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Wednesday, February 15, 2012
In the past, King’s Lynn Football Club – like Rangers and Portsmouth – lived beyond its means. Two years ago the town’s former club went out of business following a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill. Speedway promoter Buster Chapman stepped in, creating a new team at The Walks. Annabelle Dickson spoke to the man who has turned West Norfolk sport into a successful family business.
Running a sports club (or two) is not all hobnobbing with sponsors and turning up on match day to bask in reflective glory.
West Norfolk sports supremo Buster Chapman was spending the afternoon on his tractor clearing snow when I caught up with him last week.
From day one of his venture into the West Norfolk sporting business as King’s Lynn Stars Speedway promoter, Buster has not been in it to make a fast buck.
Transforming the Norfolk Arena –where the speedway is held – from a derelict wasteland in receivership into the thriving business it is today has been hard work, and needed plenty of investment.
He dares not calculate how much he has put into the Norfolk Arena – it will be millions – and since he launched King’s Lynn Town Football Club in 2010 he has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into the venture at The Walks.
Buster arrived on the West Norfolk sport scene around 18 years ago when his wife’s family were involved with the Norfolk Arena and he bought the King’s Lynn Stars Speedway promotion.
At the time he had a groundworks and plant hire company based on the outskirts of London.
“We did it purely because it was her grandad’s and we loved the sport. I’ve always been involved in the sport,” he said.
When the Norfolk Arena went into receivership 12 or 13 years ago, Buster decided to take over the derelict stadium and start again.
“It was all derelict... We had to start again. The first thing was to get it up and running, to get it tidy and to get a certificate from the council on it so we could let people in.
“I had already bought the team 17 or 18 years ago and I had to rent the stadium from the previous owners and when the stadium went into receivership, it wasn’t here for a year or two and I bought it back once I bought the stadium.”
In the early years it was far from profitable.
“It was a very poor business to start,” he said. “It took a long while to build up and it took a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money to build it up. It’s not been easy,” he added.
“It wasn’t very good because the facilities were dreadful. The more work we did the more people came.
“The more we put back in the more it turned itself better. At the moment we still keep doing work and making things better all the time.”
When he first started promoting the team was regularly watched by around 800 or 900 people. Now the King’s Lynn Stars draw crowds of around 1,800 to 2,000 people.
“Probably it’s just hard work and continued investment always investing back in. Keep on going and never give in,” he said.
But it is not just about the headline events such as speedway and the Linnets which pay the bills.
“Every event you run here is important because the overheads are on the facilities. There are massive overheads – business rates, water bills. It’s an awful lot of money, the insurance, so you have to have it working as much as possible,” he said.
But is running a sports business like any other?
“With this you never know what you are going to get,” he said. “With a building job or a machine you knew your rate of pay, you knew what you were getting for the job and you got on with it.
“With this you are open to the elements and what people are doing on that particular day.”
“It’s a really worrying business, but it’s a good business – it’s an enjoyable business for me.
“I’m quite lucky and I’m quite fortunate that this is my life.”
It is not just Buster who puts in the elbow grease. The King’s Lynn sporting enterprise is very much a family affair.
“My wife does the paperwork and the PAYE and VAT. My son looks after the sponsorship and the forward paperwork side and I do most of the manual jobs that I enjoying doing. I talk to a lot of sponsors.”
While the Chapmans seem to do everything else, they are not the ones on the bikes or running out on to The Walks on a Saturday afternoon.
How much is a successful sports business down to results?
“You have to have a good team that is affordable,” said Buster. “It’s hard work to work out which team you want and it’s very important to have an exciting and entertaining team.”
And as teams win and the club gets better, the sponsors come.
“The biggest thing in speedway is the sponsorship from local businesses. It’s a massive part of the business,” he said.
“We have had sponsors for quite a few years, not from the start but for quite a few years. It took us four or five years before we could start doing that. It was in such disrepair that it was very hard to get people involved.
“The more we’ve invested, the more work we’ve done, the easier it has become to find sponsors and advertisers.”
The business now employs around 14 people.
“When we started out it was a lot of volunteers and just me and my wife. You get a lot of speedway fans. You do on race days.
“We still get people coming down to help out and do a bit of painting. It’s quite strange really. It’s good.”
So after 18 years with the King’s Lynn Stars, there was a completely new challenge for the Chapmans – and one they took on unexpectedly– when the the Linnets went into administration in 2010.
Football is a sport Buster admits he knows nothing about.
“Football was a totally different thing. Football for me and my wife was something that the town needed.
“It went into receivership and shut halfway through the season and we felt it was the right thing to do for the town.”
“I’m not a football fan so I didn’t know about the business.
“We felt that we could do our best to try and turn it around and make it work.
“We felt that if we did what we had done with the speedway and the stock cars then we felt we could make it work. They are basically the same. That’s why we thought we could give the football a good shot.
“You have to buy your stock and sell your stock, make sure you get all your staff in place and make sure it’s clean and tidy, make sure the toilets are clean and tidy and make sure everything is right for when you are open, make sure your health and safety is right. They are the same things.”
“It’s proved right. We have made it a good facility and we have got good sponsors now. It’s all become very nice and it’s all working well.”
But there is still that competitive edge. “We just need the team to do well now and win the league,” he added.
“It’s not been easy – it has been very difficult – and, again, a massive investment for us as a family.”
“Everyone enjoys it like we do and it proves the crowd is staying good and we are getting quite regular sponsors again because of the facilities we are putting in. No business makes money for at least five years – unless you are doing something totally different. With stuff like this it is hard work. It’s hard to make it work.”
It is the region’s newest sports car - fast, sleek in design and bearing a £25,000 price tag.