Insight Richard Craill January 28, 2024 (Comments off) (1483)

Changing a little league outlook with big sport vibes

AS LACHIE MCHUGH, Jamie Veal and Jock Goodyear battled for Saturday night’s 61st annual Australian Sprintcar Championship, the thought came to mind that motorsport really doesn’t get much better.

Three young, impressively talented stars of the Sprint Car scene quite literally manhandling their nine hundred horsepower weapons as they bucked and bounced like boxing Kangaroos across a spicy Premier Speedway surface, energized by a rain shower as if the water charged it with electrical energy.

With the correct context around it, only a rough understanding of the storylines and the excellent narrative provided by misters Neylon and Naulty, it was easy to tell that this wasn’t just a car race on a country racetrack roughly a third of the way between Melbourne and Adelaide.

This was a high stake, elite sporting event with consequences with stakes every bit as high (or in some cases, higher – it’s hard to barrel roll a tennis court) as the test match, the tennis or any of the other summer sporting events unfolding now.

It was superb sporting theatre.

Sprintcar racing has its issues but this summer, gradually, the sport appears to be moving in the right direction.

The efforts – that we’ve reported on here before – to open the eyeballs of the public to what should be a premier national summer sport continue to build momentum and a lot of this is down to the impressive level it has been embraced by the people at Channel 7.

The unfortunate few that complain on the speedway-related socials about missing hot laps or qualifying or some of the supports clearly don’t have a clue what this is doing for the sport, because really, it’s hugely impressive.

Seven is showcasing all the benefits Sprint Car racing has over not just other forms of motorsport, but other sports in general.

It’s (generally) short, sharp and punchy. It produces moments that are perfectly clippable for Socials in the same way a Mitch Starc wicket or a diving Alex Carey catch is. It’s relatively easy to cover and like a Big Bash game that culminates in a final-over showdown, it builds a narrative over the night to a usually excellent climax.

On Friday, 7plus’ coverage of the Warrnambool event was the most watched on the platform all day and Saturday’s was too.

This is a big deal because speedway’s biggest issue or concern isn’t trying to attract a casual audience, it’s trying to attract a casual motorsport audience.

I am friends with many quite serious racing fans who watch most Grands Prix and F2 races and enjoy Supercars and Carrera Cup, yet don’t watch the Sprintcars each summer.

Yet they’re the easy fodder, the low hanging fruit because once they’ve seen a Sprint Car in action they will be hooked for life. And that isn’t an opinion, either, it’s fact.  

I have no issue with clay-per-view, but locking your product behind (an expensive) paywall is not going to attract the motorsport audience who won’t understand why they should pay $30 a night for a pay-per-view product when they can get Kayo for less and have it for a whole month. Again, not an opinion.

Let’s say 20 percent of those people tune into Speedway regularly.

Double that via a strong free to air deal – hell, even Kayo would work – and suddenly you have a sport producing the kind of TV numbers that begins to attract serious attention from broadcasters.

And when broadcasters pay attention, they start getting out their cheque book.

I’ve been accused of being anti-Soccer in these pages before (probably justified), but it’s also a meaningful comparison in the Australian summer sport market.

The A-League’s recent struggles have been well documented, yet it remains considered as one of Australia’s major sporting leagues alongside the AFL, NRL, Rugby Union, Cricket and yes, Supercars.

Part of that is down to its history but also, it’s because they are a genuine player – they’ve got a $200m TV deal with Paramount which puts them in the big leagues despite being a sport doing a good impression of one that most certainly isn’t.

This year the competition has an average attendance of just over 8,000 people per game and on 2023 numbers, Supercars destroys it in the TV ratings department.

As the focus on the Big Bash League’s crowds this summer indicated, attendance is important and here’s another area where Speedway is remarkably strong relative to other sports.

Sources close to TRT suggest that somewhere between 45,000 to 50,000 attended the three nights of The Classic and the two nights of the Aussie Titles at Warrnambool across the last week.

Bang on the 47,000 that attended the A-League’s ‘Unite’ round held in Sydney last month and for those of you who think I’ve got it in for the World Game, it’s not far off the equally underwhelming 57,000 West Aussies that attended the Perth Test at Optus Stadium in December, either.

If Sprintcar racing had a more mainstream following, they’d be the kind of numbers that would get Perth Mayor Basil Zemplis on the defensive. Dirt track racing getting almost as many people as the Perth Test? Pfft.

Most racetrack promoters don’t release their attendance so no one knows the real gate takings they get – but they should.

Sports are judged positively or negatively on the paying punters that turn up and Speedway should be trumpeting the fact that it genuinely rivals the NBL and Soccer for bums-on-seats each summer.

Which, when you think about it, is remarkable. Here are professional sports played out in stunning city arenas with more comforts than my lounge room – and yet here’s a competition where similar numbers rock up to sit on a grass bank usually many miles from civilization (Don’t @ me, Murray Bridge, you know I love you) only to be pelted by mud.

I suppose what I’m saying is that Sprintcar racing should be able to tap into that big-league sports market vibe because it has many of the same attributes – timeslot, prime time competition, summer schedule, built-in and substantial audiences, and meaningful competition – just right now very little of the return.

Sprint Car racing in general has always felt like having big sport vibes but a little league outlook. Fortunately, It’s a mentality that could be gradually changing.

Getting on the screens of Seven will help do just that as are the efforts of our mate Tim Hodges and his excellent team, the fact that Supercars star Cam Waters is now a genuine contender, Dean Neal’s efforts to deliver free-to-air TV for a sport usually hidden behind a paywall, the folks at Sprint Car Hub doing great stuff to broaden the audience on digital media and so on.

All incredibly positive.

I genuinely believe this niche’ within our great sport could and should be bigger than it is and now I shall tell you why.

T20 cricket was already a great product here before Cricket Australia invested hard and launched the Big Bash, which took it stratospheric.

Aussie Touring Car Racing was already a great product here before Tony Cochrane came on the scene and gave it the kick in the arse it needed.

Whether the building blocks for Speedway to do the same are slowly being built, or if someone comes in and tears it all down before building it back up, Cocho style, we will have to wait and see.

But the potential is there and at least to my eyes it is clearer to see than ever because ultimately, the product is bloody good and a good product is everything. A good product you can sell.  

Saturday night’s national title feature – gripping, dramatic, utterly compelling, and visually thrilling as it was – was sporting theatre every bit as high quality and dramatic as anything else unfolding within the sporting landscape this summer.   

We must make it so that more people see that too.

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