Sheffield Tigers and speedway in strong position to endure coronavirus lockdown

NO sport is immune to a coronavirus-enforced shutdown but if there is one that can look ahead positively to emerging from this crisis with its structures intact, then speedway might just be that sport.

Tigers’ roar: Sheffield Tigers, including Nicki Pedersen, front, ahead of the now-suspended 2020 Premiership season.

Motorcycling on a dirt track might not on the face of it appear to be free of concern in these unprecedented times, but the facts are encouraging.

For starters, riders – no matter how lofty their status – are self-employed and paid only on appearances.

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The majority of clubs in the top two divisions, with the exception of Kings Lynn, Redcar, Somerset and Scunthorpe, do not own their own stadiums, meaning their only overheads are rent for a daytime or evening meeting. They might not be bringing in gate receipts or programme sales, but nor are they paying massive overheads for venues that sit idol.

On top of all this, the sport at the very top level – the seven-team Premiership – had just signed up to a new five-year deal with Eurosport, with the Discovery Channel subsidiary beating competition from previous broadcaster BT Sport for exclusive rights.

One of those seven teams in the Premiership is Yorkshire’s own Sheffield Tigers, for whom excitement was rife for the 2020 campaign.

Indeed, if coronavirus has found any chink in the defences of speedway, it is in the deflating of the bubble of optimism that surrounded the Owlerton Stadium-based operation.

This was going to be their first season in the top flight of the sport for more than two decades.

Sheffield did not win the Championship last year, but had a good enough season to convince themselves and the British Speedway authorities that they were worthy of a place back at the top table after so long on the sidelines.

The strength of their pull was clear when in the winter close-season the Tigers announced the signing of Nicki Pedersen of Denmark, the world champion in 2003, 2004 and 2008.

It was a massive coup that sent shockwaves through the sport.

And the loyal Tigers faithful responded in kind to their team’s renewed ambition.

Season-ticket sales for this year had reached record numbers, far more than the fewer-than-1,000 crowds they were attracting in the Championship last year when a switch from their traditional Thursday evening meetings to Sunday afternoon had had a negative impact on attendances.

Crowds in excess of 2,000 were anticipated for fixtures in the Premiership, which was due to get underway at the end of March and run until October.

Like all sports, speedway has been halted by the coronavirus pandemic. Initially the sport was halted until April 15 but British Speedway said last week that they would not review the situation again until June 15.

A season usually consists of four games against the six teams in the Premiership, and even if that is cut in half, it could still be completed fairly and equally.

There are individual concerns. Yesterday, for instance, the Tigers confirmed that Pedersen had tested positive for coronavirus after suffering mild symptoms.

The 42-year-old said: “It mostly feels like a regular flu, and I haven’t had any breathing problems.

“I started to cough, and then I got a headache while getting very tired and having pain in my body. After that, I had a day with diarrhoea and a few days with mild fever. Now I feel better and I think I’m over the worst.”

He, like all of his Sheffield Tigers team-mates, are training and keeping fit in isolation.

Sport is on hold at present, unsure what will come next. For some like football, rugby league, rugby union and cricket there is huge uncertainty about the financial and residual impact the continued hiatus will bring.

Speedway, for now, is an exception to the norm.

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