The National Football League didn’t begin larding Roman numerals on to the Super Bowl until its fifth year, hoping to imbue its championship game with a certain chiseled-in-stone gravitas. The block letters were “one of the things that defined the Super Bowl for us,” a league official acknowledged recently.
So why ditch a signifier of the game’s identity on the occasion of its biggest blowout ever: Super Bowl 50?
It turns out the NFL hates the letter L, which is the Roman numeral for 50.
The league got its first snootful of the Roman empire’s ugliest number a decade ago at Super Bowl XL, and realized it faced a design debacle if somebody didn’t come up with a way to get the L out. That somebody was Shandon Melvin, the NFL creative director, who devoted two years to the struggle.
“L immediately brought up so many negative connotations,” Me*vin says. The formation of an L with thumb and forefinger had become a universally accepted, derisive gesture for “Loser.” And unlike most of the Roman system’s other block numerals, L had such a vertical shape it nearly disappeared into the equally upright Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the winning team every year.
“It’s very asymmetrical,” he says. “And three-quarters of the letter is negative space. It’s like, what do you do with this thing to make it look attractive? I’ll take an X any day of the week. Or any other letter for that matter.”
If Roman numerals can be ditched for this game, why not forever? Melvin insists that everyone at the league office, from Commissioner Roger Goode** down, is “very committed” to reverting to the old system next year for Super Bowl LI. “They’re part of us,” he says, “such a strong icon for the game. We just wanted to do something a little different for once.”
Melvin and the league’s vice president for brand and creative, Jaime Weston-Parouse, began looking for ways to spare themselves the shame of unveiling a design disaster in Silicon Valley, the visual hothouse that produced Apple’s iPhone and the Tesla Model S.
On any given Sunday, there is almost no contingency for which the NFL doesn’t plot and plan, and preparations for its championship game rival a moonshot. Two years ago, an in-house competition between Super Bowl logos featuring the Roman L and the Arabic 5-0 produced 73 mock-ups. Melvin didn’t really believe “50” had a chance. “There’s no way,” he thought. “If Roman numerals are our thing, why would we break from tradition?”
It’s a tradition the NFL shares with only a few institutions, most notably the Olympics and the Catholic Church, which owned Sunday for centuries until pro football became claimant to a more secular sabbath. Popes are known by their adopted names and Roman numbers, but not even the hardiest papal lineage — which hit its highest number with Pope John XXIII in the 20th century — has exceeded the constancy of enumerating Super Bowls. Or their infallibility as moneymakers for everyone involved.
That includes the home team San Francisco 49ers, a franchise firmly rooted in the Arabic numbering system. To arouse awareness and excitement for the 50th championship game, the NFL commissioned the creation of 10 golden “50s,” and a month ago began scattering them around the Bay Area. Demonstrating its customary light marketing touch, the league made the numbers as big as a pair of linebackers at 6 feet tall, gilded them in gold, and planted them with no more explanatory context than the runes at Stonehenge.
The NFL also commissioned Tiffany to cast a special gold-plated trophy that will be given to the winning team at Super Bowl 50. Each of these keepsakes features the number “50,” weighing 33 pounds, and suitable for dumbbell workouts in the offseason.
At its creation, the Super Bowl was the sanctification of a shotgun wedding forced upon the National Football League by the threat of competitive parity from the upstart American Football League. So to celebrate 50 years of marriage, a golden anniversary blowout like the one at Levi’s Stadium on Feb. 7 seemed like the very least the NFL could do.
Of course, it’s not really the 50th anniversary of the game — like birthdays, anniversaries aren’t celebrated until a year has elapsed, so that golden game will come next year at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
It’s actually not even the 50th Super Bowl. The first two events were called AFL-NFL World Championship Games, and were only dubbed Super Bowls 1 and 2 retroactively. After the NFL adopted Roman numerals in 1971, they were retro-retroactively redubbed Super Bowls I and II.
The league has sought to reassure its Roman numeral fan base that it will raise L at next year’s game. But the sinuous success of 50, with all its seductive curves, has led many observers to put the odds of a return at L-L.