Speedway stay-away: Low crowd figures were beginning of end for Eastbourne Eagles

Recent news that Eastbourne Eagles Ltd was to close after running into severe financial difficulties led to Paul Watson sitting down with director Ian Jordan to talk through the whole saga.Here is part three (parts one and two are linked midway through this page)...

Thursday, 30th September 2021, 7:46 am
Updated Thursday, 30th September 2021, 2:27 pm
There were too few people paying to watch Eastbourne Eagles as the season unfolded / Picture: Mike Hinves

Paul: When did you notice crowd figures beginning to drop?

Ian: We’d been okay up to and including Glasgow at home in early July, although that was by no means the bumper crowd we had anticipated.

Due to the truncated season, the original plan, which we spent many hours on tuning to have potentially bigger fixtures in summer – and to avoid all clashes with the Grand Prix series – fell by the wayside.

The SGP dates continually changed, the ability of other clubs to stage some fixtures changed, so in the context of who we were going to ride and when, started to look like the perfect storm.

The crowd for the Leicester double header the day before Covid restrictions eased, although decent, was probably 200 below expectations and affected by intense heat and moans about dust and double headers.

The crowds against Scunthorpe – when crowd pullers like Adam Ellis and Tom Brennan were missing at a quickly arranged event – and Plymouth – when Jason Crump was missing as he failed a late fitness tes – were awful.

Both were impacted by bad weather in the vicinity too and although it didn’t rain at the stadium, crowds of around 550 were frankly calamitous.

I’ve seen the question asked ‘Where did the money go?’

Given that we have always said that around 90-95 per cent of a speedway club’s income and turnover comes through the turnstiles, I think it’s more appropriate to ask ‘Where’s the money coming from?’

We don’t have large corporate backing behind us, clearly supporters are not coming in sufficient numbers and for a number of economic reasons, sponsor and advertising budgets simply aren’t there at the moment in many sectors.

Paul: Why do you think people didn’t come?

Ian: I can only make educated guesses. Bad weather in the area does stop people from coming, however hard we’ve tried to reassure them.

We’ve had three rain-offs; two called very early and one on the morning of a match and two cost us £1,500 to £2,000 in prior set-up costs.

We had originally planned in the spring to avoid clashes with the televised Speedway GP but in the end we couldn’t.

Each clash generally costs us 100 fans. There is clear evidence of that. I’ve never understood it and long stressed how dangerous it could be to us.

As a Saturday track, occasionally a Sunday track, we suffer from being in a tourist location but not really benefiting from it. Saturday is invariably ‘change over day’ and Sunday is effectively the ‘first day on holiday’ day, and visitors don’t see speedway as an arrival/departure day attraction, nor a first day attraction.

Ideally, we’d like to race in midweek like Plymouth, Poole and the Isle of Wight do.

However, Thursday is reserved for the Premiership, Tuesday is allocated to Kent and Plymouth and from June to September there are stock car fixtures every Wednesday at Arlington.

As well as stox being a bigger money earner than speedway, there is a very labour and time intensive two days to erect and dismantle the safety fence.

So, we are hemmed in really to Saturday and Sunday.

The most unexpected outcome of restrictions easing is that a number of tracks, especially us, seemed to be seeing lower crowds post-restrictions than pre-restrictions.

The only logical answer is that rather than speedway being one of a small number of options, it’s now deep in a pile of options people have not enjoyed for 16 months and who now want to embrace while they can.

We’ve also been unable, until the end of July, to think about distributing the 65,000 free under-12 passes we had planned for the 2020 community programme and, as tourist information and other outlets only fully opened from July 19, it’s been incredibly difficult to optimise plans there too.

We also have to look at the product and how the sport is viewed, how it’s promoted and how we promote it. I’m proud of what we did in 2019 and just deeply frustrated that all of that momentum was lost.

Paul: The fixture list seemed to end up with the Eagles riding away but not at home. What impact did that have?

Ian: As we have discussed, 95 per cent of income comes from home gate receipts. When crowds are much lower than expected it has a massive impact.

We’ve not had a home match since July 31. Since then we have ridden at Kent and Leicester and had faced trips to Newcastle, Berwick, Newcastle and Birmingham. That series of six matches would conservatively cost around £25 to 35,000.

The home match v Birmingham on August 7 was called off early due to an awful and accurate weather forecast.

That saved us some preparation costs. It’s also relevant to point out that, on the Wednesday before, Birmingham had their ‘make or break fixture’, so we could not be sure what would happen to them.

Calling that match when we did was the best move for us and them. It would have been rained off whenever we’d called it. The Berwick home match, originally due to take place on August 15, was cancelled about four weeks before that. It was nothing to do with our financial position but down to the late arrangement (once restrictions were eased and confirmed on July 19) of the biggest banger meeting of the year on August 14.

That takes absolute priority over speedway and we fully understand that transitioning from one sport to the other in 24 hours is impossible.

It is also worth mentioning that we were thwarted in staging a Team GB under-23 fixture that would have taken place on July 10. That’s a meeting we had worked on with the GB set-up for well over 12 months and would have been a great occasion for us and our young riders like Tom, Drew and Jason.

Despite initially having a protected spot on our fixture calendar, it was removed following an objection from another promoter at a late stage.

So, with some late payment to riders and others starting to manifest from late July, due to very poor crowds in late July, the scenario was looking bleak and as a result we flagged it up to the riders prior to the Kent match on the August 3 and to the BSPL a week or so later.

Some expected revenues did not materialise and so the position really worsened quickly from the last week in July.