NFL Films President Steve Sabol (1942-2012): 5 Top Ways He Was An Innovator, Visionary, Storyteller
''Today of course those techniques are so common it's hard to imagine just how radical they once were. Believe me, it wasn't always easy getting people to accept them, but I think it was worth the effort.'' -- Steve Sabol in a 2011 interview with the Associated Press, discussing his and his father's various innovations in filming NFL football
The NFL brings in an estimated $18 billion annually in television revenue, so the $50 million that NFL Films generates each year seems relatively insignificant. However, you could argue that without NFL Films' providing the prism through which many of us consume football outside of actual "on the field" hours, and without NFL Films' showing us the game's personalities and turning one-dimensional players into three-dimensional characters, the popularity the league has achieved to demand $18 billion annually from the networks would not exist.
On Tuesday, NFL Films president Steve Sabol, one half of the father-son duo who revolutionized how and why we watch American football, succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 69.
The Sabols have spent the last five decades telling stories, stories of every NFL player and franchise, every big game and botched snap. So today, it's only appropriate that Steve Sabol's story will get told thousands of times on television and in stories like this.
So here goes:
In 1962, a topcoat salesman turned aspiring filmmaker named Ed Sabol was hired for $12,000 by NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to film the NFL Championship Game. So impressed was Commissioner Rozelle by Sabol's work that he asked his ownership constituency to fund Sabol's company and make it the de facto production arm of his league.
One year and $20,000 in seed money per owner later, NFL Films was created, and Ed Sabol, along with his son, Steve, would spend the next five decades creating and shaping NFL memories for fans of all ages through various highlight packages, home videos, vignettes and specialty shows.
Steve himself would start out alongside his father as a cameraman, and eventually became an editor and writer as well throughout the 1960s and 1970s. When ESPN was launched in 1979, they signed NFL Films as a production company and Steve Sabol became an on-air personality. And make no mistake, to a ten-year-old in Connecticut jumping into the deep end of rabid NFL television viewing, that's who Steve Sabol was -- the big smiling fella who introduced the Football Follies.
The average fan knew little to nothing about Steve Sabol's "big picture" influence, but behind the scenes, Sabol was the creative horsepower, weaving NFL tales as mediums like home video and cable television began to take over the sports viewing landscape in the 1980s.
(NOTE: The parallels between Steve Sabol and WWE chairman Vince McMahon are astounding. Both were second-generation guys who started out working for their fathers, and both were probably known more to viewers in the '70s and '80s as "announcers" rather than "company owners." Above all else, they both share an unwavering passion for storytelling and creativity, albeit in different genres. I just thought it was an interesting sidebar.)
NFL Films would go on to win 107 sports Emmy Awards, and Steve Sabol would get credit on over a third of those. His father Ed would go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, presented by Steve.
Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell mourned the loss of Sabol (courtesy of Yahoo! Sports):
''Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films,'' NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement from the league confirming Sabol's death. ''Steve's passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve's legacy will be part of the NFL forever. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports, and a great friend.''
Everybody has their favorite NFL Films innovations or features, and as long as we are eulogizing the man who made football such a thrill to follow, here are a few of mine:
5. Microphones on players and coaches Of all the major sports, football has the biggest visual challenge in marketing individual players for the simple reason that we never see players' faces when they're on the field of play. It's a minor thing, but eye contact in any walk of life matters, and helmets put the NFL at a personality-marketing disadvantage. However, Sabol's proposal to put microphones on players and coaches gave us everything from Hank Stram's "65 Cross Power Trap"...
...to last weekend's Arian Foster "I Don't Know You, Bro" (which now has proper noun status)...
Most importantly, microphones on players and coaches created characters in which we, the fans, could emotionally invest. And that's what ultimately pays the bills.
4. Alcoa Fantastic Finishes As a child of the early '80s, these were a television staple for me, right alongside Schoolhouse Rock and the Scooby Doo Laff A Lympics . For those of you who weren't alive around that time, there were some serious energy conservation issues going on (Remember cars lining up for gasoline?). Alcoa was the world's leading producer of aluminum and a massive user of energy at that time, so they were in a constant public relations struggle.
In order to convey to the world the essentiality of aluminum to our daily lives and do so in the most cost-effective, impactful way possible (on a shoestring marketing budget), Alcoa decided to convey their message to NFL fans during NFL telecasts and do so at the height of viewership, which was the final two minutes of games. Thus, the Alcoa Fantastic Finishes were born! At the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter of every NFL game, an NFL Films-generated spot showing a great game finish like this one would run....
To this day, I still don't know why someone hasn't come in to fill this void. I loved these!
3. Football Follies There's a reason why DVDs of popular movies or television programs have entire sections dedicated to bloopers -- we LOVE to watch other people screw up! Steve Sabol knew this, and that's why he created the Football Follies series, a set of programs which today still run on the NFL Network showing all sorts of fumbles, tumbles and gaffes. They never get old...
2. Hard Knocks Probably the most critically acclaimed contemporary production from NFL Films and the Sabols would be HBO's Hard Knocks series, where unparalleled access to one NFL team every preseason generates at least one signature moment. (In 2012, it was new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin taking over a minute and a half to fire Chad Johnson, a deed that should have taken all of 15 seconds.) Through Hard Knocks , fans came to understand the sometimes uncomfortable "business" side of the NFL and training camp.
Oh, also, Rex Ryan...
1. Annual team highlight videos NFL Films would famously produce a highlight film for each team after every season, regardless of how great or poorly the team did. The videos were best known for glossing over or out and out ignoring any negative events that the team experienced during the season. So miraculously, in their Sabol-produced video, the Texans actually went 2-0 in 2005. Come to think of it, of all the noteworthy accomplishments belonging to Steve Sabol, his greatest feat may have been squeezing 30 minutes of highlights out of that Texans team. Incredible.
So, NFL fan, you may not know it, but a big piece of your football-watching soul passed away today. The grandparent who, perhaps unbeknownst to you, was the one telling you your football bedtime stories is no longer with us. We leave you now with The Autumn Wind, the unofficial anthem of the Oakland Raiders, written by Steve Sabol and blending everything that makes NFL Films great -- heroes, villains, football, heart-pumping music and the voice of John Facenda.
Rest in peace, Steve Sabol.
The Autumn wind is a pirate Blustering in from sea With a rollicking song he sweeps along Swaggering boisterously. His face is weatherbeaten He wears a hooded sash With a silver hat about his head And a bristling black mustache He growls as he storms the country A villain big and bold And the trees all shake and quiver and quake As he robs them of their gold. The Autumn wind is a Raider Pillaging just for fun He'll knock you 'round and upside down And laugh when he's conquered and won.
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