THE NATIONAL Football League wasn't always the enormously popular, Midas-touch monolith that it is today. Once upon a time, it was a struggling league that was running a distant third in popularity and TV ratings to baseball and even college football.
It is not overstating things to say NFL Films changed all that.
Forty-three years ago, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle summoned NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, and his son Steve, to his Manhattan office and gave them the formidable task of turning pro football into America's game.
Rozelle told them that the league needed a larger-than-life image, a mystique, a sense of magic that would attract the nation's sports fans. The Sabols took it from there.
They created a mythic image of pro football with their game-as-war filmmaking, and America absolutely ate it up. "We created a way of portraying the game," Steve Sabol said 2 years ago.
That "way" has helped turn the NFL into an $8 billion-a-year cash cow that has left baseball and college football and every other sport in its dust. That "way" has helped the Sabols and NFL Films win an impressive 92 Emmys over the years, with another 14 nominations announced earlier this month.
But the layoffs earlier this month of 21 NFL Films employees was the latest indication that many in the league may think that "way" has outlived its usefulness.
The league says the layoffs, which numbered 7.4 percent of Films' Mount Laurel, N.J., work force, were strictly part of a leaguewide belt-tightening. It also has pointed to HBO's recent decision to end its long-running show, "Inside the NFL," which relied heavily on NFL Filmsproduced work.
"We're in a time in America financially that's quite unique," New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, the chairman of the league's broadcast committee, told the Daily News. "Everyone's trying to run their business soundly.
"I think what you're going to see in America in the next 6 to 9 months is, every company is going to look at redundancy. Whether it's newspapers or brokerage firms or insurance companies or retailers or professional sports leagues. We're in a period in our economy where people who want to be strong 10-15 years from now have to do that. If they don't, they won't be around."
Kraft and the league's other owners will discuss the Films layoffs, as well as the struggles of the 4-year-old NFL Network, next week at their annual March meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.
In downplaying the layoffs at Films, Kraft pointed out that the league has hired "many times what we laid off there" at its Web site, NFL.com. But that just buttresses the belief by many that the league is phasing out the quality filmmaking that NFL Films has become famous for over the years.
Steve Bornstein, the former ESPN chief who was brought in by the league to run NFL Media, which includes the NFL Network, NFL.com and NFL Films, has shown less and less interest in Films' signature programming, according to several league sources. He has indicated, the sources said, it's too expensive to make and that there isn't a market out there for it anymore.
"The shots that people associate with Films, those long, beautiful, super slo-mo shots of a spiraling football, the NFL Network people hate that," said a league executive familiar with the situation. "It's too slow for them.
"They're so into their mind-set. The people they've brought in [at NFL Network] are either from ESPN or 'Best Damn Sports Show.' And they have their idea of what's good television. It's a vastly different kind of thing than what NFL Films has produced."
Bornstein vehemently denies suggestions that he thinks NFL Films has become a dinosaur.
"I think NFL Films is a critical part of not only the mythology of the NFL, but a critical part of the success of the NFL Network," he said in a recent interview with the Daily News. "The people I know at Films thank the day that the NFL Network was created because they finally had an outlet for their product."
Truth be told, no one at Films right now is thanking the day the NFL Network was created. The company-wide sentiment is that the network's ongoing war with the nation's two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner, which is costing the league an estimated $250 million a year in subscriber fees, along with Bornstein's disinterest in Films-produced programming, was directly responsible for the layoffs, though both Bornstein and Kraft said there is no linkage.
The league's impasse with Comcast and Time Warner over which tier the cable companies should place the NFL Network on is becoming a growing source of frustration to many in the league and is expected to be a hot-button issue in Palm Beach when Bornstein makes his report to the owners.
"I'm a little bit perplexed that they haven't been able to work this out," an NFL club president told the Daily News. "I do contracts and negotiations every day. Usually, you find a way to get it resolved with some give-and-take on both sides. But this has been going on for some time with no resolution in sight.
"The network is of interest to a large number of people. But I don't know if we can force it down the cable companies' throats. At least not at the financial level we've been talking about."
The league is charging cable distributors 70 cents per subscriber per month. Last year, Comcast moved the NFL Network from its general-interest digital tier to its sports tier, which requires digital subscribers to pay extra. The NFL Network lost 6 million customers when that happened. The network isn't on Time Warner cable systems at all.
