Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The biggest sport you've never seen?

Sometimes during the advert breaks for Sky Sports News - the only channel which is consistently on in the Appell house - I see adverts for British Elite League speedway. I say "I see" in its most casual sense. The eyes point in the direction of the screen, but the brain is far, far away.

Speedway makes about as much sense to me, an ignorant football-watcher, as the ramblings of Mike Parry on Talksport - and, to be honest, up to now I've been only slightly more likely to buy tickets to a speedway match as I have been to tune into Parry's show.

Essentially, speedway is motorcycle racing round an oval dirt track, made of crushed shale or brick, on single-geared bikes with no brakes. The riders slide round the corners to maintain speed, before powering through the straights at speeds of up to 70mph. All that seems to separate the audience from being hit by dust, exhaust fumes and (in the case of an accident) a flying motorbike is a low wire fence.

But it's not something I grew up watching, nor is it something I've ever been compelled to get acquainted with. And I don't feel like I'm alone here.

I don't know anyone who has been to watch live speedway. I don't know anyone who regularly watches speedway on TV. I don't recall ever having had a conversation about speedway in my life which didn't end with everybody shrugging.

However, by a series of strange events I found myself this week in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, wandering around a speedway track. Hoddesdon, a town of just over 20,000, is home to British Premier League team Rye House Rockets. Their home is Rye House Stadium, situated between a Kart track and a large pub.


As it was a weekday there was no racing, but as I sat in the seats overlooking the track I got a feel for the place. 

The barriers didn't inspire much confidence
The field of dreams

Are you sitting comfortably?

Though I may not have fallen in love with Rye House, at least it prompted me to do some research. And it turns out speedway is quietly becoming one of Europe's growth sports. 

Britain has three national speedway leagues, the biggest of which is the Elite League. Average attendances number in the hundreds rather than the thousands, but the Elite League benefits from money invested by Sky for broadcast rights. Further down the tree, though, and it seems speedway clubs in Britain generally live a hand-to-mouth existence, kept afloat by a hardcore of die-hard fans.

But, perhaps surprisingly, the country where speedway is seriously thriving is Poland. In 2009 the average attendance in Poland's Ekstraliga was more than 10,000, the highest for any sport in the country, outstripping even football. And Poland's love affair with speedway goes back to the socialist period. In 1973, 1976 and 1979 the World Speedway Finals held in Chorzow attracted crowds of up to 100,000.

There are well-established speedway leagues in Scandinavia, and relatively young ones in Italy, Central Europe, Russia and Ukraine - the latter of which founded only last year. The Russian Championship has a team from Vladivostok, meaning league participation in speedway stretches from Europe's westernmost extremity to its easternmost. And with plenty of riders hailing from Australia and New Zealand, the sport can be considered truly global.

So while it may not be my thing, or yours for that matter, it works for plenty of others. Those Sky adverts don't seem so strange any more.

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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James