Fifty years ago, one of the most important companies in the history of sports was born. NFL Films is a multibillion-dollar operation that has played a key role in making pro football the most dominant sport in America. Not only that, its signature cinematic style – slow-motion camerawork, dramatic narration, and sweeping orchestral scores – has influenced nearly everything we see in televised sports today, from HBO's 24/7 to SportsCenter. It has been called "the gold standard in sports photography."
No one could have predicted the company would have such wide-ranging influence when it began, in 1962. During the regular season, the burgeoning National Football League announced that it was entertaining bids for companies to record its championship game. Ed Sabol, an overcoat salesman from Philadelphia bored with his job, won with the breathtaking sum of $3,000 – twice what the nearest competitor had put up.
On December 30, as the Green Bay Packers prepared to face the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, Sabol arrived with his 20-year-old son, Steve; four crewmen; and three 16mm cameras. The afternoon's brutal winter weather challenged filmmakers and players alike. "The field was like concrete," says Ed, now 96. "Every time Jim Taylor or Sam Huff would slam into the turf, you'd wince."
"They couldn't punt," adds Steve, 69. "When the ball went up, it hit a brick wall of wind."
Ed called the resulting film Pro Football's Longest Day. Commissioner Pete Rozelle was impressed by the way the Sabols took in the entire experience of the game, from the brutal line play to the anxious intensity of the hooded players on the sidelines. The fledgling company was awarded a contract to film the next two championships and, in 1965, every NFL game. Each of the league's 14 owners invested $20,000, and Blair Motion Pictures (originally named for Sabol's daughter) became NFL Films, an official arm of the league.