Strange things happen at night on Twitter. Sadly for the world, that includes executive announcements by the commander-in-chief of the United States. But there are outcomes which are unexpectedly positive, and one such was Gabby Logan’s call for the return of Grandstand.
Logan may have made her suggestion after reading an Observer article on the long-departed Saturday TV staple but put that to one side and there is an interesting proposal worth discussing.
“There’s more to sport than the bulging rights packages for big male ball sports … time for a Grandstand revival?” the BBC sports host wrote on Twitter, adding: “gymnastics, hockey, swimming, diving, am boxing, judo, taekwondo, rowing, equestrian sport … we have a show!”
Back in the day, the odd spot of rowing might have featured on Grandstand, but it would have been part of a package that included the day’s big athletics, cricket and horse racing. In a world where sports rights are a corporate tool for leveraging market share in industries as varied as betting and broadband, we will not be going back to an old Grandstand any time soon. Minority sports need the exposure, but without the big tickets would they have the same attraction?
It all depends on how you do it. The original Grandstand was slow and gentle and this was in tune with the age. Fans of MTV and Margaret Thatcher might care to disagree but it is certainly true that this time suits a more fast-paced delivery. Sky Sports' Soccer Saturday has paid for no rights whatsoever but yet is perhaps the most compelling way to consume the day's football thanks to its combination of great casting (Jeff Stelling, Paul Merson, Chris Kamara), manufactured excitement and quick editing. No match or commentator gets more than a minute talking about the game they are observing. Even those with the attention span of a president are unlikely to get bored.
It would not be beyond the ken of man to apply this principle to six or seven sporting activities. And if the BBC feels a bit icky about adopting Sky-style hyperbole, it needs to just perform a simple mental trick of pretending it is Team GB who are competing and everything should be fine. As for casting, the Beeb is on a roll of late, from developing the motormouth of misery that is football's Chris Sutton to the effervescent, insightful and far from untelegenic pairing of Jason Bell and Osi Umenyiora on its NFL coverage. In the modern broadcast environment just being an ex-pro is not enough, you have to be a TV performer too.
None of the examples above address Logan's point about male sports but from Jacqui Oatley to Helen Skelton, not to mention Logan herself, they have the broadcasters ready to go while Victoria Pendleton, Steph Cook and Beth Tweddle have potential as pundits.
A modern, vibrant, all-action Grandstand as much about the experience of watching the show as the sport might also help the BBC steer clear of the deadening echo of the words “public service remit”. First priced out of the TV rights market, then chastised for not doing enough to cover the sports nobody else wanted to pay for, the Beeb is often between a rock and a hard place. But sometimes the corporation’s response to minority sports is to treat them like an offshoot of Children in Need or, even worse, some kind of national pageant (ie the boat race).
What the last two Olympics have shown, however, is that there is an appetite for watching unfamiliar sports clearly explained and made exciting – whether that is through presentation or production. Barry Hearn, who successfully sexed up darts, can see a similar opportunity now with gymnastics. Sky has the rights to the World Cup of Gymnastics but the BBC should be jumping on that pommel horse, too. The same goes for women’s (and men’s) hockey and, of course, swimming. In professional terms they may be minority sports, but in participation they are growing.
Treating them as mainstream and doing the best to wring all possible excitement from every minute might just have a positive outcome.
Of course the great thing about a studio-centred sports show is there is nothing to stop you talking about the events you do not have the rights to show. But the idea of a 21st-century Grandstand need not be defensive. It can be confident. By embracing sports with a growing fanbase and applying modern broadcast techniques it is possible to create a show that does more than simply tick a box marked “social responsibility”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, Donald.