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Super Bowl 100: The future of sports media
3:46 | NFL
Super Bowl 100: The future of sports media

By Brian Barrett, WIRED

The 2014 season was much like any other for NFL fans. The Buccaneers stank, the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Pretty typical, at least for this decade. It was anything but at NFL Films.

At the venerable video arm of the National Football League, purveyor of operatic sporting scenes from “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” and beyond, last year will be remembered as when it finally left film behind for good. NFL Films finally quit the 16-millimeter stock on which it had been shooting for decades, and replaced it with a gaggle of digital cameras.

“We had to go digital,” says NFL Films COO Howard Katz, for a host of financial and technological reasons. As symbols go, it’s not a bad one. A proud company, steeped in a fading tradition, embraces the future at the 11th hour (or, perhaps, late in the fourth quarter). Ensuring that NFL Films still has a place in an era that’s more Snapchat than slow-motion spirals takes more than an equipment upgrade, though. It has mandated a new way of thinking, as well.

To understand just how much NFL Films has changed, it’s helpful to know where it started. In the early 1960s, erstwhile overcoat salesman Ed Sabol formed a production company called Blair Motion Pictures. Despite his limited experience, which to that point largely comprised taking 8mm film of his son’s high school football games, Sabol’s fledgling outfit won a bid to film the 1962 NFL Championship game.

In order to convince then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that he was equipped for the job, Sabol described the type of film he wanted to make. “Sabol was a salesman, and a very good one,” says Travis Vogan, University of Iowa professor and author of Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films, Pro Football, and the Rise of Sports Media in America. “He sold Rozelle on this idea that he’d make it like a war movie, he’d make it cinematic … It would be about the struggle these people are facing against the elements, against each other.”

The pitch worked. The resulting film, Pro Football’s Longest Day, was a creative success. Just two years later, the NFL bought Blair Motion Pictures, renaming it NFL Films. Its purpose? To make America love football.

“The whole point of [NFL Films] is to represent football as this glorious, heroic, dramatic spectacle in ways that sell the NFL,” says Vogan. “They developed their signature conventions after becoming NFL Films; the ground-level slow motion, the montage editing, the symphonic score, the booming, baritone narration. They created a presence for the NFL on television at that time beyond its live games.”

Importantly, Vogan notes, this all occurred during a time before ESPN arrived, churning out highlight reels on a 24-hour basis. NFL Films precedes even Monday Night Football. Repackaging games into aspirational content, in other words, wasn’t just an artistic feat; it meant that football could be imprinted on sports fans’ consciousness multiple times a week rather than just Sunday afternoons. And not just football; football re-imagined as a grand march to Valhalla. 

The NFL Films of that era did wonders for the league that owned it. It was, as Vogan and many others have pointed out, a marketing triumph.

That success has eroded. The advent of cable meant there was no shortage of football footage to consume. The appeal of bombastic long-form content that NFL Films produced has found unsure footing in the internet age. And the NFL itself built out its media presence across multiple avenues, including its own 24-hour network. The very things that had made NFL Films great no longer resonate.

In short, it’s been a painful decade. NFL Films went through a round of layoffs in 2008, leaving some to wonder if the unit would survive. Marquee productions like Game of the Week left the airwaves, replaced by fast-twitch fare like NFL Replay and NFL Top 10. Kodak, supplier of the 16mm film NFL Films had used for decades to achieve its signature look, declared bankruptcy in 2012.

That’s the context in which NFL Films made the switch to digital, a move that allows for speed and cost savings while actually improving the quality of the images captured, according to Jeff Howard, a 28-year NFL Films veteran who oversaw the transition. Even a change with such obvious benefits, though, came hard.

“For the longest time it was a heretical concept to even broach around the organization,” says Howard. “It was certainly an emotional issue. There was concern about losing our identity as we were migrating to something else other than film.”

Those concerns were allayed, Howard says, once the team realized that the high-tech Arri Alexa and Arri Amira cameras the company eventually bought were able to not just match the standards to which NFL Films had been accustomed, but exceed them.

“The large image sensors on these cameras are delivery spectacular images,” Howard explains, “They’ve actually resulted in better images than 16mm, while maintaining cinematic quality.”

