NFL Films

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NFL Films

One NFL Plaza
Mount Laurel, New Jersey 08054
Telephone: (856) 222-3500
Fax: (856) 722-6779
Web site:

Wholly Owned Subsidiary of National Football League Inc.
1962 as Blair Motion Pictures
Employees: 200
Sales: $50 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 512110 Motion Picture and Video Production

"NFL Films is perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America," opined Sports Illustrated in 1999. The family-run Mount Laurel, New Jersey-based subsidiary of the National Football League (NFL) films every NFL game each year. The material is then packaged in a multitude of ways: providing highlight packages for distribution on television and the Web, programming for outlets such as ESPN, HBO, and NFL Network, and DVD and videocassette titles. Profits flow back to the clubs in the form of royalties. The winner of more than 90 Emmy awards, NFL Films has been a pioneer on a number of fronts since its founding in the early 1960s. It was the first to put a microphone on coaches, referees, and players; the first to diagram plays on the screen; the first to use a reverse-angle replay; the first to put popular music to sports footage; the first to use 600-mm telephoto lenses in sports; the first to produce a bloopers video. Moreover, NFL Films' groundbreaking presentation of action in slow-motion photography, combined with montages and driving music, has had a profound impact on contemporary filmmaking. The company's projects have attracted such notable stars as Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Burt Lancaster, and Roy Scheider, who have all lent their vocal talents to the narration of NFL Films' productions. Although filming NFL football games remains the company's focus, over the years it has branched into the filming of other sporting events, filming sports sequences for feature films, and providing commercial and corporate video production services. NFL Films is the largest purchaser of Kodak film in the world.

Origins with Gift of Movie Camera in 1940

The man behind the founding of NFL Films was Ed Sabol, born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was an athlete with a theatrical bent. He lettered in football, track, and swimming in high school, and became an accomplished swimmer at The Ohio State University. After graduation he appeared on Broadway in one of Oscar Hammerstein's less successful musicals, Where Do We Go From Here, set in a college fraternity house. It closed after just 15 performances. Sabol then appeared as an extra with the vaudeville comedy team the Ritz Brothers, a stint that ended his brush with show business. Sabol found an outlet for his creativity when he received a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera in 1940 as a wedding present from his mother-in-law. The camera quickly became his hobby and passion, and his favorite subject became his son, Steve, whom he filmed growing up. When Steve began playing high school football, Sabol filmed all of his games. People who saw his work were impressed and asked him to film their football games as well. Other than his family life, his camera was about the only source of joy in Sabol's life. According to Fortune, "In 1962, Ed Sabol was 45 years old and miserable. Selling overcoats in Philadelphia for his father-in-law, a tough, frugal immigrant businessman, Ed hated his job. 'It was like going to the dentist every morning,' he grumbles." Sabol learned from the newspapers that an area company called Telra had paid $1,500 for the rights to film the 1961 NFL championship game. He became determined to win the rights for the 1962 championship game and doubled the bid to $3,000. Although he only had high school footage to show the NFL, his high offer at least accorded him a chance to sell himself to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. They met for lunch at "21," and according to company lore, Ed Sabol the accomplished salesman won over Rozelle by the end of the fourth martini.

From the start Sabol wanted to be innovative. Rather than just film the championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers from a single camera located high in the stands at the 50-yard line, he wanted to film up close to catch the intensity of the game. He hired free-lance cameramen and stationed them in a way that has hardly changed since. To the stationary camera at the 50-yard line, he added a "Mole" to film the sidelines and a "Weasel" to wander around the stadium to collect moments of opportunity. Sabol also had one of the men speed up his camera to produce slow-motion footage. His son, a college student by then, also worked the game as a "Gopher," helping out the cameramen but not filming himself. It was a frigid day, with the wind chill at 20 degrees below zero, and the cameras kept freezing up. The film broke, and until it was developed Ed Sabol was not sure he would have anything with which to work. The film did develop and the result was "Pro Football's Longest Day," which premiered at Toot Shor's restaurant in New York. Rozelle was pleased, calling it the greatest football film ever made. However, there was a limited market for the film, and Sabol had to travel to Kiwanis Club and Boy Scout meetings, packing his own projector and screen, to find an audience.

The NFL's Acquisition of Blair Motion Pictures in 1964

Ed Sabol called his fledgling company Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter), setting up shop above a Philadelphia delicatessen and doing some educational films during football's off-season. He filmed the 1963 championship game, again received praise and again lost money. Having proven himself, he now pestered Rozelle with the idea of the NFL owning its own film company. Rozelle, who possessed a background in public relations, recognized that the epic way Sabol captured the NFL could be used to sell tickets, and he presented the idea to the club owners. The NFL considered other companies, including Telra and New York-based producers, but Ed Sabol closed the deal. Rather than using a slide presentation, like his rivals, he simply talked to the owners and convinced them to buy out his company for a one-time payment of $280,000, amounting to $20,000 each from the league's 14 teams. His film company would become a house organ, renamed NFL Films, and he promised to produce a championship game film each year and a film for each team highlighting their past season. The teams were already spending that much money to produce their own highlight films and, by having a single production company involved, they could control quality. Turning a profit was not an important consideration, but not losing money was. As Sabol rode down the elevator following his successful pitch, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, Carroll Rosenbloom, told him, "Good luck on your new endeavor, but if you even come back and ask for money, we'll close you down in a second."

Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films in 1964 and Sabol turned to Steve to help him avoid the wrath of Rosenbloom and the other owners. Steve Sabol, aside from growing up a football fan, loved movies. As a youngster he was enamored with the award-winning television documentary series Victory at Sea, which chronicled World War II with an innovative score by composer Richard Rodgers and became a key influence on NFL Films' style. The younger Sabol also developed an eye from his mother, an art collector. He had been a disinterested college student, however, as a varsity football player and art major at Colorado College who spent much of his free time watching movies. He returned to Philadelphia and father and son quickly proved to be a good combination. The elder Sabol knew how to run a business and was an accomplished schmoozer, and his son was filled with ideas about how to bring the reality of the game to the screen.

Over the next few years the key elements of the NFL style, and in turn the reputation of NFL Films, was forged. A Japanese editor who did not know football but did understand film language moved the company away from the tradition of showing a football play from beginning to end. Instead, NFL Films began to break a play into parts, and as a result developed a montage approach that was given full expression in the 1965 film They Call It Pro-Football, which also featured the narration of John Facenda, a longtime Philadelphia news anchor whose rich voice and commanding delivery elevated the material. The New York Times called it the Citizen Kane of sports movies. According to Business Journal of New Jersey, the film was unique because it "wasn't written in complete sentences; it was written in sentence fragments. The music wasn't march music; it was contemporary. The whole concept was completely new, adding a sense of drama and glory." With Facenda becoming the voice of NFL Films, a year later the company hired composer Sam Spence to provide background music in the manner of a Hollywood film. He provided a muscular soundtrack that became another hallmark of an NFL Films production. Spence continued to work for the company for many years despite living in Munich. According to Steve Sabol, he would hum a few bars of what he was looking for over the phone and Spence would take it from there.

Company Perspectives:

Stunning cinematography. Exclusive all-access sound. Stirring orchestral music. Poignant storytelling. These hallmarks define the NFL Films style often imitated, but never equaled.

With a few championship game films, dozens of team season summaries, and They Call It Pro-Football to its credit, NFL Films began finding more ways to package all the film it shot. By this time the company was spending a considerable amount of money on film because every play was shot in slow motion. People loved the slow-motion shots, and Ed Sabol, who came from the school of "the customer is always right," decided to give the people what they wanted. In 1967 NFL Films produced its first feature for a network pre-game show, CBS Countdown to Kickoff, and began producing a weekly highlight show, This Is the NFL, which premiered on television on a syndicated basis. In the beginning it was shown late at night and other odd hours, but eventually moved into better time slots. Also in 1967, NFL Films found a way to make use of some of the film that never made it into the highlights, especially the more unusual plays, including the fumbles and mistakes. The humorous result was called the Football Follies, which a league official initially rejected because he thought it humiliated the players. But Rozelle decided to show the film to some players to see what they thought. The Philadelphia Eagles players who viewed the film at training camp roared their delight. The Follies was released, and would one day become a video bestseller that not only spawned Follies sequels but launched the bloopers genre that became a TV mainstay. Other firsts in the 1960s included the use of graphics to explain strategy, the miking of the first coach (the Philadelphia Eagles' Joe Kuharich), filming inside a locker room before a game, and the first use of 600-mm telephoto lenses in sports.

NFL Films had gained a solid enough reputation in the 1960s to attract the attention of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Leagues, which both approached the company about doing work for them. Ed Sabol, however, did not want to be stretched too thin, electing instead to continue to focus on football. By the end of the decade professional football had made great strides in popularity. At the start of the 1960s it trailed baseball, college football, and boxing, but the sport flourished as perfect television programming. A major factor in the changing perception of professional football was the way in which NFL Films portrayed it, a treatment that television would begin to emulate and that would make the game even more popular. A major step for both the NFL and its filmmaking subsidiary was the 1970 launch of Monday Night Football. Not only did it bring the game to a larger, prime-time audience, it spiced up the coverage with some of the NFL Films trademarks, including an abundance of slow motion. It also dispensed with the traditional halftime fare of marching bands and showed highlights of the previous day's games, courtesy of NFL Films, narrated off the cuff by the flamboyant Howard Cosell who was generous in his praise for the work of the company.

