Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol returned from World War 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent standard of living for his family, but his heart wasn’t in it. What Sabol liked more than anything else, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.
Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film Steve’s games. He found that he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.
In 1962, Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers, and New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong it blew the ball off the tee three times, before the opening kickoff. Despite all that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle proposed to buy out the filmmaker but the league’s 14 owners objected, instead giving Sabol $20,000 apiece in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight reel, for each club.
Thus was born a storybook production company, called NFL Films. The production style was unmistakable: the “tight to the spiral” shot of the ball leaving the quarterback’s hand, the on-the-field close-ups and slow motion shots, all of it “mic’d up” in a way that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were personally, on the field.
Football fans of a certain age will remember the orchestral score and the stentorian tones of John Facenda’s narration, “the voice of God”: “They call it pro football. They play it under the autumn moon, in the heat of a Texas afternoon.” NFL Films became “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history” according to Salon.com television critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “An outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”
NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings were small compared with the $18 billion in revenue NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promoted the sport. Many credit NFL Films as a key reason that the National Football League has become the most watched professional sports league in the United States.
Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on this day in 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at the time, a condition which would take his life the following September. In delivering his tribute to his father, Steve Sabol explained the company’s operating philosophy. “Tell me a fact”, he said, “and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart, forever”.
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