Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films and one of the off-the-field figures most instrumental in the meteoric rise of pro football, died Tuesday of brain cancer in Moorestown, N.J. He was 69.
NFL Films was launched by Ed Sabol, Steve’s father, when he paid $3,000 for the rights to the NFL Championship in 1962. It began documenting the league on television in ways that had never been done before. By 1965, NFL Films began to cover every game and two years later it produced full-length programming that would often serve as pre-game content ahead of network NFL coverage.
During the 1970s, under both Ed and Steve Sabol, NFL Films developed a highlights package that would run during “Monday Night Football” as well as different technologies to present instant replay. In 1979, NFL Films had grown large enough to move from a 19,000-square-foot production studio in Philadelphia to a 40,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar production lot in Mt. Laurel, N.J.
Steve Sabol began his career in 1964 as a cinematographer working for his father, who had his own movie production company. As a running back at Colorado College majoring in art history as well as an avid movie fan, Steve was, as his father put it, “uniquely qualified to make football movies.”
NFL Films has won more than 100 Emmys, with Sabol himself receiving 35 of those Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing. No one else in television has earned as many Emmys in as many different categories.
TV ratings have been enormous for the NFL in recent years. Most recently, ESPN reupped its deal with the league and paid $15.2 billion for the rights to “Monday Night Football,” and possibly a playoff game, through 2021.
NFL Films was instrumental in the launch of the NFL Network in 2003 as well as HBO’s summer reality series “Hard Knocks,” which began with an inside training camp look at the Baltimore Ravens in 2001.
Steve and Ed Sabol were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. In 2003 they received the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for “revolutionizing the way America watches football and setting the standard in sports filmmaking.”
Steve Sabol is survived by his wife, Penny; a son; his parents Audrey and Ed (he is 96); and a sister.
Donations may be sent to the Jefferson Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, c/o Lindsey Walker, 925 Chestnut Street, Suite 110, Philadelphia, PA 19107.