North West 200 remains in difficulty despite 195,000 crowd in 2022| Robin Miller | TT and Roads
While the Isle of Man government is congratulating itself, and being congratulated by its followers, on what appears to have been a highly-successful digitally-powered marketing campaign for this year’s TT, the jury is still out on this weekend’s Manx Grand Prix - star-studded as it is.
The difficulty in staging such events is starkly illustrated by North West 200 boss Mervyn Whyte’s appeal to local authorities for their backing to ensure that next year’s North West 200 takes place. And for an event which earlier this year, according to independent research, attracted a three-day audience of 195,000.
Talking to bikesportnews.com and commenting on Phillip McCallen’s more upbeat view following his repeated discussions with Tourism NI regarding the possible return of the Ulster Grand Prix which they weren’t prepared to back this year, the experienced NW chief said: “I’ve tried many things over the 15 to 20 years and while not in the slightest criticising Phillip’s efforts these things are easily said.
“We have tried with the tourist board as recently as last year and were unsuccessful. One of the problems is that we don’t have a government in Northern Ireland so we’re sitting in limbo. The tourist board can only pay out a certain amount - £150,000 per event - and what is required for the Ulster is way above that.”
Whyte faces a real challenge as a many senior staff, including the course manager John Adams, have retired.
“That is the crux of it. We have had an ageing profile in the Coleraine and District Motor Club over the last few years. Fifteen to 20 years ago we were attracting young volunteers, it doesn’t seem to happen these days. And Covid didn’t help either with a lot of people out of action. Many came back this year and we had one of the best events ever. But we have lost some of our key players and it should be remembered that we have 800 people working with us during the week.
“What we’re looking to do with our local council, the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, which covers a massive area on the north coast, is for them to come on board as a partner. We need an event manager who could succeed me and the council could be involved in building the course and perhaps providing the facilities. I presented to the council last week and one of their directors will present a package to their leisure and development committee in September. Then back to the main council
where I hope it will be rubber stamped.
“I have told them this is not a threat by any means but they’ve got to realise the importance of this to the area and to Northern Ireland. Our figures for this years event were massive. We’re talking about 110,000 for Saturday race day with a satisfaction survey of 98 per cent. What we’re saying to them is that we want you to come on board and form a partnership. And if we don’t the bottom line is a question mark against the 2023 event. As to the Tourist Board we are working closely with them on funding and I would like to think they will come on board and am reasonably hopeful.
“As to the Ulster, yes I would like to see it come back but right now I am concentrating on the North West. And with no government in place it does make it more difficult.”
The mind boggling attendance figure of 195,000 and the Saturday race day figure of 110,000 will no doubt be taken with a huge pinch of salt by many except those who were there. The research was carried out by an independent company Professional Event Solutions and followed a similar piece of research by Sheffield Hallam University in 2017. A significant statistic for the local authorities was that it delivered an economic boost to the area of some £16m with media coverage across both national and international markets valued at £24.4m - the highest rated event of any in NI so far this year.
Gerard McAuley of Professional Events Solutions told us: “Clearly the NW200 did benefit from a post-pandemic feel good factor. People starved of events and specifically motorcycle racing attended in high in numbers and the good weather adding further encouragement. The research also show the capacity the event has in terms of a tourism generator and its ongoing benefit to the Borough and NI.”
It must be remembered that the cost of staging such an event will be well in excess of a million pounds and road racing, unlike Oulton Park or Silverstone, cannot charge fans to come in other than in special areas. So revenue raisers such as programme sales, vendors paying for their sites and sponsorship are critical.
But as the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland well know the fans and their families spend a lot of money particularly in areas which have a great deal to offer other than motorcycle racing. So they are prepared to support these events. But as costs go up the limits which local authorities have imposed are being stretched to breaking point as Mervyn and Phillip McCallen discovered when their attempt to revive the Ulster Grand Prix in joint effort with the North West was thrown out at the last minute.