Sure, the Super Bowl is 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.
But, do you know how the Super Bowl got its name? Or why it uses Roman numerals?
How did the Super Bowl get its name?
In the 1960s, American pro football was divided into two leagues, the established NFL and the newly-formed AFL (American Football League). Eventually, the two would merge into one league comprised of two conferences, and shortly after the announcement of said merger, a new competitive event was announced pitting the best of both conferences against each other.
The first best-of-the-best game between the Packers and Chiefs in January 1967 ended up carrying the rather straightforward name of AFL-NFL Championship Game. Catchy? Not very. The subsequent three games used the equally bland World Championship Game.
So, when did the term Super Bowl finally come into the picture?
The standard mythology holds that Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt coined the term Super Bowl as a phonetic riff on his daughter’s toy Super Ball. But, numerous newspapers were commonly using the term Super Bowl as early 1967—years before the first officially-named Super Bowl game took place. Why let that get in the way of a good origin myth, right?
What does the bowl in Super Bowl mean?
Glad you asked. In the early 1900’s, bowl began to be used to described bowl-like stadiums. The first of these stadiums was built for Yale in 1914 and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena was soon to follow. Soon enough, football games held in similarly-designed stadiums were called bowl games.
Why do the Super Bowl games have Roman numerals?
Lamar Hunt is also credited for introducing Roman numerals to keep track of the championship title bowls. Roman numerals are an ancient numeric system where numbers are represented by the symbols I, V, X, L, C, D, and M—standing respectively for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000. (So, to notate the number 20, you would simply write XX.)
Super Bowl V was the first such bowl to be numbered using this system. An excerpt from the NFL media guide explains further:
The Roman numerals were adopted to clarify any confusion that may occur because the NFL Championship Game—the Super Bowl—is played in the year following a chronologically recorded season. Numerals I through IV were added later for the first four Super Bowls.
Controversially, the only Super Bowl game to not use Roman numerals was Super Bowl 50. The Roman numeral for 50 is L, and, because NFL ad designers felt that the Super Bowl L title was too unattractive and unmarketable, they opted to use the number 50 instead.
Many football fans were very miffed by this. Chris Chase of USA Today summed up the “controversy” nicely: “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.”
That said: We’re now back to the Roman numeral system for the foreseeable future, so everything is in its right place. Go team!