Our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy have changed.

By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

This Is NFL Films ED SABOL AND HIS SON STEVE WANTED TO MAKE FOOTBALL MOVIES. IN THE PROCESS THEY BUILT A COMPANY, CHANGED THE BUSINESS OF SPORTS AND TELEVISION, AND DEVELOPED A CULTURE OF INNOVATION
By David Lidsky

(FORTUNE Small Business) – The ancient Greeks told tales of Zeus. The Romans worshipped the winged god Mercury and the strongman Hercules. The Norse peoples had Thor, god of thunder, and the Vikings. After World War II, America developed its own mythology, colorful yarns of Giants and Bears and, yes, Vikings. Our cosmos was dominated by hurlers of lightning bolts named Starr and Elway, a wing-footed titan named Rice, a god of thunder called Butkus. Pro football came to symbolize the era's affluence and violence, and the chroniclers of the game, its mythmakers, were a father and son, Ed and Steve Sabol.

The Sabols have spent the past 40 years building a film company called NFL Films out of their passion for football and for movies. While they've built a business that today generates more than $50 million in revenue and is growing annually at a double-digit rate, that impressive performance doesn't measure its true influence. "The money we make from NFL Films is petty cash," says Art Modell, owner of the Baltimore Ravens, whose team, like all the others, receives a gross percentage royalty of NFL Films' revenues each year--a sum that pales in comparison to the league's $18 billion TV contract. "We sold the beauty of the game through NFL Films." Considering that the NFL earned a mere $14 million in television revenue in 1964, that's a whole lot of beauty.

That beauty not only changed the National Football League, but it also altered forever the way sports is presented on film, an achievement that virtually everyone in the sports and television businesses have been trying to copy since. Watch an NFL Films show on cable today, and it's immediately identifiable. Can you say that about NBA Entertainment? That's a testament both to the endurance of NFL Films' original creative vision and its constant push to build on its initial innovations. Then consider its unique position as an independently operated arm of the NFL--and its desire to stay on top of its craft, even with its golden safety net, is all the more notable. (Cue dramatic music.) This is the story of how Ed and Steve Sabol and the company they built reached the summit and has stayed there, a story of passion, creativity, singlemindedness, risk taking, and of course, a little mythology. This is NFL Films.

The creation myth of NFL Films is one that rivals any Homeric hymn. In 1962, Ed Sabol was 45 years old and miserable. Selling overcoats in Philadelphia for his father-in-law, a tough, frugal immigrant, Ed hated his job. "It was like going to the dentist every morning," he says.

Ed's hobby was using the Bell & Howell movie camera he had received from his mother-in-law as a wedding present. He filmed everything his only son, Steve, ever did, notably Steve's football games. He got pretty good at it: When local high schools saw his work, they wanted Ed to shoot their football games. So when Ed read in the newspaper that a local company, Telra, had paid $1,500 for the rights to film the 1961 NFL championship game, he resolved to outbid it in 1962.

Ed, employing his life's philosophy of "if you like something, double it," bid $3,000 for the rights to film the 1962 game. He had the highest bid, but his only experience filming football was capturing his son's gridiron exploits, which naturally gave the NFL hierarchy pause. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was certainly attracted to the money, so he met Sabol at '21' in Manhattan. Ed may have hated overcoats, but he was a good salesman. Four martinis later Rozelle agreed to let him film the game.

His first production only hinted at what was to come, but Rozelle considered the film of the 1962 championship game between the Giants and the Packers to be the best football reel ever made. Ed's nascent film company, at the time named Blair Motion Pictures after his daughter, did produce a few educational films, but football remained his abiding passion.

Among his biggest fears: that some big studio or network would take it all away. "I kept telling Pete [Rozelle] that it would be a great idea if the NFL had its own film company--we'd call it NFL Films. He loved the idea," says Ed, partly hoping to fend off any competition. The idea first went to the owners in 1964, but they tabled it. At the 1965 owners' meetings, at the Kenilworth hotel in Miami, they agreed to hear presentations, and Ed had to compete for the right to become NFL Films against Telra and some New York-based producers. "No slides," says Ed, often referred to as "Big Ed" by everyone, including his son. "The other guys had 'Next slide, please.' I didn't like that shit. I just talked to them."

