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Volume 21 No. 1
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NFL Films keeps rolling, still guided by Sabol’s standards

John Ourand
Three weeks ago, a group of NFL Films producers listened to musical suggestions for its annual “Road to the Super Bowl” production that airs Super Bowl Sunday on CBS.

The producers, which included coordinating producers Ross Ketover and Pat Kelleher plus music composer David Robidoux, offered their opinions on the tracks that worked and the ones that didn’t for the annual series.

Only it wasn’t actually their opinions they were giving. Rather, it was the opinions they thought would have been voiced by Steve Sabol, NFL Films’ most famous employee, who died in September after an 18-month battle with brain cancer.

“We were all listening to it and thinking, ‘This piece is what Steve would use in the open that he would cut,’ or ‘This piece of music right here, he wouldn’t like that as much,’” Kelleher said. “Steve would cut the open to ‘Road to the Super Bowl’ every year. This year is the first year he’s not involved in that. Hopefully, it will live up to the standard that Steve has created for the last 43 years.”

This year’s “Road to the Super Bowl” production is the first since the death of longtime NFL Films leader Steve Sabol.
The producers acknowledge that there’s been a void in their Mount Laurel, N.J., offices since Sabol died four months ago. The Sabol name has been synonymous with NFL Films since it was founded five decades ago by his father, Ed. Given unprecedented access, Sabol and NFL Films have documented the history of the league through video for more than four decades, picking up 107 Emmy Awards in the process.

The driving force behind growing NFL Films, Sabol also was the driving force behind keeping it relevant, which hasn’t always been easy in recent years.

Ever since the league launched its own network nearly a decade ago, NFL Films has faced rumors that its days were numbered. Over the years, many stories appeared in the press that painted a picture of team owners who were more interested in supporting a profitable cable network than a production company.

It’s a legitimate question to ask: What will become of NFL Films now that Sabol, its guiding light, is no longer around.

Right now, it’s business as usual. Just a week away from the Super Bowl — the game where NFL Films made its reputation — the production house is producing more projects for more networks, from shows for NFL Network to a touch football game for Univision. For the 26th straight year, NFL Films will be shooting the Super Bowl MVP Walt Disney World/Disneyland commercial on the field immediately after the game.

All told, NFL Films produces shows for 11 networks, including all of the league’s network partners, plus channels like Showtime and Travel Channel.

Even though Sabol attended every Super Bowl up until last year, when his doctors said he shouldn’t, Ketover said NFL Films producers will not feel the void during the week or even during the game. He said that’s a testament to how Sabol ran the company.

“I went through enough of the Super Bowl breakfast meetings that Steve would have with all of the cameramen, where he would say, ‘You guys are the best in the business. You know what you’re doing,’” Ketover said. “Steve would entrust them to record the game, shoot the game on film, do the wires.”

Rather, Ketover expects to notice Sabol’s absence in the weeks after the game, when he doesn’t have Sabol’s trained eye to help edit the shows.

“The hardest part for us will be when we’re showing him our finished product and he’s not there to show it to,” he said.

As an example, Ketover mentioned a documentary on former coach Don Shula that will run on CBS the day before the game. When Ketover and Kelleher saw a rough cut of the film last week, it ran long.

The producers edited it down to the appropriate length, but wished Sabol were around to help.

“That’s what Steve was best at — coming in, watching a show that was long, knowing what was superfluous and what was part of really telling the story of the coach,” Ketover said. “It was hard trimming that show down. Steve would have been able to cut through that better than anybody.”

John Ourand can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.