NFL Films could have a lot to show Sky, the BBC, ITV, & Channel 5 if they're willing to listen. IBWM's latest contributer Sam Brown explains.
Recently I've heard a lot of criticism from friends, from blogs, and the national press concerning the standard of punditry on all the British channels that show football. Its certainly a charge I agree with, and I would be one of the first to call for a revamped format for most of the flagship football programs, where punditry should be informative rather than the safe and (embarrassingly) obvious tidbits our pundits like to churn out on a weekly basis. However, I would argue that this problem is part of a wider one. How we watch football in the UK has remained consistent for over forty years now. Sure, pundits draw lines on a computer screen to announce where Gerrard or Rooney like to make runs, but it feels oddly out of place when the next minute an injured pro is talking boorishly about his teams hopes for the season. A good place to start, to really get the juices flowing, would be to change the way we film and document football.
When I was 5 years old, my Dad went to watch the Superbowl in America. Amongst the baseball caps, the t-shirts and the soft drinks cups with the bendy straws (popular in the eighties/nineties) that he bought back for me to mark the occasion, was a VHS of the San Francisco 49ers made by NFL Films. I must have watched this VHS over a 100 times, and even nowadays I still go back to it for a dose of nostalgia. Although it has many of the things the British football fan despises - overt sentimentalism and corny narration that gets away from the supposed 'realness' of the occasion, it has many qualities I have still yet to regularly see on a British football program.
NFL Films have become all but responsible for most of the NFL's videoed material (highlight programs, feature films and documentaries) except for the live game coverage handled by the individual television networks. Their format is tried and tested and has changed very little over their lifetime. Most notably is the way that the action is filmed. Since the 1960's, NFL Films have deployed camera techniques verging on Oscar-winning cinematography (some of their documentaries have won Emmys at least), capturing anything from the players breathing out water vapor, head coaches with shredded nerves, or capturing the crowd oohing and aahing at an amazing catch or a hard hit. Each game is treated as its own entity meaning that a low scoring defensive war of attrition in Oakland will be captured in a different light to a high scoring glamourous affair in New York. This spans to all elements of the coverage including the commentary and the soundtrack, and essentially each game becomes a short film.
On the weekly highlight show 'NFL Gameday' each game begins with shots of the player warming up - the viewer gets to see their demeanor before the game - and shots of the fans - not moronic ones waving at the camera in replica shirts but fans acting as… well, fans. Players are also mic'ed up, and I know this has been tried before when David Ellery was mic'ed refereeing an Arsenal game in the eighties and although this project failed dismally because of all the bad language, NFL films have come up with the genius idea of actually bleeping out all the swearing before broadcast.
There’s also access into the dressing room - football's Area 51. In the clips used team tactics or insecurities aren't given away on camera, but the viewers get a glimpse of the joys of the victors or the agonies of the defeated, and a small insight into the relationships between players and coaching staff (potentially good PR for footballers who are increasingly portrayed by some in the media as 'not caring'). Similarly, each game isn't commentated but narrated to build a story for the viewer, to describe the nuances of a game that has been condensed into a five minute piece, much in the same way Stuart Hall does on Five Live and (when I was growing up in the nineties) Gerald Sinstadt used to do on Match of the Day.
NFL Films also specialize in memorabilia and in recent years their series of 'America's Game' films have become treasured collector’s items. Recounting the stories of the past Superbowl winners, they show the teams journey to the Superbowl (the recent New Orleans Saints 'America's Game' was compelling in this regard), they interview three of the teams more prominent or interesting members to tell their own personal tale, and then intertwine it with the team and the city's story. All of this is set against images and old film of the team in question ranging from action in the games to practice sessions and team meetings, voiced over by actors such as Tom Selleck, Laurence Fishburne, and Brad Pitt to present something cinematic and memorable.
The British equivalents such as Sky Sports’s 'Premier League Years' or 'Time of Our Lives' are bland by contrast, the latter featuring a band of old professionals recalling their past glories to Jeff Sterling in a studio with the odd amusing anecdote here and there. As an exercise in football history it does little to serve their triumphs and I doubt it's on many football fan's radar.
I'm not advocating adopting this approach to sports broadcasting in its entirety, but football programs in England could adopt some of their techniques to enhance our viewing and give football more of the personality we all know it has. When Liverpool were a force in the Champions League in recent years, and Clive Tyldsley would tell me 'there is no better atmosphere than on a European night in Liverpool,' I was often left bemused. All I could hear on my TV was an average rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and I had to rely on a commentator to tell me it was special rather than the program actually conveying it to me.
For highlights of big games such as European nights in Anfield, give me camera shots of fans singing their hearts out, players mic'ed up and chatting before the game (I've always especially wanted to know what opposing players are saying to each other in the tunnel) and try and show the action from different perspectives than we’re used to. This could be transferred to the lower leagues as well, who are fast becoming the soul of English football. Show me the twenty or so Morcambe fans who travelled all the way to Torquay on a cold Tuesday night. Don't just talk in drab, patronizing cliches about the FA Cup minnows who made it to the fourth round and went out on penalties, tell me their story.
We do have something of a track record in Europe for making football documentaries. In the sixties the way FIFA Films began documenting the World Cup was ground breaking and remains a visual treat. The recent film of 90 minutes in the company of Zinedine Zidane shows football at its most beautiful. It's been done before and it is possible.
The American's have shown us a way to record sporting events that goes beyond the two dimensional, and captures the action in all it's glory. In the twenty first century their sports have something creative and artistic, while we've adopted irrelevant things like 'player cam'. NFL Films offer their viewers something intimate without ever being too invasive and if a similar company were to start up in Britain, then as long as the product they made was of high quality and stripped football down to the elements that make it all it is, the footballing authorities and the clubs might just get involved.
To see a little snippet of what Sam is talking about, click here or here