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Sports Then and Now

NFL Wouldn’t Be a $9 Billion Industry Without Ed Sabol

Posted on August 06, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Ed Sabol helped turn the NFL into a $9 billion industry by capturing the sport like never before.

It seems fitting that just days after the NFL and its players finally figured out how to split $9 billion dollars that one of the men most responsible for turning the league into such a financial juggernaut is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Interestingly enough, the person I refer to, Ed Sabol, is the one person among the seven inductees that never played a down in the league.

Instead, as the founder of NFL Films, Sabol created a platform that showed the NFL players in a completely different light and elevated the sport into a national favorite.

Considering that unlike baseball and basketball, football players are hidden being a facemask, it would seem to be much harder for football players to become recognizable figures compared to players in other sports.

However, thanks to Sabol and NFL Films, which captured the grace and elegance of football through the use of slow motion and zoom cameras, generations of NFL fans are familiar with the style and power of players ranging from Jim Brown, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the early days to Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Mike Singletary in the 1970s and 80s to current stars such as Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson and Ray Lewis.

Through innovations such as placing microphones on players and coaches, shooting both wide angle and close-ups, slow motion and capturing players in the huddle and on the sidelines, NFL Films put fans in places they otherwise would never be and deepened the connection between fans and the game.

That a former Olympic caliber swimmer and clothing salesman from New Jersey would be the one to create the NFL’s vehicle for sports domination is a great “only in America story.”

Both Steve (left) and Ed Sabol deserve to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

A Jewish-American from Blairstown, New Jersey, Sabol attended Ohio State University and qualified for the 1936 Summer Olympics as a swimmer. However, he chose not to participate to protest the practices of Adolph Hitler. He did some acting in theatre before serving in World War II.

Following the war, Sabol worked as a clothing salesman before founding Blair Motion Pictures in 1962.

It was later that year when Sabol paid the NFL $3,000 for the rights to produce the highlight film for the 1962 NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants.

Soon after, Sabol changed the name of his company to NFL Films and became the official storyteller of the NFL.

Through the vision and guidance of Sabol and his son Steve, NFL Films quickly made football much more interesting for fans that wanted to see more than the brutality of the sport.

Using music and elegant scripts to set the mood and tell the story, NFL Films began to make football games into larger than life tales that captivated an audience. But they also recognized the importance of humor and making the players and game seem human. Their Football Follies films remain some of the most popular of all-time and helped lift the league and the business to new levels.

That it has taken until Sabol is 94-years-old for him to earn induction into the Hall of Fame is another example of the dysfunction of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process, but at least the voters were able to come to their senses while Sabol is still alive to enjoy this well-deserved honor.

Hopefully they won’t take as to also induct Ed’s son, Steve, who took over as President from his father and has taken the organization to even greater heights. The 68-year-old Sabol was diagnosed with a brain tumor in March, but will serve as the presenter for his father.

For nearly 50 years, NFL Films has served as the historians for the NFL. But by capturing that history on film, rather than in books, they have helped it come to life and given generations of fans a chance to enjoy the game beyond simply watching on Sundays.

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