Licensed sports photos represent a huge--and continuously growing--market for photographers and photographic printers. Sports fans are quite avid in their enthusiasm, and when it comes to their favorite teams or players, glossy photos of hallmark moments are in very high demand.
In 1987, Photo File Inc. was granted a license for retail photography by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. This was the first photography license ever granted by any of the major professional sports leagues. Photo editor Bryan Reilly recalls how Photo File came to be in this prestigious position. "The owner of the company, Charles Singer, purchased it before licensing really existed in this niche. There were trading card companies and apparel companies that had licensing, but licensing didn't really extend to any other products."
Singer met with Major League Baseball owners and presented a proposal to include photos in that category, and he eventually received a license with the association. For four or five years thereafter, other major sports leagues were added each year. "We added football, then we added hockey, and then basketball," Reilly says, "and that allowed incredibly rapid growth until we were finally able to provide one-stop shopping for anyone looking for sports photos."
Joining the Big Leagues
Initially, the company's processing was done by a twenty-four-hour photography store in a local shopping mall, its office was in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, and shipping was done out of the basement of a home in the New York suburb of Westchester. There were two full-time employees and one part-time. Today, Reilly says, Photo File is "by far the largest manufacturer of licensed sports photography." The company is licensed by Major League Baseball, the NBA, the WNBA, NHL, NFL, their respective player associations, and thousands of individual athletes.
These days, Photo File operates out of 13,000 square feet in Yonkers , NY , with a state-of-the-art imaging laboratory able to produce over 200,000 8 x 10 inch photographs per week, plus enlargements up to 30 x 40-inches. In 2000, the company sold photos of over 7,000 different athletes. Reilly is responsible for the firm's photo department and workflow involving the lab, filming, and shipping. "I run the day-to-day operations," he explains. "Everything after sales until the orders get out the door."
In recent years, the company has branched out into other image-based areas and is now licensed for photo key chains, plaques, framed and matted photos, and event covers. Photo File has produced a number of special interest card sets (8 x 10 inch Supercards), including its line of Induction Day Cards. It has also packaged books for Dover and Viking and published yearbooks detailing the inaugural seasons of the Colorado Rockies and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Throughout, the company has offered a one-day turnaround for making photos available to fans. "We take a great deal of pride in reacting immediately in this market where players are traded or signed with new teams," Reilly says. "A historic moment happens--a no-hitter, for example--and we take a great deal of pride in being able to access those images immediately." With both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium within a half-hour drive of Photo File, he says, they can rush photographers to a game or event, develop and process the film, and get images out to consumers that same day.
From the Locker Room to the Archive Room
Photo File maintains a stock of over a million images, housed in a fire-proof, climate-controlled archive room. These photos include most major leaguers of the past fifty years. Photo File has over a thousand glass negatives, including one used by the U.S. Post Office for a stamp featuring Lou Gehrig, and another shot of the Brooklyn Dodger infield taken on Opening Day of 1947--Jackie Robinson's first day in the Major Leagues. Photo File's photographers add almost 100,000 images of football and baseball players to the archive annually, and the firm also purchases the rights to thousands of other images, particularly in hockey and basketball.
As expected, this became something of a problem for the company once the photos and negatives hit a high enough volume. "The archive room," says Reilly, "which we built when we moved to this location nine years ago, was specifically built to house the entire negative collection we own, from baseball to football, with glass negatives going back 80 or 90 years and old prints going back that long as well, and we needed a room that would sustain all that stuff. Of course, at the time, we were pretty much only using the 35 mm film we were shooting with."
Specifically, the company was utilizing film designed to be used once--say, an image of Derek Jeter--but printing off it numerous times. "We would use it over and over and over like that," says Reilly. "So, we had to create a way to preserve individual negatives. There might have been images we didn't use for five years, and then we'd have to go print it again. I think we were pretty unique in that regard."
The archive provided a way of handling the negatives by putting them on aperture cards and in glass sleeves and keeping them in a climate-controlled room. "It really did make a huge difference in terms of durability--not getting fingerprints on them, not getting scratches on them--before digital allowed us to go in there and correct those errors."
Digital Hits a Homerun
Now, thanks to the purchase of several digital presses from Durst Phototechnik AG, Reilly says Photo File is a much more efficient operation than it was a year-and-a-half ago. Photos are kept on a server, accessible via computer and printable without having to go through the labor-intensive efforts of filing and re-filing negatives. This has saved the company time and efficiency, not to mention money.
"When we got the Durst," Reilly recalls, "I made a commitment at that point and told my photographers, 'no film.' We made a complete and absolute, immediate switch to digital, and we never shot a roll of film again. There was certainly a learning curve, and we're still constantly tweaking color corrections and things like that, but we had as smooth a transition as we could have." With the archive room maxed out on space, digital provided an excellent solution. "The Theta-50 was a magic bullet--we were waiting for a machine that could put out the kind of volume we needed and also give us flexibility in terms of size. There were other digital printers that could go as fast, but they couldn't give us 16 x 20, or 20 x 24 inches, or panoramic."
Because of digital technology and the Internet, the company now licenses, prepares and prints photos in a matter of minutes. "With the digital printing capabilities that we have, it's easy to take something that happens--for example, A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez] signing to the Yankees--and we've got a photographer there at the press conference. He transmits to us the best shots, and we drop the logos on and get printing." Digital, he notes, has been amazing for order fulfillment.