The Roman Numeral Bowl: Are You Ready For Some Football?

Sunday, February 5 is the date for the latest and greatest Super Bowl, to be played at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. The Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots will battle for the National Football League title, with one of the winning players ending up at a parade in Orlando the next day.

The Super Bowl is without a doubt one of the biggest sporting events in the world (World Cup fans, feel free to weigh in here), and an unofficial national holiday in the United States. Do you know how the Super Bowl got its name? It may (or may not) be related to a toy ball.

Super Ball

In the 1960s, pro football was split into two leagues, the established NFL and the newly-formed AFL (American Football League). Eventually they would merge, and a title game was a byproduct of the merger. When the league tried to come up with a game name, says “World Series of Football,” “The Big One,” and “Pro Bowl” were considered—but the first one was a copy of Major League Baseball, and “Pro Bowl” would have conflicted with the annual NFL all-star game. The first game between the Packers and Chiefs in January, 1967 ended up carrying the rather straightforward moniker of “AFL-NFL Championship Game.” Catchy, but can you market that one? The next two stayed with the rather bland “World Championship Game” tag.

The Atlantic mentions the legend that Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt coined the term “Super Bowl” after his daughter’s toy Super Ball. But newspapers were already using the term “Super Bowl” for the title game well before the date and location for the first game was set, so believe what you want. The venue for the first Super Bowl wasn’t even determined until a little over two months before kickoff! The roman numerals formally kicked off, so to speak, with Super Bowl 5. Er, “V.”

Bottom line: “AFL-NFL Championship Sunday” is not nearly as catchy as “Super Bowl Sunday.” And in the NFL, marketing is everything.

51 or LI?

We’re up to Super Bowl LI, which is roman numeral code for 51. Last year’s game in Santa Clara (home of the San Francisco 49ers) was Super Bowl 50, as opposed to Super Bowl L, because the designers couldn’t do anything with a Super Bowl L logo. In fact, “Super Bowl L” looked like a typo. We’re back to the roman numerals for the foreseeable future. Chris Chase of USA Today summed it up: “Foregoing the use of Super Bowl L drew some early criticism that the league was dumbing things down for America, as if clinging to an archaic counting system that was obviously created without any foresight means we’re a nation of dunces. That’s nonsense. Roman numerals are like cursive: meaningless in the real world and not as pretty to look at as people think.”

Do you have a soft spot for roman numerals? If you think you know your Vs from your Is, take our roman numeral quiz!

Why is it called a “Bowl,” anyway?

Glad you asked. In the early 1900’s, bowl began to be used to described bowl-like stadiums. The first built was for Yale in 1914 with the Rose Bowl in Pasadena soon to follow, and soon enough football games held in similarly-designed stadiums were called bowl games.