WHEN thousands of speedway fans flicked on to Sky Sports Two at 7.30pm on Monday, a small army of workers had already been at the Abbey Stadium for over 24 hours to ensure the Robins’ clash with Belle Vue could be beamed into the nation’s living rooms.
A new five-year television deal, eventually agreed after months of worrying negotiations over the winter, means the market-leading sports broadcasters remain firmly committed to the sport and have enjoyed a superb start to their televised season. The Robins clash with the Aces may have eventually been rained off after heat 12, but the match included a number of eye-catching heats to back up close meetings at Lakeside, King’s Lynn, Poole and Premier League track Peterborough during the early days of 2014.
Televising such close encounters costs Sky tens of thousands a night, with a crew of around 30 people on site to provide speedway fans with a front row seat from the comfort of their sofa.
A fleet of vehicles rolls into town the night before, including graphics and production trucks, a canteen truck and satellite vans, as Sky make the place their own in preparation for the broadcast.
The hard work really begins at 8am on raceday morning, with a scaffolding team erecting the studio, camera towers and other structures required to support the equipment, while work also begins to lay hundreds of metres of cable connecting everything together.
The team of cameramen then arrive to begin their preliminary work, with up to 10 cameras, some static and some roaming, in place to record all the action both on the track and in the pits.
As the meeting nears the faces of the broadcast, including Nigel Pearson, Kelvin Tatum, Chris Louis and Charlie Webster, arrive and settle into their surroundings, with rehearsals quickly followed be a cross-over with Sky Sports News which often includes riders and team managers promoting the match.
From this point onwards, the broadcast is largely in the hands of floor manager Steve Brandon.
“During the meeting it’s all about information really,” he said. “It’s about reacting and setting up interviews with riders after races when we can and translating any information about rider changes and things like that to the presenters.
“I suppose my job in a nutshell is to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right times.”
Brandon’s job also involves coordinating the riders, which sounds like a tough job, but it’s one New Zealander Brandon enjoys.
“The riders are as good as gold and I suppose they have all done enough TV matches to know what’s going on.
“If we try and do anything different or anything changes then we will communicate that to the team managers beforehand. At this meeting I caught both team managers at the end of the track walks and said we were going to start as soon as possible.”
New to Sky Speedway over the last two years is the introduction of graphics pads and multimedia replay tools, often operated by former Ipswich rider Louis, who has been christened the Gary Neville of speedway.
“Every bit of technology which is available to any broadcast on Sky Sports is available to the speedway people and it has the same level of polish and presentation of any other sport Sky do which is good for the sport,” Brandon said.
“We do everything we can to put on a good show and hopefully you can see that watching at home.”
Presenter Nigel Pearson freely admits that he and his presenting colleagues simply drop in and put the gloss on all the hard work of the Sky Sports team over the proceeding hours, but is rightfully proud of what he and the rest of the Sky team are able to produce on a weekly basis.
“I think we’ve had the best start to the Elite League season on Sky that I think we’ve had in the 15 years we’ve been going which is superb.
“We had a major disappointment with the ERC being off at Coventry but since then we’ve had five cracking meetings with close scores and good racing, it’s all been good.
“I like to think I know speedway pretty well because I’m involved in the sport in various ways, but that doesn’t stop you reading up on the match,” he said.
“Although I’m not at the track early I am working and looking at the meeting, and depending on where we are I have to leave at different times.
“On the day of the event you like to read up on each rider, look at their form, and pick up some interesting stats.
“You need to do as much prep as you can to get yourself ready for the meeting and make yourself seem knowledgeable.”
In his role as chairman of National League side Cradley, Pearson knows speedway better than most and was pleased both for himself and for his sport that Sky chose to remain committed to speedway for another five years. He also has no doubts over who deserves the bulk of the credit for keeping the sport on our screens.
“Sky are hugely committed to British Speedway due to the new five-year contract and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at that, and so was Kelvin and other members of the team I’m sure, because we were all under the impression that because the contract had ended it was the end of speedway on Sky,” he said.
“Things have turned around and I don’t think anyone else could have got anywhere close to Sky as Terry Russell (Robins owner also responsible for negotiating the sport’s TV deal).
“It’s saved the Elite League, it’s the life blood of British speedway and we wouldn’t be seeing people like Darcy Ward, Peter Kildemand and Matej Zagar if it wasn’t for the Sky deal.”
As the crowd and then riders filter away from the stadium at the end of a televised meeting the hard work begins again. What goes up, must come down.
If you step into the Abbey Stadium the following afternoon you would never realise the track had been the focus of the cameras the night before but, soon enough, the Sky team are on their way to another venue to do it all again.