TCS Daily

From the Frozen Tundra of Mt. Laurel, NJ: NFL Films

By Edward B. Driscoll - January 30, 2004 12:00 AM

After the crowds leave Houston's Reliant Stadium on Sunday night, crates of film will arrive at the Mt. Laurel offices of NFL Films, to be quickly transformed into the National Football League's official documentary of Super Bowl XXXVIII, which already has scheduled for a February 24th release on DVD.

And besides its release on DVD and VHS, the highlight film will also be shown endlessly on TV, via ESPN and the NFL's own fledging network on DirecTV and some cable providers.

NFL Films began a few years before Super Bowl I in 1967, when the Green Bay Packers of the NFL beat the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, which would be merged into the older National Football League in 1970. During the first 15 years of the Super Bowl's history, all but a few of the games were blowouts. But thanks to NFL Films' efforts, these games are some of the best-remembered sporting events in history.

Steve Sabol, 61, is the president of NFL Films, taking over the role from his father, who founded the business, but is now semi-retired. "My father wanted to show pro football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction, in a big scope with majestic drama", but the younger Sabol wanted to add his own stamp onto this vision. "I was an art major in college, and Paul C├ęzanne once said that 'All art is selected detail'. And I felt that the one thing missing in sports films were the details." So, when Sabol began shooting for NFL Films in the mid-1960s, he began to concentrate on capturing those details himself. "I filmed the first fifteen Super Bowls and never saw a play. But I could tell you what kind of hat Tom Landry was wearing, how Vince Lombardi was standing in the fourth quarter, if Bob Lilly had a cut on the bridge of his nose. Those were the things that I remember in the Super Bowl."

Making a Blowout Must-See TV: The Voice of God

How do you take a dull Super Bowl and turn it into a great highlight film? A classic example of all of NFL Films' techniques in action was 1981's Super Bowl IV, where the Oakland Raiders crushed the Philadelphia Eagles, 27 to 10. The game itself was decided before halftime, heck, probably before the pregame show. But Sabol and his cinematographers shot the game with a battery of cameras, and then pulled out all the stops in the editing room to turn that rout into a great half-hour documentary: coaches and players wired for sound; multiple camera angles and animation diagramming key plays; super slow motion; and even a camera filming the Eagles' assistant coaches high above the field in the pressbox.

And the secret weapon for all of these early Super Bowls was narration by a man named John Facenda. Hollywood couldn't have had more perfect casting than NFL Films did in recruiting Facenda in the mid-1960s: if ever a man was born to narrate football, it was him.

Facenda was a local Philadelphia television news anchorman who became the mythic God-like voice of the NFL until his death in 1984. Early on in their history, the NFL Films' producers made a conscious choice to use less narration, which made Facenda's style even more important and dramatic. Steve Sabol says, "I felt that in order to make our films memorable and different, the script was going to be decreased, which meant that the voice that was used to read the script would be even more important."

Those Super Bowl films illustrate that as long as men play sports, there will always be great stories to be told even if it takes a little extra effort to dig for them. The trick of course, is finding new and unique ways to present those stories. While technology continues to advance, Bob Ryan, NFL Films' editor-in-chief says, "The basic ideas of good stories, and a good storyteller, will never change."

A Great Entrepreneurial Story

NFL Films is also one the great entrepreneurial stories in sports. In 1962, Ed Sabol was a 45-year-old clothing salesman and budding filmmaker who won a bid to shoot the highlight film of that year's NFL championship game. Pete Rozelle, the NFL's then-commissioner, so loved the finished product that he eventually appointed Sabol as the NFL's official documentarian. After viewing their 1965 film, They Call It Pro Football, Rozelle told him, "for the NFL to prosper, it has to succeed on television. And in order for the NFL to succeed on television, it needs a mystique. It needs a certain style. It needs an image. And the film that I just saw will help us create that image."

Steve Sabol says, "That was also as close to a mission statement as we ever got."

A recent Fortune article describes what NFL Films eventually became:

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.

Still In a Philadelphia Suburb

Ironically though, NFL Films has never considered moving from Mt. Laurel New Jersey, about 15 minutes away from Philadelphia, to a ritzier environment such as Manhattan or Los Angeles. Instead, in 1999, they began construction of a new, 200,000 square foot facility on 26 acres of land, a few miles away from the much more modest offices they had occupied since the mid-1970s.

When I drove past the old offices last summer, they were still up for sale. The real estate agent? The Staubach Company, owned by Roger Staubach, the Hall of Fame quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, during their "America's Team" period in the 1970s.

Of course, it was NFL Films itself that dubbed the Cowboys "America's Team", when they gave that title to the Cowboy's '78 team highlight film.

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

And a lot to do with maintaining it as the number one sport as well.


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