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NFL Films: A Brief History

nfl-films-a-brief-history

When it comes to the most popular sport in the United States it is hard to argue against Football. The game has existed and been played for over 150 years. The game gained popularity at the college level in the late 1890s but reached a larger scale by the 1940s. However, a mechanism that we are all familiar with changed the game permanently. From then on, a fan no longer had to hear the game from the stands or listen to the game on a radio. With television, they had a instrument that gave them the power to watch games in real time.

With the rise of television American Football passed up baseball in popularity by miles. It was considered more action-packed and fun to watch. Football, especially the newly formed National Football League, that had united with the American Football League, wanted a platform where they could release more content. Hence, the creation of NFL Films, the production company that spawned an entire generation of sports content with the age of cassettes and DVD’s. This is their story and how they became the largest producer of sports content in American Sports History

Foundations

Ed Sabol (Right) and Steve Sabol (Left), the founders of NFL FIlms.

Ed Sabol (Right) and Steve Sabol (Left), the founders of NFL FIlms.

NFL Films was long conceived before it became the officially licensed video production storage for the National Football League. However, it was an after-thought to it's founder, Ed Sabol. Sabol had served his country in World War II. Very little is known or even written about his time in the service as Sabol was nearly 30 years old when the war ended in 1945. However, following his service in the war, Sabol returned to New Jersey, where he grew up. Sabol had no direction in his life prior to the war and worked in his father’s clothing store in Atlantic City. He worked their as a salesman. This way of life was not his ultimate goal but with very little direction and the service not providing much for him following the war Sabol looked away from providing customers with linens.

He found a love of making films. At the time, the film industry was at its peak in popularity as film technology had finally become available outside of simply theatres. The home television set was pioneering a golden age where people no longer needed to leave the comfort of their own home. Sabol had gotten married not long after he had returned from World War II and as a gift had received a small motion picture camera in order to film the occasion as well as other family events in the future. Sabol used the camera years later when his son, Steve, played high school football. Like many fans today, Sabol was thrilled by the action that football provided. It was captivating to watch and his son Steve had an interest in film-making as well which provided Ed with joy. Sabol decided to enter into the professional filmmaking business with his own company, Blair Motion Pictures, which he named after his daughter Blair. Blair Motion Pictures was only the beginning of what would become the largest film empire in sports history.

How the NFL used to keep track of content?

Unknown Professional Football team, 1920's.

Unknown Professional Football team, 1920's.

Prior to having its own licensed company to film all of its content, the National Football League hired freelancers who would make bids to record their games. Sabol was a frequent bidder of National Football League events and in 1962 won the bid to the rights for capturing the National Football League Championship game. Sabol had bid the previous year to film the 1961 championship and lost. However, his bid for 1962 was double what he had bid previously. Sabol captured the film with the help of his son, Ed, and made one of the more marketable films of the NFL that had ever been seen of the time. With only two men working at the helm it was impressive to see the content that had been produced. As with all matters concerning the National Football League, the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, requested to see the film in order to mark out discrepancies and to see if the NFL had really gotten what is had paid for. Rozelle was impressed with the film so much that he requested an immediate owners meeting to discuss the potential of buying out Sabol’s company and rebranding it. The owners initially disagreed to this as they feared that it would ruin the games popular attendance. In theory they were not incorrect in believing this because television took away the incentive to go and view the game in-person. Rozelle would wait until 1964, two years after Sabol had captured the footage of the NFL Championship in 1962. This proposal was again refused by the owners for the same reason.

Sabol was distressed and still able to work despite this but the NFL would not comply with each other and this forced Sabol to simply wonder why they could not afford to take him on. Well, in 1965 Sabol got his wish. The NFL owners fears had dissipated as they felt that in order to license their teams and produce more money aside from sales of tickets and merchandise that they needed to expand their business ventures. Sabol was bought out for $20,000 which is roughly $165,000 as of 2020. The beauty of the purchase was although the NFL owned the product Sabol still kept his position and led the filmmaking division. He would be responsible for filming all games and events held by the NFL.

Films Themselves

Len Dawon, (16), hands the ball off during Super Bowl IV.

Len Dawon, (16), hands the ball off during Super Bowl IV.

While the NFL requested films and taps of all of its games their was a specific reason for this that was bigger than just selling television rights. Television rights and showing highlights was an important part of why the NFL made the motion to allow Sabol to come on and control the filming of it's games but the bigger reason was that the NFL wanted to make its own productions and documentaries that it could broadcast on its own. The NFL was to become the first sports league to not only have its own film division but also the first to produce documentaries and live-action footage used for film projects outside of the NFL. The division produced films specifically about the Super Bowl Champions, the AFC and NFC Champions, and individual players. Any film that is seen during the Super Bowl Era (1967-Present) has gone through inspection of NFL films.

