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OPINION: Never waste a good crisis

Brett Murray

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Friday 30th October, 2020 - 6:00pm

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The writing has been on the wall for Adelaide

The Winston Churchill quote “never waste a good crisis” has been churned out a lot during the COVID-19 period, but South Australian Premier Steven Marshall put it into practice when he smashed the final nail into the coffin of the Adelaide 500 yesterday.

The truth is that the Adelaide event was given a lethal injection a long time before COVID-19 came along and Marshall conveniently used the pandemic as a baton of fear to turn off the life support.

It was more than obvious to anyone with experience that the event was set to be read its last rights after its current contract with Supercars expired in 2021 – our old mate COVID-19 just provided a timely excuse to fast track the process.

This year’s event was a mere shell of its former glory, a soulless event just ticking a box on a slash and burn journey to the inevitable.

When an organiser of an event is keen to throw their attendance numbers at you despite a major decrease you know there is something not quite right.

In 2018 the event was a sellout on the Sunday with the help of Robbie Williams as the headline act and last year the Red Hot Chilli Peppers stole the show.

This year the Hilltop Hoods, Illy and G Flip headed the Sunday night line-up and with all due respect to their talent, their appearance fees were probably the only thing larger than the event’s depleted marketing budget.

In recent years the Adelaide 500 was jammed into the city’s event calendar alongside the Fringe Festival in a period that became known as “Mad March”.

The only thing “mad” about this was the decision itself which displayed a total lack of respect for the size and stature of the 500.

If you want some evidence of just how big the Adelaide 500 had become then consider this:

This year’s 22nd event attracted 206,350 fans – the lowest since 171,200 attended the 2002 event, which was a three and not four-day affair.

A major red flag for the event was waved when organisers keenly provided these figures before the event was even over on the Sunday and then openly classified them as “disappointing” as if the statement had been pre-prepared.

The Long Beach Grand Prix for IndyCars in Southern California, one of the most prestigious and longest running street events in the world, attracted fewer people to its 2019 event than Adelaide (it’s 2020 event in April was cancelled legitimately because of COVID-19).

Despite the political and PR focus on “long range” attendees and interstate guests, the major focus for any promoter of such an event is the “drive” market or people living within a 200km-250km radius.

For the Adelaide event that population number is approximately 1.3 million, for the Long Beach race it is conservatively around 6 million.

That’s before you take into account that the United States has a similar geographical size to Australia and has a population of 328 million of which 39.5 million live in California alone. Australia as a total of 25.5 million while South Australia has 1.76 million.

Many of those South Australians benefited directly or indirectly from the event, especially the accommodation houses which gouged us every year – hey, them rules of supply and demand!

We haven’t scratched the surface when it comes to commercial ramifications for all the contractors and suppliers to the Adelaide event, many of whom have already taken a serious battering this year.

The success of major events like the Adelaide 500 is achieved through people with a passion to build something great and a vision and creativity to improve on it, show after show.

Over the years Adelaide had those core people like South Australian Motor Sports Board chairman Roger Cook who was instrumental in working with Tony Cochrane to create the first event in 1999.

Cook was followed by Andy Ford and there were a list of committed CEOs like Andrew Daniels, Mark Warren and Nathan Cayzer, founding board member Chris Smerdon, Event Manager Brian Gleeson, Motorsport Manager Jeff Mattner, sales leader and racer Craig Dontas and Media Managers Mike Drewer and Penny Gordon.

Core 24/7 people who lived and breathed the event and took pride in its success and who had seriously earned a cold beer come the Sunday night.

All of those people had some motorsport and event experience, but the only two left standing before yesterday’s tsunami were Gleeson and Mattner, and I am sure both of them would privately admit to having to work with limited remnants of something once great in the last couple of years.

The SA Motor Sport Board was first established as part of the infrastructure put in place to bring the Australian Grand Prix to life in Adelaide in 1985.

For the record, Supercars signed a seven-year extension to their Adelaide 500 contract in 2014 and the South Australian Tourism Commission took the place of the motorsport board in 2015.

Many declared then that this new structure was the first step towards yesterday’s inevitable execution and it would be hard to disagree with them.

There is little doubt that the demolition of the Adelaide 500 is a serious kick in the guts not only for Supercars, but for Australian motorsport.

Supercars has overcome plenty of adversity this year including the collapse of major sponsor Virgin, the disintegration of Holden as a manufacturer, and the minefield of COVID-19.

Despite that, the organisation managed to get a championship in the books thanks mainly to the incredible commitment of the individual teams, especially the Victorian-based operations.

Most recently they announced a new TV deal with Fox and Channel 7 and that provided a shot of confidence into the series, to a point where it looks as though there will not be enough racing entitlement contracts for those that want to compete in 2020 – giving them more value. There is that supply and demand thing again!

They also announced a new naming rights partner in Repco for both the series and the Bathurst 1000.

Unfortunately, yesterday’s announcement has left more questions than answers when it comes to the governing organisation.

With a rushed three-sentence response to yesterday’s announcement, it would also seem that Supercars were blindsided by the axing.

Up until yesterday, it was believed that an Adelaide event was pencilled in as the season closer in 2021, providing plenty of breathing space to see how COVID played out and the opportunity to give the Adelaide event an enormous opportunity for a fresh start.

There was also the fact that Supercars still had a year to run on their event contract and that would have given them every confidence to be able to talk up the Adelaide event in their TV negotiations and new series deal with Repco.

Surely those two situations are just the tip of the iceberg in regards to commercial ramifications of the SA Government’s decision.

Being whacked in the back of the head like they have been must also add question marks to Supercars’ direct working relationship with the South Australian Government.

There were already question marks in this area given Supercars’ willingness to take a backseat to the country’s other major sports during the COVID-19 period when major opportunities were there to capitalise on.

Now, motorsport purists will say that the government-backed street events were unsustainable and that more money should be spent on permanent circuits which can be utilised all year round.

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but I would much rather see motorsport as the main attraction at an EVENT than anything else.

Sure we also now live in a different world where an open mindset has to be taken to major events and how we go about conducting them.

Street course events are an expensive beast and money will be tight for governments moving forward, but the social and economic ripple effect of just shutting them down overnight has to be a major consideration.

The unknown is the biggest byproduct of COVID-19 and maybe there does have to be a total rethink of temporary street course races, but to use the pandemic as an excuse to bring the Adelaide event to an end like it was yesterday is pathetic.

I might also add the TV and digital eyeballs for the Adelaide event had increased year on year in recent times, adding to the overall economic impact for the state.

This came as a result of interest in the sport itself and the investment of direct stakeholders and was achieved despite the promoters simultaneously tightening the grip on the event’s throat.

They won’t admit it, but In many ways, the people of South Australia still have a chip on their shoulder about losing the Australian Grand Prix to Victoria.

The reality is that few people had even heard of Adelaide before the arrival of the Australian Grand Prix in 1985 which put it on the world stage and it hurt when the Victorian government stole it off them in 1996.

It took three years for Adelaide to find its feet again and prove an enormous point with the staging of the first Adelaide 500, something which many of the critics said could not be achieved.

This time no one has robbed them, they have kicked an own-goal and the bitterness of South Australians who were rightly so proud of this event for so long can only be directed at the bureaucrats running the joint.

Probably the only good thing about yesterday’s pitiful COVID-19 excuse to end the event was that we don’t have to endure a painful final farewell that began with the first timely cut of 1000 back in 2015 and continued with a Schick multi-blade after the 2018 event.

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