Ed won the deal, agreeing to shoot all of the league's games and provide each of the 14 teams with a highlight movie at the end of the year in exchange for $12,000 from each owner as seed capital. His charter was to promote the game and preserve its history. "The intent was not to make a profit but to control quality," says Modell, who owned the Cleveland Browns at the time and served as NFL Films' first chairman. "Teams were already spending what they chipped in for NFL Films on their own films."

With the competition vanquished for the moment, Ed and his son had more in mind than just making highlight reels. "I had ideas of how I wanted to make the films," says Ed, who some said resembled the Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck in his loud sport coats and matching manner. "I knew what I had seen, and I said, 'I think I can do better. With the music, with the narration, with the editing. And if I can't do it, I am going to get somebody who can.' "

Steve, who'd played football all through college and had spent a year bedridden with hepatitis watching football movies day and night, had ideas too. "My father wanted to show pro football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction, in a big scope with majestic drama," he says. "I believed in that too, but I also wanted to show the game the way I experienced it as a player, with the snot flying and the sweat spraying and the muscles bulging and the cursing and the passion."

Over the next couple of years the elements that came to define the NFL Films style evolved. Color film provided a depth and patina that cheaper videotape lacked. Ground-level cameras gave viewers the perspective of the combatants on the field and slow-motion footage made football hits seem balletic. Sometimes jazzy, sometimes operatic, but always muscular music accompanied the footage, evoking football even when the eyes were closed. Mixed into the audio were all the crunches and crashes made by the collisions of 250-pound men. And then there was the voice of doom himself, John Facenda, whose narration elevated the men on the field into the gods of autumn.

The impact these innovations had on the NFL were profound. "In the early 1960s baseball was the No. 1 sport, college football No. 2, and boxing No. 3," says Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants and a 30-year NFL veteran. "Pro football took over the country, and NFL Films had a lot to do with it."

NFL Films' artistry wasn't lost on the TV networks that aired live sports events either, and they rushed to copy what they could. As early as 1970, Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, adopted NFL Films trademarks, like slow-motion footage, to make Monday Night Football visually different from the traditional (and dull) Sunday-afternoon fare. And it was Arledge's use of NFL Films highlights at halftime instead of marching bands that cemented NFL Films' reputation and standing in the league. Ross Greenburg, president of HBO Sports, has tried to incorporate NFL Films' flourishes in his boxing coverage, miking cornermen the way that NFL Films famously wired coaches.

Now if that were all, you'd have a nice story about a father and son who did something neat, and we could move on. But NFL Films is not a nostalgic business already in the time capsule. It's never rested on its plaudits: The company had 39 Emmy Awards as of 1989 and has 82 on its shelves today. NFL Films has developed a culture of innovation, and Steve Sabol, 59, is the man responsible for that. Steve has always been the creative director and has been company president since his father, 86, retired in 1987.

"Leadership is the liberation of talent," according to Steve, who boyishly sets the example by working in a T-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. "We put people in position to be as creative as they possibly can be." Unlike television cameramen, the people who shoot games for NFL Films don't have someone yammering in their ear every second. Each cameraman directs himself. "We leave it to them to know what's going on and what will best tell the story of the game," says Steve Andrich, vice president of cinematography, who's responsible for assigning cameramen to each game. The result? Not only the visceral feeling for the action in each frame, but Steve Sabol can cite only two crucial shots that NFL Films doesn't have in 37 years of filming every game.

Steve Sabol's philosophy is best seen in what he calls spectacular failures. "I used to give $1,000 for the most spectacular failure of the year. We weren't celebrating failure but ingenuity, the willingness to take risks." Employees mention the phrase "spectacular failure" with a mantra-like consistency, but the evidence of its impact is telling. "We tried some stuff with poetry over highlights, and it didn't work," he says. "Then we used the same idea as just sort of a Greek chorus in our Championship Chase film, and we won an Emmy."

