With his very first documentary, in 1965, Steve Sabol of NFL Films became the designated mythmaker of pro football. Now the company is a $50 million family operation embedded within a multibillion-dollar business.
As told to Patrick J. Sauer
In 1962, Ed Sabol ditched his job as an overcoat salesman, used his savings to start Blair Motion Pictures, and secured the rights to that year's NFL championship game. A fast start, but the company really came into its own in 1965 when its now iconic football-as-violent-ballet style debuted in They Call It Pro Football. The documentary was created primarily by Ed's son Steve. Commissioner Pete Rozelle loved the imagery and convinced the owners of the 14 NFL teams to put up $20,000 apiece to buy Blair and turn it into NFL Films. Forty years and 91 Emmys later, NFL Films, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., is an anomaly: a $50 million family business embedded within a multibillion-dollar operation. Ed is retired but Steve, 63, continues to march the company down the field.
Dad always wanted to make movies. When he was younger he'd been in vaudeville and appeared on Broadway in an Oscar & Hammerstein musical. The only films he'd ever shot were of my prep football games, but he managed to get a meeting with Pete Rozelle in which he doubled all the other offers in the room. Rozelle was concerned that Dad's only experience was filming his 14-year-old son, but he convinced him to give us a chance over a three-martini lunch at "21." If he could sell overcoats then he could certainly sell his passion for making films.
My father was the classic eternally optimistic entrepreneur, and in the beginning the company existed on his personality and sense of humor. I had the imagination to write and produce movies, but I had to hire people with technical know-how and learn about filming, editing, and sound. It took me three years to figure out the NFL Films style, and his personality provided a protective shell while we experimented with the vision in my head. He did a three-year vamp while we made They Call It Pro Football.
We had a premiere of the documentary at Toots Shors. At the time, pro football was behind baseball and college football in the television ratings. Pete Rozelle wanted mystique, and he loved the rhythm and romance we added to the imagery of the game in They Call It Pro Football. Rozelle saw NFL Films from a marketing standpoint, which didn't occur to me because I was 22 and just wanted to make movies.
NFL Films introduced everything that's become a cliché: montage editing, bloopers, super slo mo, original music, even keeping a camera on the quarterback after he throws a pass. We were also the first to mike a coach, Joe Kuharich of the Philadelphia Eagles. Dad and I used to take a projector and a bed sheet and screen They Call It Pro Football wherever we could: Kiwanis clubs, bar mitzvahs, foreign legions, veterans posts, Rotary clubs, etc.
We have a budget and write a business plan every year, but I have the autonomy to run my company. We have about 300 employees. We come up with ideas and then figure out what production costs will be after deciding how many cameras to use or, say, whether to use original music. We've gotten a lot more sophisticated in our business savvy, but I have never traded in my entrepreneurial vision. NFL Films has always controlled its own destiny.
Part of the reason we are left to our own devices is because there is mystery to what we do. Team owners are worth millions, but they have no idea how to do what NFL Films does.
We always stay ahead of the curve on technology because it's like rowing upstream--keep making progress or you'll fall back in a hurry. I never wanted the company to get bigger just for the sake of getting bigger because it isn't healthy. That's the ideology of a cancer cell.
In the mid-1980s, NFL Films started filming concerts of big stars like Bruce Springsteen for MTV, and we've made films for NASA and done game footage for movies like Jerry Maguire and He Got Game. We still have profitable outlets outside pro football, but covering football has become a year-round job. We tripled the workload when the NFL Network debuted in 2003 because we produce 90% of the network's footage, including 10 original shows. For me it's all football, all the time.
We've always tried to stir your emotions more than your mind. Comebacks, underdogs, and a group of guys thrown together on a dream to overcome the odds are story lines that occur every season and never go out of style. That's our bread and butter.
"George Halas and Vince Lombardi came to see that we were the keepers of the flame, preserving the history of the game."
In the beginning, the owners didn't like what we were doing. They didn't like John Facenda as narrator; they wanted Curt Gowdy. They didn't understand we needed someone to read our scripts with gravitas and that it wasn't just off-the-cuff commentary. They didn't like the orchestra music; they wanted John Philip Sousa. George Halas had problems with cameramen near the bench, but eventually he and Vince Lombardi came to see that we were the keepers of the flame, preserving the history of the game. All that iconic footage of the "Ice Bowl" at Lambeau Field? That's us. Halas eventually sent a letter saying that the history of pro football will forever be preserved on film and not by the written word À la baseball.
You couldn't start NFL Films today, where ostensibly an overcoat salesman walks into the league office and comes out with a bid to film the Super Bowl. I miss the days when I could call Paul Brown and he'd pick up the phone.
When we started there were no surveys, focus groups, or demographic studies, which I think are bulls---. What appeals to a 13-year-old appeals to an 80-year-old. Saying you have to add rap music or fancy editing or whatever is pandering to the audience and distorts the sport of football. I hate to see a brilliant LaDainian Tomlinson run chopped up four ways, the colors scratched, it's turned upside down.... To me it's the same as taking a great ballet or Fred Astaire dance routine and shredding it. The advances in broadcast technology are phenomenal, but networks often lose sight of the game.
The NFL always had a history, but we've given it a mythology. It's the way people remember the game, in their mind's eye. There are only a handful of owners left from when we started and some of the younger guys have told me they grew up on NFL Films and the way we glorify and amplify the game inspired the dream of owning a team.
The Super Bowl? I like the fact that the world championship of our national sport takes place on a single day. You know when and where it's going to be held years in advance. Other than that, it's a pain in the ass. It's become so excessive, it's hard to cover the game.
It's been this way for a while, though. I was a cameraman for Super Bowl X, Steelers and Cowboys at the Orange Bowl in 1976. I was walking the field the day before the game and I overheard a conversation between some executives. I heard one of them say, "What are we going to put on the elephant's feet so it doesn't tear up the field?" That's when I knew the Super Bowl had gone from being a game to an event, and then it became an experience, and now it's a national holiday.