Steve Sabol: Film-maker who revolutionised TV sports coverage


Half a century ago, pro football (the American version) languished in fourth place among the country's favourite spectator sports. Today, the National Football League has supplanted baseball as the true national TV pastime and become the richest sports league on the planet, with annual revenues of $9bn. For that astonishing success no single individual perhaps was more responsible than Steve Sabol.

Back in 1962, when NFL Films was founded by Steve's father Ed, the game was remote from viewers, hard to understand and with endless breaks in play; in short, not much of a spectacle. NFL Films, of which from the outset the son was the driving creative force, changed that state of affairs – and in the process sports broadcasting around the world.

Sabol swamped the touchlines with cameras, searching for the tiny close-up that makes sporting heroes human. He turned slow-motion into an art form, persuaded coaches and players to wear microphones, put together riveting reels of highlights and bloopers. Narration was provided by the former TV anchor John Facenda, modestly presented as "The Voice of God". If further embellishment was required, it was provided by the music of Tchaikovsky. At a stroke, a game of journeymen was transformed into an epic contest of gladiators locked in bone-crushing combat, a pageant of sweat and blood, triumph and tragedy, that turned the sport's intrinsic violence almost into an art form.

Hollywood itself couldn't have done a better job – indeed many Sabol techniques became part of a studio's box of tricks. Americans simply couldn't get enough football. Ratings soared and money poured in. Sports Illustrated was not exaggerating when it described NFL Films as arguably "the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America."

The breakthrough came in that first year, when Ed Sabol persuaded the League to make his new-fledged enterprise the official videographer for the NFL Championship Game – forerunner of today's Super Bowl – between New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. Soon its material was being used by the networks to enhance their own coverage. NFL Films' estimated revenue now exceeds $50m a year.

Steve Sabol was born for the job. He had been a keen football player during his years at Colorado College, where he made the all-Rocky Mountain Conference team as a running back. That success reflected in part his talent as a player, but also his gifts of self–promotion. He possessed the showy bombast that is part and parcel of today's NFL, once describing himself as "The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry at the Pinnacle of His Power", and adorning himself with the nickname "Sudden Death." He was a graduate in art history to boot, and a huge film fan.

As a skills-set to serve the aggrandisement of the NFL, it could not have been bettered – as his father realised. When Ed Sabol won the rights for the 1962 Championship game, he was quickly on the phone to his 20-year-old son, summoning him to the cause. "All you've done in all your life is play football and go to the movies. You ought to be able to make some contribution."

In later years the Sabols were showered with accolades and awards. "We see the game as art as much as sport," Steve told the Associated Press as his father was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, the same year he himself was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. "That helped us nurture not only the game's traditions but to develop its mythology."

Rupert Cornwell

Steven Douglas Sabol, sports film-maker: born Moorestown, New Jersey 2 October 1942; married Penny Ashman (one son); died Moorestown 18 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power