The future of NFL Films looks bleak

With Steve Sabol's untimely death, there's no one to protect what he built from the cheapskates at NFL Network

Steve Sabol died on Tuesday from brain cancer at age 69. The president of, and artistic sensibility behind, NFL Films since the late 1960s, Sabol essentially created the myth and glamour of the modern National Football League, through the use of cinematography, music, wireless microphones, humor, poetry, and an innate belief that every football game was 60 minutes of savage ballet, with dozens of stories begging to be told, from the profound to the poignant.

It won’t be hard to find tributes to Sabol and his work. But while the hosannas are deserved, less discussed is the present and future of the unique company Sabol’s father, Ed, created, and Steve ushered forward.

With the advent of the NFL Network in 2003, it was thought that NFL Films would have a new, 24-7 canvas to both feature its classic work and expand on it. Certainly, at first, the network showed wall-to-wall Films programming, new and old. But financial pressure and creative differences have led the network to pull away from the filmmakers who were so instrumental in building the league to the point where it could have a network of its own.

“Game of the Week” has long been NFL Films’ signature show, a 30-minute pleasure that featured the company’s best-known and inimitable techniques. When you think of the trademark Sabol image, the tight, slow-motion shot of a football spiraling through the air for what seemed like forever, chances are you saw it on “Game of the Week.”

Alas, NFL Network found the show, like the spiral shot itself, too slow and boring for today’s audiences, brought up on the whipsaw editing of the Jason Bourne movies and the manic pace and direction of NFL games on Sundays. So “Game of the Week” is no more, bounced in favor of listicle-type shows such as “The Top 100: Players of 2012,” a bit of nonsense that counted down the “best” the game has to offer. Tim Tebow was 95th. Enough said.

“Their approach is how much cheap crap can you turn out as quickly as possible so we can stick it on this godawful network that we’ve created,” longtime Films vice president Phil Tuckett told the Philadelphia Daily News last year.

Indeed, a perusal of the network’s schedule bears Tuckett out. “Game of the Week” was subsumed by “NFL Replay,” which is just the network broadcast of a game cut down to an hour. Meanwhile, slap-togethers dot the listings, like “Top Ten Things We Love About Tim Tebow” (there he is again), “Top Ten Collapses,” “Top Ten Top Ten Lists”—you get the idea. Films programs like “A Football Life” and “America’s Game,” along with reruns of Sabol’s most recent classic, “Hard Knocks,” are still there, but spread thinner and thinner.

The bottom line is to blame, naturally. NFL Network loses millions each year (precisely how much is a closely guarded secret), and while that’s tip money next to the gargantuan haul the league brings in, it doesn’t look good when Steve Bornstein, who runs the network, presents his financials each quarter. So slickly produced shows shot on expensive film were phased out, in favor of programming that could be easily put together in Los Angeles, where the network is based.

The network could, and should, be based in the NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, NJ, where the league spent $45 million upgrading the facility just a year before NFL Network went on the air. But Bornstein made his hiring conditional on not leaving LA, so the league built a studio in his proverbial backyard. Films has been forced to let a sizable number of employees go due to the inevitable tug of war between the two entities on opposite coasts, and without Sabol around to defend his hard-won turf, that number may increase.

Morale at Films, already low, will doubtless plummet again with the death of its leader. But there are still games to be shot every Sunday, and other shows—notably “NFL Matchup,” produced by one of Films’ best, Greg Cosell—to put together to help take a nation of football fanatics further inside the game.

“NFL Matchup,” it should be noted, airs on ESPN.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , ,