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Gridiron empire: Remembering NFL pioneer Steve Sabol

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 8:42 a.m. MDT

In this Aug. 6, 2011 photo provided by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ed Sabol, right, poses with a bust of himself and his presenter Steve Sabol during induction ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio.  (Associated Press) In this Aug. 6, 2011 photo provided by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Ed Sabol, right, poses with a bust of himself and his presenter Steve Sabol during induction ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio. (Associated Press)

NFL Films president Steve Sabol died Tuesday from brain cancer at the age of 69. But for the foreseeable future, Sabol's influence will still permeate contemporary society. The NFL dominates the television medium via untouchable ratings and unprecedented ad revenues, and the NFL's TV popularity is built squarely on a foundation Sabol laid with his pioneering ways and nearly five decades of yeoman's work.

Steve Sabol's legacy

An outpouring of effusive Sabol obituaries hit the Internet Tuesday and Wednesday. Snips from some of those pieces:

Associated Press: "(Sabol) started working with his father, Ed — NFL Films' founder — in 1964, and they introduced a series of innovations now taken for granted today, from slow-motion replays to sticking microphones on coaches and players."

Los Angeles Times: "If you aren't a fan of the NFL, you may not realize what an impact Sabol had, not only on football, but on all sports, with his innovative ideas on showing highlights of games. But fans of the NFL, and people inside the sport, know what a great loss this was."

This Feb. 5, 2011 file photo shows Steve Sabol during an interview in Dallas. NFL Films President Steve Sabol has died from brain cancer. He was 69. The NFL said Sabol died Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 18 months after he was diagnosed with a tumor on the left side of his brain. (Associated Press) This Feb. 5, 2011 file photo shows Steve Sabol during an interview in Dallas. NFL Films President Steve Sabol has died from brain cancer. He was 69. The NFL said Sabol died Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 18 months after he was diagnosed with a tumor on the left side of his brain. (Associated Press)

New York Times: "Steve Sabol (was) the creative force behind NFL Films, his father’s innovative enterprise that melded cinematic ingenuity, martial metaphors and symphonic music to lend professional football the aura of myth and help fuel its rise in popularity."

AP columnist Jim Litke: "Before Sabol and his father, Ed, came along in the early 1960s, football looked lost on TV. The players seemed small and faceless, like cogs in a machine. All the histrionics on the sidelines between the plays seemed pointless. … Then the Sabols hauled all those cameras and mics down to eye level and occasionally peeked behind the scenes. The modest father-son enterprise that became NFL Films made the game look and sound exactly like the messy, sometimes-noble human enterprise it was."

Bloomberg Businessweek: "NFL Films, based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, has won more than 100 Emmy Awards, with Steve Sabol receiving 40 of those for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing. In 2003, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences."

Media monolith

In February, AP reported the following facts about the NFL's unparalleled television popularity:

  • NFL games accounted for 23 of the 25 most-watched telecasts last fall, and a total of 37 games drew at least 20 million viewers each.
  • The last two Super Bowls were the two most-viewed programs in U.S. television history.
  • NBC, CBS and Fox recently renewed their NFL contracts through the 2022 season, with annual bumps in rights fees that will bring the total revenue generated by those deals from nearly $2 billion per year to more than $3 billion. In September, ESPN kept "Monday Night Football" through the 2021 season, increasing its annual payments from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion.
With all that TV money pouring into NFL coffers, last year Forbes magazine estimated that "the NFL’s 32 teams generated a total of $8.3 billion in revenue (in 2010)" and "the average National Football League team is now worth $1.04 billion."

J.G. Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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