Don’t believe the hype

December 16’s match-ups of the “Big Four” sent Sky’s publicity machine into overdrive. After six hours of Keys, Gray and Redknapp, the only thing Barney Ronay wanted to slam anywhere was the remote control

Like many other irresistible global happenings, it all started with something very small. The tectonic tremor that would eventually lead to the towering tsunami of Grand Slam Sunday was the announcement of the Premier League fixture list in June. As in 2006-07, the supposedly random computer selection had presented us with two weekends when the top tier’s “Big Four” would play each other. Clearly, this has started happening rather more often than it should. Not surprising, then, that despite the boundless advertising budget, the limitless man-hours developed to styling, tweaking and generally buffing-up, the most recent edition of this gala televised soccer extravaganza should end up looking a lot like the last time we all did this.

Televised football in the Premier League era has never been backwards in coming forwards. Sky Sports, in particular, is like a sporting version of heavy metal: a boasty, fist-pumping show-off-athon, where no audience-grabbing gambit is overlooked. Accordingly, Grand Slam Sunday, a six-hour spectacular in mid-December, was ­aggressively trailed for at least a month.

Why grand slam? Because all four “majors” were in action, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. This was the Premier League turned up to 11, anchored by a twitchy-looking Richard Keys not just fizzing with the usual righteous self-importance, but apparently convinced what we were watching represented some kind of landmark moment in the history of people being excited about things.

In the days leading up to United playing at Anfield and Arsenal hosting Chelsea – Yes! All on the same afternoon! – a caco­phony of voices could be heard from those with a vested interest in making such occasions seem particularly grandiose. “Grand Slam Sunday can’t fail to excite anyone who really loves their football,” declared Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore, styling the whole affair as one for the purist. Sky’s own trails – the usual fast-edited montage of celebrity players yelling at each other – were on constant rotation on all its channels. Just to make sure, Sky also peppered us with its own guerrilla-marketing special events, leading to such ­bargain-basement banalities as Ray Wilkins’ views on Fabio Capello stamped with the breathless tagline “Wilkins was speaking to promote Sky Sports Grand Slam Sunday”. The People newspaper even piggybacked its way on to the whole thing, teaming up with a pub chain to give away a free pint “on Grand Slam Sunday”, thereby giving the Murdoch empire an unexpected complimentary puff in the process.

The actual GSS show was a strange affair. There seemed to be a dual track operating: on one hand we had a pair of fairly standard, if bad-tempered, 1-0 wins played out by four very cagily set-up teams. On the other we had the bogus uber-excitement of Keys and the boys – the A-listers, Jamie Redknapp, Ruud Gullit and Andy Gray, hunkered around a shining disc of a coffee table – forcibly shouldering the whole thing along. Beneath the chatter, Sky soundtracked the day with a booming set of drums, ­making a noise that can only be compared to a ­hundred-strong military band hammering on a giant dustbin filled with rubber balls. Every link or advert break was the signal for this strangely unsettling “BOOM-BA-BOOM-BA-BOOM”, over which Keys at one stage said the words “Grand Slam Sunday” six times in only three minutes (“Welcome back… on this Grand Slam Sunday!”).

And sandwiched in between all this there was the usual jam-packed roster of high-end adverts for cars and mobile phones and computer games. Which, of course, is what it’s all about, really. This kind of occasion is essentially a revenue-generating exercise: a sales drive on pre-Christmas subscriptions and a boon for advertising. Sky’s own estimates put the global audience for the day at an improbable 600 million.

Sky loves the idea of the “Big Four”, too. It makes the product so much simpler to sell. And if reality intrudes from time to time and it all becomes slightly artificial, then so be it. “Ruud, you’ve played in these games, tell us about the rivalry between these two clubs,” Keys demanded of Gullit before Arsenal against Chelsea. To which, Gullit, to his credit, gave an appropriately downbeat answer (“Well, both clubs want to win”). Because the fact is Arsenal and Chelsea don’t have a particularly great rivalry going; not compared to, say, Chelsea and West Ham. But this is the new reality of the past five years of top-heavy Premier League incomes. New and more ­commercially appropriate rivalries are being fostered. And on such occasions no superlative can be left unspluttered. “Here’s the top of the table,” Keys said, after the first of the afternoon’s games, glossing very quickly over the fact that Manchester City were in fourth (who invited them?) and focusing instead on “Liverpool – out of the top four!”. Well fancy that.

Needless to say, this wasn’t even the first Grand Slam Sunday – a tagline that was coined on a similar occasion in September last year. The question of whether these occasions are prearranged or a happy coincidence of the fixture list remains unclear. Both fixtures were initially scheduled to take place on Saturday the 15th, but were shifted to the 16th, possibly because of midweek Champions League matches, possibly because of the subscription-shifting juice of another gala Sunday.

Does any of this really matter? Television companies will always look to generate revenue and the Premier League has long been Sky’s captive plaything. Nobody closely involved – the Premier League, advertisers, the clubs – really has anything to lose by staging these occasions. It’s just football at large, football outside the stodgy oligopoly, football as followed by fans of, say, the 30th biggest club in the country, or the 85th, who find themselves excluded and – worse – bored by all this showboating. The next Grand Slam Sunday is in April. Is anybody really looking forward to it?

From WSC 252 February 2008