd) and our landlords (Arlington Stadium Limited with Martin) was not really compatible, both in his workload nor his focus.

Jon resigned as a director of Eastbourne Eagles Ltd and in came Les Fineing, who has subsequently made a significant financial investment, together with more investment from Chris (my partner) and myself.

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Jon continued to be paid by the club until the end of the season as per our agreement and his salary of around £25,000 is the only significant non-rider cost we had or have had.

The season went well in terms of crowds. We had a high of 1,300 (which I am told was the highest for many seasons) and four other crowds over 1,000. We had a budgeted break even of around 800-850, which remains to this day.

Allowing for the fact that we had all of the initial set up costs and Jon’s salary to cover, we would have made a small net profit but for those and, therefore, without either cost being required in 2020 looked ahead with a degree of confidence.

Losing the KOC semi-final by four points on aggregate with Georgie Wood unfairly, in our opinion, banned for issues in the NDL was a financial blow as I think a KOC final at Arlington in October with a full team at the time could have easily seen our biggest crowd of that season.

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We sought to retain six of the team on similar deals to 2019 and based on the events of 2019 felt reassured and confident.

We did spend around £6,000 on digital advertising in shopping centres in Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton.

That was probably the biggest commercial mistake we made as it delivered nothing and we were indebted to Mike Stance for providing numerous poster sites around the Sussex coast, that definitely had a bigger impact.

We had some great work done by the Community Team with Dave Rollison, Paul Garnell; Kate Ferguson and Josh Langley-Fineing and others doing a great job and that attracted around 3,000 new or returning visitors and together with the excellent work of Ian Smalley and yourself (Paul Watson), Kevin and John Ling, Ken Burnett and others, a media and website package that was the envy of many.

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We had some amazing sponsorship support from Fineprint; HG Aerospace; Robins Of Herstmonceux; Turner/V8 Engineering and some wonderful and innovative work from Lee Capon of Marstons/The Holly Blue and many others.

Every bill was paid by the end of October and every rider had been paid each week and in full by a week after the end of the season.

I can’t think of many who would disagree that we left 2019 with great and positive momentum and goodwill.

Paul: The Covid-19 pandemic began just as we were getting ready for the 2020 season and it wiped out the whole year for the club. What sort of season could the Eagles have looked forward to in 2020?

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Ian: It may be a surprise to many when I say that in some ways Covid saved us in 2020.

That may seem outrageous and a crazy comment but the facts are that due to circumstances beyond our control, had Covid not occurred we would have had to withdraw from the league for 2020 and put the licence on ice, as Glasgow did and as Somerset and Swindon have done subsequently.

The issue was with the stadium and its certification. That tends to run from spring to spring. The stadium did not have the required certification to start the season for stocks or speedway.

It required a massive financial Investment by Eric and Margaret Dugard during 2020 to update various key parts of the infrastructure, especially a complete electrical rewire.

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I think everyone involved with speedway and stock cars should be incredibly grateful and appreciative of that investment, especially as it came during the greatest economic and global pandemic period in decades if not centuries.

The stadium was not available for speedway at any time in 2020, should we have been able to race.

I think the BSPL were quite surprised when we told them about this a few weeks ago, so it was probably a blessing we did not have to disclose it.

Prior to that we’d had a good winter with around 150 season/10-match batch tickets sold. We had a great sponsorship deal from HG Aerospace and from Turner/V8 Engineering and we were in the process of negotiating other deals when Covid hit in late January / February and into the first lockdown in mid March.

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Continued from main story: Indeed, having been over to Eastbourne in early February and having caught and probably infected Trevor (Geer) with what was a horrible and debilitating 2-3 week flu-like virus, we’ve both thought since then that maybe we did have Covid ourselves.

The timing of the first lockdown though was too late to stop us from spending significant chunks of the income we had gained on rider contracts and fees, vans, BSPL/SCB payments etc and a whole host of other necessary bills and expenses

We could not get out of contracts for things like Card Readers and other equipment like new Radio mikes.

That in hindsight filtered in to 2021 in terms of financial stability.

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We also sought to support riders financially through 2020 where and when we could as clearly they were in a situation where massive income streams were cut off through Covid throughout the year.

As we were tenants of a stadium and had been trading for less than three years we did not qualify for any Government Sports or Stadium Loans.

As we had no employed staff, it meant furlough was not an option.

The BSPL fought tirelessly and ultimately successfully to get a £300,000 grant but, for the reasons stated, we did not pass the criteria test.

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It was quite amusing to read social media at the time where there were assumptions that all speedway clubs had been given £300,000 to flourish – if only.

That £300,000 was the total of the grant. It was great work for BSPL to get it and for those clubs who benefitted very welcome, I’m sure.

In a nutshell, in terms of any Government or Sports Council assistance we got diddly squat.

Next week: Q&A part two