Kraft said the league had hoped the NFL Network would be in 75 million to 80 million homes already. Instead, it's in just 31 million. It lost another 4 million subscribers recently when Dish Network dropped NFLN from its "America's Top 100" package to its "America's Top 200" package. The "Top 100" package reaches an estimated 12 million Dish subscribers. The "Top 200" package reaches 8 million.
"It's been frustrating," admitted Kraft, who also serves on the three-man operations committee that oversees the NFL Network. "But we have a long view of things. Over time, we'll find a way to get a resolution to this. One way or another, we'll do something that allows us to . . . we'll either do partnerships with media companies or partnerships with cable or something. We'll wind up getting the distribution we want."
In addition to the low subscription numbers, there also are growing complaints around the league about the quality of the programming on the NFL Network. Two weeks ago, the league put out a release trumpeting the fact that the NFL Network, NFL Films and NFL.com received 15 sports Emmy nominations. But 14 of them, including for last year's well-received "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions" series, were earned by Films and the other by NFL.com.
Many feel the "America's Game" series, which aired on the NFL Network, may be one of the best things NFL Films ever has done. But when Steve Sabol approached NFL Network executives recently about doing another "America's Game" project, sources said he he was rebuffed. The explanation: We don't have the money for it right now.
The decision to nix an "America's Game'' sequel has only reinforced the feeling at Films that Bornstein and the other executives at NFL Network don't have much appreciation for what NFL Films is or has been.
The late George Halas long ago dubbed Films "the keeper of the flame" for the league, and the Sabols have taken that title seriously. They felt it was their obligation to preserve the history of the game and help educate new generations of fans to that history with their quality film-making.
But the people running NFL Network seem to view the history of the game the way high school sophomores do the history of the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution.
"Everything about the network is about what's happening right now," one Films employee said. "Some of the best stuff we've done over the years has been the historical stuff. But they just don't want to go there. They just don't think there's an audience for that. They think if people tune into the NFL Network and see black-and-white footage, they're on to the next channel."
Bornstein has ended much of Films' signature programming, which included the long-running "NFL Films Presents" series on ESPN and Films' Emmy-winning "Lost Treasures" anthology.
The "Game of the Week" show that Films used to produce for the NFL Network, complete with music, script and Films' unique camera work, has been replaced by much-cheaper-to-make "Instant Replay," which essentially is SportsCenter type highlights of games. Films ended up selling "Game of the Week" to the ION television network, whose primary programming is reruns of old shows like "Baywatch," "Who's The Boss?" and "Mama's Family."
The primary focus of the NFL Network now, with the exception of the eight late-season games it has televised each of the last 2 years, is its tough-to-watch studio show, "NFL Total Access," with Rich Eisen, which it shows on a loop several times a day.
"Editorially, we're very pleased by the content we're putting out there," Bornstein said. "The product has exceeded all of my expectations. Every week, our ratings seem to be growing. We think it's popular programming that the consumer wants."
Bornstein insists that Films has produced more product in the 4 years that NFL Network has been around than in any 4-year period in its history. While that may be true, most of the product Bornstein has them producing is nowhere near the quality of previous Films projects.
NFL Films spends most of its time assembling highlights packages that run on "Total Access" or putting together video streams for NFL.com. It's like having Picasso paint "Dogs Playing Poker."
Said Bornstein: "Has the product mix changed? I hope so, as we evolve and figure out what people want and what seems to be resonating with our consumer."
Kraft insists that NFL Films still has a vital role in the league's future.
"If NFL Films is a dinosaur, I'd like to be surrounded by dinosaurs," he said. "The film library, the asset base that's there, the programming . . . it's sort of like Beatles music or Beethoven's symphonies or Brahms. When you and I aren't here anymore, people will still love to watch it because of the quality of it and the uniqueness and the appeal. I think it's pretty special."
As for the NFL Network, which debuted in 2004, the league's owners had hoped it would immediately become a big revenue-producer. When commissioner Roger Goodell testified before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet earlier this month, he called the network "an essential part of [the NFL's] long-term strategy for maintaining the health of the sport of football."
But the league's battle with Comcast and Time Warner has stunted the network's growth, and with it, the revenue it had hoped it would produce. According to league sources, the network isn't losing money, but it's not making very much either.
"The NFL Network was created for a bunch of different reasons," Bornstein said. "One of them was to market the sport. One of them was to make football information and product and programming available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And yes, being a source of financial strength also was an objective."
Said Kraft: "We haven't gotten the distribution we wanted. We got geared up hoping we would, but it didn't happen. But it will happen eventually. One way or another, we will accomplish what we need to.