Shooting on digital also affords NFL Films an even more critical currency in today’s no-huddle news cycle: speed. Whereas canisters of film needed to be physically shipped from stadiums back to NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, all the digital age requires is data transmission. Bits and bytes move much faster than trucks and planes.

“I think we shot 27 total cameras at the Super Bowl last year,” says Katz, “and we had all the footage back at Mount Laurel within two hours after the final whistle.”

Saving that much time on transit means that NFL Films can push shows like Inside the NFL a day earlier—it had aired on Wednesday, now it’s on Tuesday—without sacrificing creative schedules. The color correction, the editing; all the production aspects that help define the NFL Films aesthetic are allotted just as much time as before.

The type of content all those terabytes of footage are put towards has changed as well. “We still do a lot of long-form storytelling, we still have hour-long documentaries that we do every week,” Katz says. “But at the same time, we produce content for different formats, and we intend to continue to do more and more of that.”

In addition to list-driven NFL Network shows, those new frontiers include, most recently, a series of online shorts with popular podcast duo Men in Blazers. Those aired in the run-up to this season’s Bills-Jaguars game that was, in another forward-focused move, streamed on Yahoo rather than broadcast to traditional television networks.

Some of this experimentation has angered fans, who perceive NFL Films as abandoning its roots in favor of less artistic fare. Katz acknowledges that those editorial decisions have resulted in some unfortunate creative losses. “Game of the Week is the best show that’s not on TV,” he says. A great show doesn’t necessarily command a large audience, though. Or, maybe more importantly, the right kind of audience.

“That kind of romanticized, slower-paced documentary doesn’t really serve the purpose that they did in the 70s,” says Vogan. “I don’t know if the old-school kind of production would be increasing the NFL’s fan base.”

Which is ultimately all that matters. Most nostalgia for NFL Films, after all, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of why NFL Films exists. Its purpose, unchanged since the Blair Films days, remains the same: to sell America on football. In the 1960s, that meant gridiron sturm und drang. In 2015, it means something entirely different.

Take Hard Knocks, arguably the most visible NFL Films production, thanks to its partnership with HBO. A fairly straightforward reality show chronicling the training camp of a single team each season, Hard Knocks is in many ways the inverse of those earlier productions. Instead of lionizing players, it humanizes them, in a way that fits neatly with the personality-driven, social media age.

“The storytelling and the cinematography [of Hard Knocks] are certainly operating out of a tradition that NFL Films developed earlier on,” says Vogan, “but it’s taking bits and pieces of that tradition maybe and updating it to a format that’s more amenable to today’s audience.”

Hard Knocks also represents one of the NFL’s earliest dalliances with television over the internet; as of last season (the show’s ninth), it finally began airing on HBO Go, the cable network’s streaming service. Previously, unlike the vast majority of HBO shows, Hard Knocks had been limited to traditional television only.

It’s a small, belated step. But along with the streaming Yahoo game, it signals that the NFL may be willing to if not embrace the internet, at least greet it with a firm handshake.

“I certainly hope and expect that all these emerging distribution opportunities become opportunities for NFL Films content,” says Katz. “People consume media in different ways now … We need to be able and ready and prepared to adapt our production techniques to deliver people what they want, in the forms that they want and the lengths that they want.”

That revelation would sound more at home in 2005 than it does in 2015, but at least NFL Films is putting itself in a position to act on it. The switch from shooting film to digital has already upped the organization’s metabolism, and an ongoing effort to digitize the hundreds of millions of feet of film stockpiled in the archives will give increased flexibility as well—though Howard notes that so far his team has transitioned just 15 percent of the total footage. That’s a more impressive number than it may sound, though; Howard says the amount of time it would take to take the whole vault digital would have to be measured “in man-decades,” rather than hours.

NFL Films may never have much of a social media presence. It’ll never speak GIF. But it has finally shown signs that it knows how to keep pace with an age that could well have left it behind. The content may take different forms than Ed Sabol’s original vision, but the purpose is the same: make the NFL look great, wherever its fans happen to be looking.

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