Reimagining Grandstand

The BBC does a terrific line in iconic sports music. Sports Report, now a Saturday teatime mainstay on Radio 5 Live, has been introduced by the same cheerful tune since 1948. Football, skiing, cricket and snooker all have instantly recognisable themes when they appear on BBC television.

Grandstand was shown on BBC One and BBC Two – albeit under their contemporary branding – between October 1958 and January 2007. Its most famous theme music didn’t appear in the first 999 episodes, making its debut in October 1975. It was an original composition by Keith Mansfield and kicked off the show until its abrupt cancellation.

Steve Ryder had been preceded as Grandstand’s main presenter by Des Lynam, Frank Bough, David Coleman and, briefly, Sportsview anchor and original BBC Sports Personality of the Year presenter Peter Dimmock. These broadcasting titans became household names as they guided Britain through decades of Saturday (or Sunday) afternoon sport.

Over the course of a few hours the show would beam into the nation’s living rooms a smorgasbord of sport, some live and some not, some popular and plenty rather more niche.

When Grandstand was cancelled two years ahead of schedule, British sport was gutted of the curious, nerdy connective tissue that somehow made football, rugby, golf, motorsport, athletics, horse racing and more feel like part of the same pastime. Without Grandstand, sport lost some of its… sportiness.

Thanks to the proliferation of social media, satellite television and streaming, Grandstand quickly felt like a relic in its absence. The idea of sitting in front of the tube for several hours just taking in whatever events made up that afternoon’s running order seems like a wholly ancient notion even fifteen years later.

Sport itself has undergone significant change in that time. Eighteen months before Grandstand disappeared from our screens, London was successful in its bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012. It did so with an enormous amount of success, with investment in sport paving the way for Great Britain to finish behind only the United States of America and China in the medal table.

The legacy of the London Games shouldn’t have been a nationwide fawning veneration of any and every ‘Olympian’ but a broader and deeper appreciation of the weird and wonderful world of sport. As important as the Olympics are, sport is as much the stuff that happens in between.

Where once the British Touring Car Championship would be broadcast alongside a live rugby union match and Football Focus and the 3.05 from Uttoxeter, diversity of sporting interest now amounts to our obsession with football and a decade-long pat on the back for Olympic medallists.

It’s great that we don’t just focus on the big money sports but this fig leaf barely excuses our withdrawal from mainstream celebration of sporting eclecticism.

There was a lot about Grandstand that wouldn’t work today. It was old-fashioned television that was bound to struggle to adapt to the modern world as the pace of change continued to increase.

Now, at a decade and a half’s remove and with the London Games a distant memory, the appeal of a multisport stage instead of BBC One’s abominable Saturday afternoon programming should be reconsidered. Grandstand has had its breather, its time to regroup. It can be modernised.

There are pitfalls to be avoided, of course. New Grandstand would have to attract an audience without tripping the usual BBC Sport trap of assuming that young people want to see old people talking like young people in front of backdrops of brickwork and graffiti, for starters, and the costly investment in rights would necessitate Grandstand becoming the centre of BBC’s sporting universe. Reinstating that keystone mightn’t be such a bad thing.

There are very many others and it will be obvious to sports fans and former Grandstand viewers that what follows is a futile and theoretical exercise, but since when was hesitation part of the British sporting character? Not for me, Brian!

Bring back Grandstand, theme tune and all. Sport deserves it. The BBC deserves it. Sporting diversity and eccentricity demand it.

Here’s how.

Retool the programme on linear television

First thing’s first: Grandstand gets five hours uninterrupted on BBC One every Saturday afternoon. This is the flagship – a refreshed and modernised signifier of the BBC’s seriousness about the whole endeavour. From 1pm until 6pm, sport gets the spotlight.

If you’re of a mind to point out there’s already too much sport on the BBC, I present the following without comment. Money For Nothing. Garden Rescue. Superman & Lois. Escape To The Country. And when it’s not that, it’s live sport anyway.

That’s not to say that Grandstand can simply be ported back from whence it came. It needs new content and a new outlook, but its hallowed book-ends still have a place. Football Focus and Final Score are shortened, reinvigorated and reincorporated as part of the new Saturday sports bazaar.

There have been innovations in sport broadcasting since Grandstand’s demise. BT Sport has enjoyed success with its teatime studio debates, zooming in on football talking points once the dust has settled on the bustle of the day’s action. From 5.30pm until the end of Grandstand, what could be finer?

In between, a celebration of sport for the sake of sport. Every Saturday brings one headline interview with an athlete, the programme’s main attraction that week. Using the BBC’s access and focusing it on one superstar, compelling and newsworthy television will surely follow.

But the rump of the show is Grandstand being Grandstand. Some of it’s live, some is highlights, some is features, but all of it aims to be an educational and entertaining exploration of British sport. If it’s wider and weirder than before, all the better.

Build a VOD home

History shows us that Grandstand can’t survive as a straightforward television show in the 21st Century, no matter how wonderfully and oppressively long it might be.

The key modernising trick isn’t in the content itself but in the viewer behaviours it enables and encourages. The segments within the new Grandstand (with the exception of live sports coverage) are made available and easy to find, bookmark and watch at leisure. By building a fixed Grandstand section within iPlayer, the BBC can position it as the corporation’s sporting masterbrand.

The idea that young people will only watch content that’s six seconds long is a total fallacy that exposes the failings of the content, not the viewer. Get the content right and a Grandstand destination on iPlayer, with the right functionality baked in, can become a go-to source of on-demand features and highlights to be consumed as and when lifestyles dictate.

Be world class at social media

That said, being brilliant at bite-sized social content is not optional in 2022. The varied little slices of life that make the new Grandstand an emphatic endorsement of British sport must be worth watching in the first place, of course, but a clever – and, crucially, organised – social media strategy can help make them shareable and saveable.

Creating a joined-up social media presence from scratch in 2022 is an expensive business. As we’re serious about sport, that investment is not a problem. With big brains and deep pockets, making cut-down clips and social media advertising a key part of the Grandstand structure is eminently achievable.

You’re the BBC – act like it

Integrating the new Grandstand into the BBC isn’t just a case of whacking Football Focus and Final Score back where they belong. There’s also a corporation’s worth of content to consider.

How might Grandstand and Sports Personality of the Year come together, for example? How could Grandstand breathe life into sports bulletins throughout the week and BBC Breakfast at the weekend? If this feels like a pitch for Mike Bushell to step into the boots and spikes and trainers vacated by Ryder and Lynam, know that any such suggestion is entirely of your making.

Last but not least, we return to where we started. Radio 5 Live has its sporting output more or less nailed, as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t all appeal to me but that’s not the point. Bringing the BBC’s radio sport chops into Grandstand and vice versa is a must.

Grandstand isn’t coming back. Why would it? You wouldn’t bring back The Weakest Link or Family Fortunes or All Creatures Great and Small, would you?

But understanding how it might fit into today’s media landscape is both an excuse for nostalgic navel-gazing and a lens through which to consider our national consideration of and conversation around the very concept of sport.

Is it now a pick ‘n’ mix, siloed at source, from which we as consumers can make our individual selections, or is there still some thread that can link our beloved codes together as Sport with a capital S? If it’s the latter, the BBC must surely be the place for it.

The Corinthian spirit might be too much to ask but a resurrected curiosity for sport rooted in our national broadcaster could appeal to a sense of positive Britishness. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, hidden even from my own view, these musings aren’t really about sport at all.