Shift Sandown, leave the rest

Supercars' calendar shake-up brings positives and negatives

Supercars finally revealed its 2019 calendar on Thursday. The biggest surprise was a decision to move the Sandown 500 from its traditional September date to November.

When you have recovered from the shock, swapping the Sandown 500 and Auckland Super Sprint makes a lot of sense. As it is, Sandown is in the shadow of Bathurst, held at a time when Melbourne is still somewhat cold, and when everyone is focused on the AFL and NRL finals. Moving to November solves all of those problems. It's late spring, the cricket and A League are yet to start, and it makes Sandown the Enduro Cup decider and the penultimate round of the championship. That makes Sandown more exciting, more important. Maybe we can now ditch the Retro Round concept that looks to have gone stale.

Plus, with football finals in full swing in Australia, September is the perfect time for Supercars to head for New Zealand. There will there be less competition for live spectators. Odds are at least one AFL final will be played Melbourne, taking potential spectators away from Sandown. That problem doesn't exist at Pukekohe. TV would benefit too. The two hour time difference between New Zealand and eastern Australia means less chance of a scheduling clash. Live Supercars coverage would be all over by early afternoon.

Another advantage to the swap is that it improves the flow of the championship at the back end of the season. Until now, Pukekohe sat forgotten in the gap between Gold Coast and Newcastle. The sprint rounds have never attracted the same audiences as the street and endurance rounds. This was almost as true under the old all-free to air TV deal as it is under Foxtel. Putting a run of the mill sprint round between the final and the Gold Coast, simultaneously a street and endurance race, takes the wind out of the championship sails. And it happens at a time when Supercars was at peak interest. Pukekohe in November is wasted potential.

There was also a more practical reason for the change. With Boeing 747s slowly being phased out, it is becoming too difficult to air freight 26 Supercars and everything that goes with them. Cars and equipment will now need to be shipped to New Zealand and that takes a lot longer. The new calender leaves three weeks to get from Adelaide to Auckland and just under a month to get back for Bathurst. This year, there are only two weeks either side of Pukekohe.

But tradition, you cry. Sure, but it was traditional to sacrifice goats and we don't do that anymore. If we always stuck steadfastly to tradition, we would never make any progress. It's all well and good having traditions, but we should never persist with something that does not work as well as a new idea. If Supercars always took the traditional route, there would be no Adelaide 500. The opening round would still be at the substandard Calder Park.

Another announcement to come out of the 2019 calendar reveal was the hiatus of the Sydney night race. The night race will instead happen at Barbagallo. The hiatus itself is not that newsworthy. What is, is the reason for it. The Sydney Supernight (Supercars needs to stop overusing the word Super) will return in January 2020 as the season opener. This will allow more rounds to be completed before the two major football codes start their seasons. There will then be a long winter break before coming back with a couple of sprint rounds in the lead up to Bathurst.

“We’re looking to bring the start of the 2020 season forward,” confirmed Supercars CEO Sean Seamer.

“We want to be able to get our races into the best possible weather windows as possible, so we’ll be looking to start 2020 a little bit earlier.

“For us it’s about evolution not revolution. You’ve got the be very careful when you’re moving events around. Over time, if we can evolve to getting events to the right time for fans to come and watch, at the track or at home, we’ll look to make those changes.

“Initially in 2020 what we’re looking at is more likely to have a break over winter, rather than a shift to a summer series. If we’re able to achieve that, and it works for our fans and our viewers and our teams, then we can look to the transition to a summer season from there”.

Supercars CEO Sean Seamer wants a gradual shift to a summer series

Supercars CEO Sean Seamer wants a gradual shift to a summer series

Would an outright summer championship really be a good idea though? The weather may not allow it. Winton at the end of May can be bitterly cold for spectators, but Townsville or Ipswich in summer would be torture for the drivers. Genuine night races would have to start much later than in winter. This is especially true for the states that observe daylight savings time. he Christmas/New Year period and Australian Open would prevent them from running for at least three weekends. Worst of all, a summer series would see Darwin and Townsville run during cyclone season. Any workaround would put those two rounds almost into winter. Neither of them would make for a particularly exciting final round, so you would then have to place Newcastle after them. The net result would be an October to June championship that defeats the purpose of moving to summer.

A longer season, split into two with a winter break is a better compromise. Southern races could be held in February to April and November to December, Queensland and Northern Territory rounds in May and early June, and New Zealand in September. The AFL season runs from the end of March to the end of August, with finals in September. The NRL is more or less the same. Supercars would do well to avoid September, but there is not much to be gained from attempting to get away from the regular home and away season.

While it is true that there would be less competition for viewers from other sports, the sports already contested over summer are competing for fewer viewers. Summer brings six to eight weeks of school holidays and people tend to spend more time doing things other than watching TV. Cricket Australia’s Twenty20 Big Bash League and A League football just don't receive the same attention as the AFL and NRL. The BBL has matches almost every night from December to February. They rely on being the only thing worth watching on a weeknight during the summer non-ratings period. BBL is making up for a lack of viewers with a concentrated season played on prime time weeknight TV. The every other night schedule would be logistically impossible for Supercars to replicate. Supercars teams need a two week turnaround between events and every team needs to be at every race. Also cricket is universally a summer sport. Motorsport tends to follow the calendar year or run when the weather is less severe. In Australia, that's winter.

The Big Bash League has been successful playing a summer sport in summer

The Big Bash League has been successful playing a summer sport in summer

The mere suggestion of a summer series demonstrates that Supercars’ management lack ambition. Former CEO Tony Cochrane wanted Supercars to overtake the NRL to become Australia’s second most popular sport. If Cochrane was still in charge, Supercars would be competing head-on with the two major football codes. Running away from the AFL and NRL to summer is waving a white flag. Summer is where sports go in Australia when winter is too difficult. Australia must be one of a very small number countries to run its national soccer league in summer.

The Sandown switch to November and 2020’s elongated season with a winter break are positive moves, but Supercars should stay away from an outright summer series.

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