NFL Hall-of-Famer, NFL Films Founder Ed Sabol Dies at 98
Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, died Monday at the age of 98 at his home in Scottsdale, AZ; he was a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011 and the inaugural Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2007. Sabol and NFL Films dramatically changed the way sports are presented and produced.
During his tenure (1964-95), NFL Films won 52 Emmy Awards and has gone on to win dozens more, building on the legacy of storytelling and innovation that Sabol established in founding NFL Films in 1964 and was continued by his son and fellow Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Steve Sabol.
“No one lived a fuller life than Big Ed,” says Howard Katz, COO, NFL Films/SVP, NFL Broadcasting. “No one was a greater visionary. His election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 speaks volumes about his impact on the game he loved so dearly. All of us throughout the National Football League and at NFL Films who had the opportunity to know him had our lives enriched.”
Sabol and his NFL Films team helped introduce a variety of production tools that have become the norm in coverage of football and all sports in general: wiring coaches, players, and refs for sound; widely deploying ground-level super-slow-motion replay and reverse-angle replay; using 600mm lenses and montage editing for sports; scoring original music and using pop music; and often finding angles previously unheard of in football coverage.
“I remember Ed telling us we were going to put a camera on the other side of the field and everyone thought he was crazy because no one had done that,” says Hank McElwee, EIC, cinematography, NFL Films, and one of its first employees. “His exact words were ‘We’re NFL Films. We’re not followers, we’re leaders.’ That was the kind of visionary the guy was. He was so far ahead of his time and constantly thought outside the box.”
It all started when Sabol founded Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter) and bid $5,000 for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game, doubling the previous year’s offer. The resulting film, Pro Football’s Longest Day, earned rave reviews and the approval of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, and the Sabols earned the rights to film the 1963 and 1964 championships. Sabol convinced Rozelle that the league needed a motion-picture company dedicated to preserving the history of the game, and, in 1964, NFL Films was born.
“Ed loved Hollywood movies, and that’s what he wanted our movies to be like — as did Steve,” says Bob Ryan, former VP, NFL Films, and the company’s fourth employee hired. “The sports fan will always like your movies, but he wanted little kids and women who didn’t give a damn about football to see the artistry and majesty of the game. [Announcer] John Facenda, original music, sideline sound — all were innovations of his.”
In 1967, They Call It Pro Football, the first feature-length NFL Films–style presentation, debuted, and the company was off and running. Sabol played an integral role in adding Facenda’s iconic voice to narrate the company’s films and championed what would be come an NFL Films signature: Football Follies.
“Big Ed always looked at [NFL Films employees] as part of his family, and he treated us like that,” remembers McElwee. “When we went to a job, we would do it for Big Ed and Steve. I always thought of Ed as the architect and builder of a house and Steve as the [interior] designer: Ed would build the house, and Steve would make it look amazing.”
Although Sabol was a driving force on the creative and technical side of things, he also drove NFL Films’ business side, cultivating relationships with Rozelle and NFL owners, as well as shrewd engineering distribution deals that exposed swaths of fans to NFL Films’ unique content.
“He ran the business side, not that he wasn’t interested in the creative side, but that was his biggest focus,” says Ryan. “He started the Pete Rozelle [relationship]; he cultivated friendships and pushed our salespeople. In fact, he was probably the greatest salesman we ever had. He got our product on the air when there were very few outlets; there was no ESPN or anything like that at that time. He peddled our product and charmed people, and, incrementally, each year our business grew, and all because of Ed.”
The Ohio State University alumnus and former overcoat salesman served as the president of NFL Films until 1985. He turned over the role to visionary sports filmmaker Steve, who died in 2012 at the age of 69.
“The word pioneer has been used plenty before, but that’s exactly what he was: a pioneer in sports filmmaking,” says Ryan. “The company has grown from a handful of people to hundreds of people, but the spirit that he engendered has never left.”
Today, NFL Films stands as one of the heavyweights in sports-video production with more than 250 employees and a 200,000+-sq.-ft. state-of-the-art production facility in Mt. Laurel, NJ. The company also has remained an innovator at every turn, producing docuseries trailblazer Hard Knocks for HBO and a wealth of unique content for NFL Network and a host of other major sports outlets.
“Through his determination and innovative spirit, Ed Sabol transformed how America watched football and all sports,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Ed ignited the fire at NFL Films and was the keeper of the flame with a remarkable vision and dedication to telling the stories of the people who played, coached, and loved the game.”
CLICK HERE to read Sabol’s full Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame profile and watch his 2011 acceptance speech.