Features 24 Jun 2014

Industry Insight: ARTRP's Terry O'Neill

Swann Series promoter talks 2014 and future direction.

CycleOnline.com.au caught up with Australian Road and Track Rider Promotions (ARTRP) – promoter of the Swann Insurance Australasian Superbike Championship (ASC) – general manager Terry O’Neill to review the start of what is a landmark season for the championship and a look at the future direction.

Image: Russell Colvin.

Image: Russell Colvin.

Terry, two rounds in the books now and by all accounts, two very well run rounds with good competitor numbers and most importantly, good racing, across the board. How do you feel the series has gone so far?

The first two rounds have gone very well. The rider numbers have been good, they’ve been up approximately 20 riders over the last year, which is a welcome inclusion. There’s been some great racing this year, in all classes. I guess the strength of the series is that it does have such strong classes across the board. The new FX Ninja Cup has proved to be just the most amazing class of this year, I reckon. That’s just going to go from strength to strength in the future.

The introduction of Mallala to the calendar was a popular choice and this seemed like it was reflected in the feedback and responses from those that took part, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. The last time I was there was in 2008, and that was a record crowd for the Australian Superbike Championship that I’d run over the five years, and each year it’d built up. 2008 was the record crowd. We’ve gone back there in 2014 and basically had that same crowd all over again. It was a fantastic event. Anyone who was there or was looking at the pictures at Facebook or on the website could see that level of attendance. The strength of the event, apart from having good crowds, has been the racing. The feedback we’ve been getting has been fantastic, we couldn’t be more pleased.

Queensland Raceway is the third round, and only a few days away now. The track hosted the first round of the ASBK (Australian Superbike Championship), do you feel that has any impact in terms of crowd or competitor numbers or is the ASC not affected in that sense?

We pretty much do our own thing in that regard. We stopped looking at what was happening with the ASBK some time ago. It was disappointing to watch what was happening and so it was better just to focus on what we were doing and building the best series we can for all of our stakeholders, be they competitors, sponsors, factory teams, basically, everyone, from A graders to D graders. And that’s what we have to focus on. What MA (Motorcycling Australia) does is really up to them.

In terms of the actual racing it promises some more close competition. Do you feel that it will suit the bikes with the power advantage a little more?

One of the things is that Queensland Raceway always produces some of the best racing of the year. For cars, it mightn’t be that exciting, but for motorcycles, it always produces nail-biters. The track is a great leveller. One would expect that the BMWs and Kawasakis will do well, but I wouldn’t in any means write off the Yamahas or the Hondas, and I wouldn’t write off the Trinder team with the Aprilia, as that’s proven to be a podium finisher in the past. I think we’re going to see another event like the first two, where it’s close and frantic racing. A month ago I would have thought I could have picked the winner, but now, having seen the recent test times, I think it is wide open.

What has the feedback been like from riders and teams this year, especially from those new competitors that have migrated in a sense from the ASBK?

Nothing much has really changed. I don’t think any promoter will tell you any different, it doesn’t matter what event you put on you always get feedback on the things people feel you can do to improve. Where possible, if these suggestions fit in with the direction we’re heading, we always adopt. And that’s one of the things we’ve shown over time, that we do adopt good ideas and things we can work with. But everyone has their own ideas about how it should be run. Look, we run our series the way we believe it suits the style of the series. Some ASBK factory riders think we should make it into the ASBK. The feedback I’m getting is that they’re pretty much in the minority. Most people seem to like the way we run our events, and one of the reasons that the ASBK hit trouble, apart from the way it was run, is that the style of event has seen its best days. People want and expect different things now than they did 10 years ago, and the ASBK stood still, where we moved on.

Image: Keith Muir.

Image: Keith Muir.

Social media plays a huge part in the series today, both its promotion to racing fans and also in terms of communication and discussion amongst competitors. You’re actively involved – how important do you feel this presence is?