Although Steve has a "go for it" spirit, employees characterize him as sometimes reluctant to endorse large-scale new projects. In fact, throughout its history the company has resisted growing too quickly. As early as the late 1960s the NBA and Major League Baseball were interested in working with NFL Films, according to Harry Weltman, the company's first vice president of sales and marketing and the person who played a key role in getting NFL Films established with deals with American Express, Screen Gems, and CBS. "I wanted to see things keep growing, expand the business. Ed put the ix-nay on it." When asked about Weltman, Ed blurted out, "Oh, he was a son of a bitch!" before he calmed down and explained, "My feeling was 'Let's not try to conquer the world. Let's not get too big for our britches.' "

That "We make football movies" focus filters into every business decision. "You start from what goes up on the screen and work back," says Steve. "If there's a problem, and it affects what goes up on the screen, that's a problem. If it doesn't, it's merely an inconvenience." NFL Films has always poured a good chunk of its revenues back into the latest technology. In the 1960s it was new cameras and editing bays; today it's shooting everything for the coming of high-definition television and wiring its $45 million facility in Mount Laurel, N.J., with all the latest toys. So projects like cataloguing every shot in every roll of film according to 140 criteria get done over initial resistance because they help producers like Steve make their films faster and better.

This drive ironically has led to the company's being able to expand beyond the pigskin. It initially began just as something to do in the offseason instead of playing volleyball out back, but slowly NFL Films started shooting footage for Hollywood sports flicks like Brian's Song, Rudy, Jerry Maguire, and He Got Game, making music videos and concert films for folks like Bruce Springsteen, doing commercials for Fruit Roll-Ups and others, producing corporate videos, and even directing feature-length films like the History Channel's forthcoming Blood From a Stone (January 2003). And as the NFL positions itself as a global entertainment conglomerate with universal appeal, NFL Films has had to prove that it can package its work for everyone from women to novices to 18-year-olds on Saturday mornings.

Extracurricular projects have had a larger impact on the company than just the bottom line. "Now we're in the outside world competing with other producers for assignments," says Phil Tuckett, a 32-year veteran of NFL Films and vice president for special projects. "It's incredibly competitive, and it makes us push harder and work better." The company also uses outside assignments as an incubator to help it do its No. 1 job, making football movies for its network partners like ESPN, which still represents well over 75% of its annual revenues. Even when it doesn't face any competition, as in making the team-highlight films, the effort is no different. "We try to get an A+ in pass-fail courses," says Barry Wolper, COO, referring to how all 280 employees at NFL Films view their mission.

"Nothing is too small or inconsequential to analyze if it's going to make the product better," says Tuckett. "Even if it's just a little thing. Will viewers notice? Yeah, because of 1,000 other things just like it." NFL Films takes nothing for granted, including its relationships with network partners. It has been in business with HBO for 26 years and ESPN for 23. "It's unique to have a 23-year business relationship that's broader today than it's ever been," says John Wildhack, ESPN's senior VP of programming who aired more than 600 hours of NFL Films shows during the 2001 football season.

NFL Films employees take the same approach in their dealings with people around the league. As Steve likes to note, "People think that the access we get to a locker room, or to putting a microphone on a coach, is something mandated by the league. It isn't. It's all based on trust and the relationship that I have with the coaches and the owners. They know how much I care about the game. They know they can trust my judgment." (NFL Films also pays honorariums to folks when it asks for a lot of time.) Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame lineman and current executive director of the NFL Players Association, concurs. "Everyone wants to be in NFL Films, because they portray you in a good light. We knew it was internal. It builds more of a trust, and they never betray it."

Although that has led to media criticism for leaving out the seamier side of pro football, the people at NFL Films embrace their role of magnifying the game. Its corporate video proudly, jarringly, opens with the 1999 Sports Illustrated comment, "NFL Films is perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America."

Whether you call it propaganda or mythology, it's accomplished storytelling, and that's what the Sabols and NFL Films do best. As Bernard Doyle wrote in Encyclopedia Mythica, "Myths are a superb product of humanity collectively and a rich resource for the enjoyment of all mankind. Their fantastic and unreal nature to our modern eyes should not prevent us from enjoying them." Which is why, right now, in a backyard in America, a bunch of kids are replaying the latest exploits of their football heroes. In slow motion.