NFL Films enjoyed steady growth in the 1970s, finding new outlets for its work while retaining an innovative spirit. It also did a little work for Hollywood, shooting footage for the football film Brian's Song. In 1974 it forged a partnership with HBO, providing material for a weekly highlight show. The rise of cable television also brought another key long-term partner: all-sports channel ESPN, which began using NFL Films-produced content in 1978. In that same year, the company produced its first Road to the Superbowl television special. Along the way, NFL Films began using the reverse-angle play in 1971, and employed "The Way We Were" in 1973 as the first popular song to accompany football footage. In 1977 the first Sports Emmy Awards were held and, not surprisingly, NFL Films took home a statue, the first of dozens. The company closed the decade by moving into larger accommodations, relocating to Mount Laurel, New Jersey.

Innovations Continuing in the 1980s

NFL Films introduced the first sports home video in 1980, and also began to expand beyond football. In 1980, working in conjunction with NASA, it produced a PBS documentary called Greatest Adventure: Man's Journey to the Moon. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was so impressed he commented that if NFL Films worked for NASA full-time the agency would never have suffered a budget cut. NFL camera crews also began filming rock concerts for Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson and produced MTV videos, but Ed Sabol made sure the company never placed too much emphasis on projects outside its bread-and-butter football business. In 1987 he turned over the presidency to Steve and stayed on as chairman of NFL Films, a post he held until 1995 when he retired.

Under Steve Sabol's leadership, little changed at NFL Films, which continued to produce a staggering amount of programming each year. It also remained committed to taking advantage of the best equipment and technology available. In 1987, for example, the company began to log the contents of its extensive film vault in a computer database. NFL Films under Steve Sabol formed a new division in 1993, NFL Films Commercial Production, to take advantage of the company's state-of-the art production facilities. The focus of the unit was on commercials, infomercials, corporate films, and video annual reports. Over the next two years more than 30 commercials for local and national companies were produced at the NFL Films facility.

By 1995 NFL Films had long since turned every available closet and conference room into usable space and the company began making plans to relocate to a larger facility. It was a long-term project that required approval from the NFL, and it was not until 2002 that the company moved into a new 200,000-square-foot, 26-acre site in Mount Laurel that included production studios and a massive film library. NFL Films hoped to use the new facility as a launching pad for even more non-NFL work, which still only accounted for 10 percent of its revenues. The extra space would also be necessary as NFL Films began providing programming for the NFL Network, a new cable TV venture launched by the league. In essence the company now had a Hollywood-caliber studio at its disposal, which was soon put to use in making a pair of feature-length war dramas for the History Channel: My Father's Gun and Blood from a Stone.

The new facilities also positioned NFL Films to take its football franchise into the future. The company began the long-term project of digitizing its massive film library, so that theoretically all of NFL Films' highlights could be available on the Web. Digital technology also allowed NFL Films content to become available on a new generation of cell phones. In 2005 Sprint Nextel Corp. agreed to a five-year deal to provide a variety of NFL programming to customers, including the "best of NFL Films."

Key Dates:

Ed Sabol launches Blair Motion Pictures to film the 1962 NFL Championship game.
The company is bought by the National Football League and becomes NFL Films.
Monday Night Football begins airing NFL Films' halftime highlights.
Association with HBO begins.
Association with ESPN begins.
The first home video is sold.
Steve Sabol succeeds his father as president.
Ed Sabol retires.
The company moves into a new state-of-the-art facility.

Although NFL Films was sure to continue its evolution, for the time being at least it would continue to be led by Steve Sabol. "I have no line of succession," he told the New York Times in 2000. "I will be taking care of this place every day when I'm 85, I assure you. I haven't gotten tired of it yet, so I can't see it ever happening. I fell into this, and I can't believe how lucky a life I've lived."

Principal Subsidiaries

NFL Films Commercial Production.

Further Reading

Clarke, Norm, "As CC Student, Sabol Began to Roll for NFL Films," Rocky Mountain News, January 20, 1998, p. 23N.

George, John, "NFL Films Kicks Off New Digs," Philadelphia Business Journal, October 4, 2002, p. 1.

Goldstein, Scott, "Running to Daylight," NJBIZ, October 28, 2002, p. 20.

Lidsky, David, "This Is NFL Films," Fortune Small Business, September 16, 2002, p. 176.

Macnow, Glen, "NFL Films Is Scoring High," Nation's Business, September 1988, p. 44.

Sorcher, Jamie Ann, "In a League of Its Own," Business Journal of New Jersey, February 1992, p. 37.

Strauss, Robert, "Catching Football on Film," New York Times, October 29, 2000, p. 14NJ4.

, "One On One: Steve Sabol," Electronic Media, December 4, 2000, p. 16.

Taafe, William, "Footage That Can Go to Your Head," Sports Illustrated, September 5, 1984, p. 84.

Van Allen, Peter, "Game Plan of NFL Films Goes Beyond Football," Philadelphia Business Journal, December 20, 2002, p. 3.