Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 21 No. 1
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Super Bowl’s numerals: Still a classic

Quick. What is the Roman numeral for 50?


With NFL owners scheduled to vote this week on the host site for the 50th Super Bowl, it may be time to brush up on ancient Rome’s numbers. Just ask the mayor of San Francisco.

Fans seem to like the Roman numerals, though fewer seem to be able to understand them.
“When you look at the name Levi’s Stadium … they started out with the first two letters [L and E] close to my name,” said Mayor Edwin Lee, speaking earlier this month at the unveiling of Levi Strauss’ naming-rights deal for the new 49ers stadium — and amusingly trying to underscore how the deal makes perfect sense. “Daniel Lurie [chairman of the local Super Bowl bid committee] must have stuck his head into the negotiating room and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a bid going for 50 and 51, Super Bowl.’ So therefore you see the V and VI; that’s 50 and 51.”

Levi’s Stadium is likely to win that owners vote to host the iconic 50th Super Bowl (with Houston expected to get the nod for 51). But as Roman numerologists would attest, it has nothing to do with the name Levi’s. Super Bowl V was the fifth Super Bowl; the 50th will be Super Bowl L, to answer the question above.

Logo legacy

Super Bowl logos through the years became more elaborate and picked up a look reflective of each year’s host city — until 2011, when the league unveiled a more uniform look.













But does Mayor Lee’s comment reflect a larger consideration as the NFL moves closer to a planned celebratory blitz for that benchmark 2016 game?

How many fans know what L is in Roman numerals, or for that matter LI (51)? And do they care? And would the impact of hitting such a major milestone be stronger by using traditional numbers?

“Almost no one can understand Roman numerals,” said Tom Geismar, partner in branding firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. “I gave an assignment for a 50th anniversary [logo] of an arts school. [One of the students] came up with an L, but no one [in the class] knew it. … People don’t recognize it.”

An NFL spokesman, asked about the “L” and any potential issues with its recognition, replied in an email, “So fans won’t watch the Super Bowl b/c of the L?” He did not respond for further comment.

And clearly, he’s right. It’s a stretch to fathom that interest in the Super Bowl is because of (or despite) how the games are numbered. But why the Roman numerals in the first place? And why keep going beyond the more familiar I, V and X markings, especially when the number 50 could be more impactful?

“[Roman numerals are] visually striking, whether it’s an X, a V or an I,” said Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer of WPP branding firm Landor Associates, which designed the Super Bowl logo that has been in use since 2011. “Roman numerals carry prestige; they have a timelessness to them.”

In any event, Roth added, when the NFL’s marketing blitz leading up to the 50th game is complete, “People around the world will know L means 50.”

Clark Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and whose father, Lamar Hunt, thought up the use of Roman numerals to designate each Super Bowl, added, “There is always a learning curve each year with the numbers.”

The NFL in recent years has been imbuing even more meaning into those numerals, too. At the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis and again at this year’s game in New Orleans, the league and host city orchestrated a major unveiling of massive Roman numerals on the Thursday before the game.

This February in New York, the league plans a curtain opening in Times Square for this year’s numerals, XLVIII, as part of the week leading up to the game at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.

The NFL is alone among the four major sports leagues to designate its championship games in numeric sequence. The World Series, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Final incorporate the year into their annual monikers.

Lamar Hunt
Clark Hunt said his father, who died in 2006, came up with the Roman numerals idea after attending an Olympic Games, which also employ the numbers of ancient Rome. Asked if he thought there would ever have been a time his father might want to see the league cease counting Super Bowls by Roman numerals, Hunt said no.

“He thought it would become a tradition,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t make sense to drop the numbers.”

And most fans agree. Only 8 percent of more than 1,700 fans polled recently for SportsBusiness Journal said the league should drop the use of Roman numerals (see chart).

Landor’s Roth said the real issue for the league is how to handle the stand-alone numeral that will appear in the Super Bowl logo for that 50th game. Not since Super Bowl X (10) and not again until 2066, when Super Bowl C (100) would be scheduled, has or will the NFL see a single numeral in the Super Bowl logo.

Prior to 2011, there was a different logo for each year’s Super Bowl, but seeking consonance and elegance, the league adopted a uniform logo at that time. The gray and black mark now used features the Lombardi trophy stretching above a silhouette of the host stadium and the name “Super Bowl,” all resting on the Roman numeral for the particular year’s game.

For the 50th game, having just an L underneath the stadium, trophy and Super Bowl name could offer an unsturdy image.

“Looking at L alone on a page, it looks a little different, a little odd,” said Roth. “How the L holds up in the design will be interesting to see.”

The NFL to date has not approached Landor to redesign the 50th Super Bowl logo, Roth added.

However the league handles the L in branding, the Roman numerals are clearly here to stay and are part of the NFL’s legacy.

Hunt recently was sifting through old letters of his father’s and came upon one sent to him in February 1985. The hand-written correspondence came from then-commissioner Pete Rozelle. In the letter, he thanked Hunt for his epiphany in thinking of the Roman numerals, among his other contributions to the league. Asked where he keeps the letter today, Clark Hunt replied he no longer has it.

It’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.