August 6, 2011 A Sports Story

In delivering tribute to his father Ed, Steve Sabol explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life. “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”. – Steve Sabol

Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from world war 2 and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart wasn’t in it.  What he liked more than anything, was to watch his son Steve play high school football.

Sabol would take a motion picture camera, a wedding gift, and film the games. He discovered he had a knack for it, and founded a small film production company called Blair Motion Pictures, named after his daughter, Blair.

Sabol successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. The game was played in cold so severe that camera operators suffered frostbite, and a wind so strong that it blew the ball off the tee three times before opening kickoff.  Despite all of it, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.

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Commissioner Pete Rozelle proposed the NFL buy Sabol out the league’s 14 owners disagreed. Instead, each franchise gave him $20,000 in seed money to shoot all NFL games and produce a highlight film for each team.

NFL Films production style is 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 you could hear every hit, every sound, as if you were personally on the field.

With 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.”

Sabols, 2004 Sports Emmys
Steve and Ed Sabol at the 2004 Sports Emmys

NFL Films won 112 Sports Emmys. While the company’s $50 million earnings are small relative to the $18 billion in revenue the NFL earns from television alone, the real value of NFL Films is how it promotes 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.

Fun Fact: While team owners and the teams themselves pay taxes on income the NFL does not. With revenues of $12.2 Billion in 2020 (according to statista.com) the NFL has been a tax exempt non-profit, since 1942.

Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 2011. Steve was suffering inoperable brain cancer at that time, a condition destined to take his life the following year.   In a tribute to his father, Steve explained a philosophy applicable in business, as in life:

“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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