Edwin Milton “Ed” Sabol came home from WWII and took a job selling topcoats. He was good at it and provided a decent living for his family, but his heart was elsewhere. 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 found that 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 that, Sabol’s work on the game was impressive.
The league’s 14 owners rejected commissioner Pete Rozelle’s proposal to buy Sabol out, instead giving him $20,000 apiece 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 that let you hear every hit, every sound, as if you were 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.”
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.
Ed Sabol was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame on August 6, 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”.