NFL Films is not a rags-to-riches story. “Overcoats to riches” may be more apropos.
In 1962, overcoat salesman Ed Sabol scrapped up $3,000 and convinced then NFL-commissioner Pete Rozelle to sell him the rights to film that season’s league title game.
That transaction became the cinematic equivalent of the Dutch buying Manhattan Island for $24. But dollars and cents didn’t drive the success of NFL Films- passion did.
“We never thought about it in terms of money,” says NFL Films president Steve Sabol. “That was never it. We loved the game and wanted to be part of it. It was about the opportunity to do something that had never been done before and to do it well.”
Over 9,000 professional football games and 95 Emmy Awards later, NFL Films stands as a worldwide symbol of excellence.
Steve, a standout running back at Colorado College and Art History major, joined up with his father in 1964. “Dad looked at my grades and said ‘You’ve been spending all of your time in two places. Playing football. And at the movies.’”, Steve Sabol joked at the Philadelphia Sportswriters Association (PSWA) Banquet, where he earned a lifetime achievement award this past January.
“’This makes you uniquely qualified to do this’.”
“I call NFL Films the Picasso of the sports world,” described NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock in an interview with USA Today. “They’re painting a picture and they care about literally everything that goes into that piece.”
“NFL Films introduced everything that’s become a cliché,” Inc. Magazine quoted Sabol as saying in 2006. “Montage editing, bloopers, super slo mo, original music, keeping a camera on the quarterback after he threw a pass. We were the first to mike a coach.”
Before all of these became global movie archetypes, Steve Sabol and his company had to invent and produce them. These global archetypes have a strong local foundation here in the Philadelphia area.
Sabol was born in 1942 in Moorestown, New Jersey. “Growing up in Philadelphia, I was in an environment that had an enormous passion and feeling for sports,” he recalls. “Not only about the final score, but about the struggle, the effort and the dedication that went into that success.”
NFL Films had its headquarters in Philadelphia until 1979, when they moved across the river to their current locale in Mt. Laurel, NJ. The expanded space enabled NFL Films to branch into non-football venues. Acclaimed films include documentaries for NASA, Christopher Reeves’ Paralysis Foundation and Bruce Springsteen concerts.
Sabol personally garnered 32 of NFL Films’ Emmy Awards, in categories as diverse as writing, cinematography, editing, directing, and producing.
The Sporting News named Sabol its “2002 Sports Executive of the Year” to recognize the successful enterprise that NFL Films has become under his leadership.
“I’ve always looked at myself as an artist first who enjoys the company of other artists and other people who enjoy making movies,” Sabol says. “I’ve surrounded myself with people who feel the same way that I do.
“For me to concentrate on the writing, editing, music and photography pieces, I have to be a good enough judge to hire a (business) person and put the business in their hands and let them run it.”
The National Television Academy presented both Steve and Ed Sabol with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003. They bestowed the honor for “revolutionizing the way America watches football and setting the standard in sports filmmaking.”
Tonight, Sabol joins his father as the recipient of the 20th Francis “Reds” Bagnell Award for Contributions to the Game of Football. Ed Sabol won the award in 1994.
“It’s a fulfillment of what I felt our goal has always been,” comments Sabol on winning the Bagnell Award. “One of the most frustrating things about being a fan is the speed in which the joy of a win fades. Our films put some of that joy in their emotional bank for later years.”
If NFL Films created- as some say- the league’s “mythology”, Steve Sabol has spent his career as the Homer who so articulately captures and preserves it for future generations.
President NFL Films