Having watched hundreds of these it is difficult to do an in-depth analysis of each individual film because for the most part they all include the same sorts of content that you would expect from a sports film that we see almost daily on ESPN or Fox Sports. NFL Films though founded that principle when it comes to the types of content that it would use for it's films. NFL Films has millions of hours of B-Roll Footage on almost every single NFL player, not just teams. When watching and NFL Film there are several key details that you may or may not notice directly. The first would be the slow-motion shots. These were pioneered by the editing departments in films prior to NFL Films but to provide viewer excitement the editing trick was used. There is also a microphone placed strategically on every part of the field it would seem to capture not just films but voices and so forth that could be used to spice up a film. In many films a word or phrase may be “bleeped” out because of its profanity but nevertheless it made the cut. Lastly, something important to every NFL Film regardless of whether it is a seasonal review, a Super Bowl victory or a biopic of the NFL’s greatest players, the value that NFL Films places on narration is uncanny. You will not find it anywhere else or in any other sports film genre. NFL Films recruited major actors such as Live Schreiber, Burl Ives, J.K. Simmons, Carl Weathers, and Frank Gifford, just to name a few, to narrate over specific documentaries. The NFL does not leave anything to chance when it comes to making their films.

Specific Series, NFL Network, and Film Soundtracks

nfl-films-a-brief-history

In addition to publishing films regarding a seasonal review or a specific playoff matchup, NFL Films has become more personal with it's documentaries. Just to name a few series that they do: A Football Life, Top 10, Hard Knocks, and Sound FX. Each program has similar features to the others but is essentially a compilation of B-Roll Footage compiled by the teams that Sabol was assigned to cover. The series themselves were popular beginning in the age of taping and DVD’s but soon with the activation of NFL Network the NFL finally had an official place to put all of its content in one place. NFL Network was one of the first channel’s to ever feature one sport and specifically one sport. Football encompassed everything that was discussed and viewed on the channel. In 2003, the channel was released and has not slowed down in ratings ever since. The only issue is that for hardcore football maniacs, the only way to access the channel is through cable.

We briefly touched on the content of a specific NFL film and what you may see but we have not yet touched on what you may hear when watching a film. The NFL Film Soundtrack is one of a kind and it seems that every film features something different. However there are a few tracks that are specific to NFL films exclusively and are added to a generous number of films. The NFL Films Soundtrack was formulated by composer Sam Spence. Spence’s long running controversy with NFL Films involved the rights to his music however. The NFL had him sign a contract which relinquished all of his ownership of the music, thus whenever a song is heard in an NFL Film, Sam Spence does not own a note of it. Spence began working with the National Football League in 1966 after the commissioner, Pete Rozelle, felt that his composition could add something to Sabol’s fascinating tapes. Prior to working with the NFL, Spence was a regarded for his work in writing film scores for German films and television shows. Ed Sabol actually discovered Spence while watching some German films and recruited him for the role. Spence agreed immediately but his success as a composer was not recognized despite the accomplishments that he had made towards NFL Films. Spence was not well known until 1998 when his compilations of tracks from previous NFL Films was released under the title The Power and the Glory: The Original Music & Voices of NFL Films. The soundtrack received massive acclaim as fans now had access to all of his scores. However, he only reaped a small percentage of earnings while the NFL made large profits as the result of it. Spence’s music was even recorded and added into the NFL’s video game Madden. Again with the Madden Franchise, Spence was left to his own devices with his soundtracks not being owned by him at all. Below are attached some of the tracks that you may be familiar with from that album.

Ed Sabol after founding NFL Films

Ed Sabol at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2011.

Ed Sabol at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2011.

According to Ed Sabol’s son, Steve, who later served as Director of NFL Films, his father’s achievements are "The only other human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-mm film than the National Football League is World War II.” He is not wrong in this statement either because his father’s creation and foundation of NFL Films brought America’s favorite game to life away from the seats at places like Lambeau Field. Ed was the Director of NFL Films for over 20 years until he relinquished control in 1995 which he gave to his son Steve. The following year, for his accomplishments with the NFL and in filmmaking, Ed was elected as a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Having never played a down of football at any level in his life, Ed had officially conquered sports supremacy with his creation of Blair Motion Pictures. He grew to love the game as a result of making films. He even received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003 for his role in creating NFL Films. After 2003, Sabol then 87, disappeared from the limelight for good. He did not even make guest appearances on any of the films after this. In retirement, Sabol lived comfortably in Arizona for the next 13 years. In 2011, the last time the world would see Ed Sabol would be in 2011 when he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He remains the only filmmaker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until his son Steve is enshrined in 2020. In 2016, at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 98, Ed passed away.

Steve Sabol and NFL Films currently

Steve (Right) and Ed Sabol (Left), pictured at Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

Steve (Right) and Ed Sabol (Left), pictured at Super Bowl XXV in 1991.

Steve Sabol was just as crucial of a piece of NFL Films as his father was. Sabol was more crucial in going beyond the NFL with NFL Films. He devised corporate partnerships with other productions companies like ESPN. Sabol was also the head editor and writer for NFL Films exclusively during the 1960s and 1970s. Sabol has earned 35 Emmy’s for his filmmaking achievements. Sabol’s greatest achievement as a writer came with his publishing of the poem “The Autumn Wind” which eventually became the anthem for the Oakland Raiders. Steve sadly passed away in 2012 from complications of Brain cancer.

Currently, NFL Film is run by Steve Trout. He runs the production and direction of all films under the NFL name. Trout continues to live in the shadow of the Sabols but has a much easier time now that the NFL has its own network and platform to place its own content on.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on October 22, 2020:

This is an interesting history of NFL films. In the UK our football games are spread across many different networks which are increasingly pay per view or paid membership.