One of Rozelle's annual duties as commissioner was to sell the filmmaking rights to the league's championship game. The resulting half-hour films looked like an extended version of the highlight reels shown before movies in the earlier part of the century--press box views of big plays, presented in chronological order, accompanied by marching band music, and the cloying, alliterative voice-overs so common at the time. Tel-Ra Productions, the small Philadelphia company that had retained the rights to the NFL title game films for several years, was the leader in the market. Tel-Ra also packaged several teams' highlight films, the sort of things shown at fraternity smokers and booster club meetings as a vehicle for improving a club's season-ticket sales.
Into the modest bidding in November 1962 came a brash, artful Philadelphia huckster named Ed Sabol, a loud, vulgar, funny iconoclast who'd spent 20 prosperous but unhappy years working for his father-in-law's coat company. In 1956, at age 40, he cashed in his holdings and retired.
One of the avocations he'd taken up over the years was using his 16-mm camera to film his son Steve's football games, and by late 1962, Sabol had decided he wanted to get into the sports-film business. Knowing that the rights to the 1961 NFL title game had been sold for $2,500, he came in with a sealed bid for $5,000 from his start-up company Blair Motion Pictures Inc., whose credits included a Caribbean vacation film, a documentary about the vain quest of a man hunting whales with harpoons and a time-lapse film of a Howard Johnson's motel being constructed. After Rozelle opened the sealed bids and discovered that the high bidder, Blair Motion Pictures, had never filmed a professional football game, he called Sabol into his office for a consultation. Sabol made a dramatic pitch, proposing to use eight cameras instead of Tel-Ra's four, bring zoom lens and slow motion into the equation to provide more intimacy, use more-dramatic music and more-sharply-defined narration. After taking two days to think about it, Rozelle awarded the contract to Sabol, telling him, "I just hope that we get a film out of this."
The 1962 championship game, played in frigid conditions at Yankee Stadium, found the machinelike Packers defeating the New York Giants 16-7 to win their second straight title. The film about the game premiered for the press and Giants officials six weeks later at Toots Shor's restaurant on West 52nd Street. Titled Pro Football's Longest Day, Sabol's film opened with contrasting shots of tiny Green Bay and majestic New York, and short interview segments of Lombardi, Bart Starr and Frank Gifford. Then it cut to the opening credits, with a bank of 14 NFL team logos, disappearing one at a time until only the Giants' and Packers' logos remained. These clashed over the NFL shield in the middle of the screen, and the film cut to a shot of a miniature football stadium, inside of which stood two small bobblehead dolls, one in a Packers uniform and one in a Giants uniform. Over Chris Schenkel's clipped narration, written by Sabol himself, the frigid conditions became all the more vivid. The Packers' iconic Lombardi, pacing the sideline in his camel hair coat, took on the aspect of a general leading his troops into war. And the action that had unfolded too quickly to be fully absorbed live revealed itself to be a carefully orchestrated series of troop movements, captured in close-ups and slow motion by Sabol's cameras. After the screening, Rozelle told Sabol it was "the best football film I've ever seen."
Sabol held on to the rights for the 1963 and 1964 championship games and, after securing the latter, he came to Rozelle with a bold proposal. He suggested that the league bring Blair Motion Pictures in-house, as a promotional vehicle. In addition to shooting the championship game, Sabol could also assemble a staff that would produce highlight films for each team (and do so much more cheaply than the outside filmmakers who were then doing them) and would help each club find a sponsor for its film. At the league meetings in the spring of 1965, Sabol made his pitch, asking for a one-time investment of $20,000 per team. On the recommendation of Rozelle, the owners voted to buy Blair Motion Pictures and rename it NFL Films, putting Ed Sabol on the NFL payroll at $30,000 per year. The endeavor took flight immediately, and later that year many CBS affiliates, along with American Express, had bought into a syndicated weekly feature, the NFL Game of the Week. NFL Films also began to send two cameramen (one for a wide view of each play from the press box, another for close-ups from the field) to every NFL game. And so began the prolific documentation that would bring about the self-mythologizing of pro football.
The idea of bringing NFL Films in-house was more plausible to owners because of a project Rozelle had been working on since he began his second stint with the Rams, as a general manager, in 1957. The Rams' partnership for licensing souvenirs, with Larry Kent and Roy Rogers Inc., was so successful that in 1959 Kent proposed expanding it to the entire league, noting in a prospectus that pro football offered "the most exciting potential for brand name licensing that exists on the American scene."
The limited partnership of National Football League Enterprises was formally created on Oct. 1, 1959. The ambitious project put the use of all the teams' logos and emblems under the Roy Rogers umbrella, and while the partnership suffered a loss in its first full year, volume increased quickly. But both Kent and Rozelle recognized that for the plan to really pay off, it would have to be brought in-house, giving the league more creative control and a greater share of the profits. In 1963, Rozelle persuaded the owners to found National Football League Properties Inc., to act as the business arm of the teams in such areas as publishing, advertising and merchandising.
THE FIRST NFL PROPERTIES CATALOG INCLUDED SEAT CUSHIONS AND BOBBLEHEAD DOLLS, TEAM LOGO BABY BIBS AND UTILITY BAGS. IN NEW YORK DURING THE 1963 CHRISTMAS SEASON, SAKS FIFTH AVENUE HAD A giants locker room window display, featuring a full range of Giants souvenirs and a child-sized Giants uniform. In 1964, in cooperation with NFL Properties, Ford sponsored the league's Punt, Pass & Kick promotion. While the group's attempt to cater to girls--the NFL Pom-Twirl and Drill Competition--was decidedly less successful, most of the ventures were a hit. In 1965, a year after bringing the entity in-house, the league received rights payments of more than $100,000.
Kent was the can-do president of NFL Properties, and artist and graphic designer David Boss was hired as the design consultant. Boss, who in the late '50s had designed the Rams' slick yearbooks, by 1965 began the creative-services division of Properties, which provided design aid to licensees, clients and the teams themselves.
It would be a few more years before NFL Properties began to turn a significant profit. But profits in either case were incidental; Rozelle viewed both Properties and NFL Films as vehicles to expand the prestige and profile of the league. And in this, they succeeded spectacularly. In an increasingly fast-paced, commercialized age, the league had found a way to set itself apart. Up until the '60s, sports had been something to do, something to read about, or something to watch. With NFL Films it became something to be experienced, and with NFL Properties it became a kind of extended lifestyle choice. Pro football wasn't just for Sundays anymore. The NFL press office increased coverage of, and interest in, the league throughout the week. And the ancillary divisions developed other ways for the game to be enjoyed: A movie about football could be as entertaining as the game itself. And those who chose to identify with a particular team could now pay for the privilege, with handsome hats, Tshirts and other souvenirs. Pro football was escaping from its confines and beginning to insinuate itself into the larger realm of American popular culture.