Social media’s just moved on from where it was. If you go back 12, 13 or 14 years ago, there was no Facebook. Social media was forums on websites, and we had the very first forum on a website where you could comment and there was interaction. In actual fact we had that social media element before it was ever there. The reality is it has moved on, and forums are now things of the past. It’s now all Facebook or Instagram. We haven’t quite moved on to Twitter and that’s only because there’s only so many hours in a day and so many fingers I have to keep typing and keep talking to people. Its been a good thing. And its a good thing for everyone. Nothing has changed as such but maybe we have a higher profile now that everyone can see what everyone is doing on Facebook. And I think that’s a good thing for the sport in general.

You have a good social media following and level of engagement, and a refined live streaming package on race weekends, essentially providing a complete live feed to the fan at home. Do you feel that this ultimately impacts on fans who are just as happy to sit at home and watch as opposed to coming to a track?

Absolutely. I’ve been saying this for years. I’ve been having these discussions with anyone who wanted to listen – the industry, or MA, or anyone. The world has moved on. It seems like a lot of people are focusing on what happened in the past, rather than what’s happening now and in the future. Many years ago, when I ran the ASC, I used to try to explain that this sport was changing, and the future would be what you could see via the internet, and that the spectators of tomorrow would be behind a screen somewhere, and not necessarily at a racetrack. It was only a matter of time before the live streaming actually came of age. It’s not 100 percent there yet, but we’re not far off it. Do I expect it to have a massive impact on spectator numbers? No, because spectator numbers aren’t that great. But if you look at the numbers who are watching it on social media and streaming, it’s actually stronger than it was when there was actual crowds through the gates. Everyone seems to have memories that are looked at through rose-coloured glasses. I’ve been in this sport for 18 years and I’ve known all of the track owners and people who run race events for 25 years, plus. I know the actual numbers that used to come through the gates. This year through the gates, combined with live streaming and television, the actual numbers of people who are watching the racing and actually seeing the bikes go round and seeing the sponsors names is greater than its ever been. But this sport and this industry tends to often look at things as the glass half empty, rather than half full. We’ll just keep building. We cover all aspects of this, from the spectator on the day to the live streaming which is accessible around the world. Then we have pay TV on Fox, and the delayed telecast, and then we have the national free-to-air programming. There’s not much more we can do there to get exposure, not only just for the series, and our competitors and sponsors, but for the sport in general. The sport needs exposure to keep its presence up, and the reality is we have more exposure for our series than the whole of the rest of domestic motorcycle racing in Australia combined.

One last question and a hot topic of late is the status of the MA-sanctioned series. You have mentioned informally on Facebook that contact has again been made from MA, and that you are open to discussion in regards to future plans. Is there any official word you can provide on this subject.

I’ve already been approached by MA. Peter Doyle has spoken to me and he also came to Mallala. We speak on a pretty regular basis. Braxton Laine called me several weeks ago, and both of them asked me the same question: are we prepared to sit down and talk to them? And the answer on both occasions has been yes. But the response I gave both of them also was that time is of the essence. We’re not going to go through the situation that’s happened in the past, where everything is left until October, or November, and then there’s a knock on the door and we have a meeting before going around around in circles before something’s agreed to and then they walk away, after that agreement. If MA are serious about talking to us, then they need to do something pretty quickly. It’s one thing to call up and say yes, we’re coming to see you, but until they actually ring up and make the appointment, which I’m actually still waiting for, then the reality is that all we can do is continue on with what we’re doing. We’ve said yes. The ball is in their court. If they want to go down that path, of exploring that option, then they need to do something about it, and soon. One other thing worth mentioning is that when Braxton Laine called me, and I asked what their intentions were, he did say to me categorically that their constitution says they are not promoters and they will not be the promoter of the Australian Superbike Championship in 2015. And that’s what he said, categorically, 100 percent, that the constitution forbids it. If they’re going off to talk to the clubs, then they will have to be promoter.