Playing the name game with the Super Bowl

By MICHAEL K. BOHN – McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Ah, the Super Bowl. The perfect name for America’s greatest sports spectacular. It just wouldn’t work if they called it the “championship.” Can’t sell Budweiser and Ford trucks with that. Plus, a big game like this needs some fancy numbers, like kings and Olympic games.

Oddly enough, the Super Bowl used to have a fairly ho-hum name when it started in 1967 – “The AFL-NFL World Championship.” The NFL came to its senses by the third world title game in 1969. Even more odd, however, is that the origin of the Super Bowl name starts with a couple kids playing with a new toy in Dallas, Texas.

On June 8, 1966, representatives of the NFL and the rival American Football League revealed previously secret plans to merge the two leagues, thus ending a costly and bitter competition for players and TV money. Their joint press release, stealing a geographical spread from baseball, also declared that the two leagues would stage a “world championship game” at the end of the 1966 regular season.

NFL and AFL officials met regularly through the summer and fall of 1966 to iron out myriad merger details. One of the matters was the championship game – where and when would it be played, for example. Also, the men initially didn’t have a name for the title game. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has provided the recollections of Lamar Hunt, the owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, on the naming discussions:

“One day at a committee meeting, I asked, ‘Should there be a week off for the championship game?’ And somebody else said, ‘The AFL championship game, or the NFL championship, or what?'”

Hunt responded, “Well I mean the final game, the last game, the ‘Super Bowl,’ you know what I mean.” Hunt admitted the words just popped out of his mouth, perhaps from his subconscious thoughts. (Unsaid, but the word “bowl” came naturally from the postseason rituals of college football.)

Hunt later said that he drew the name from toy balls that his wife Norma had given their two oldest children, Lamar Jr. and Sharron, at the Hunt family home in Dallas. They were Super Balls, made by Wham-O, the manufacturer of the Frisbee, Hula-Hoop and such.

“They were highly compressed rubber balls, which, when bounced on concrete, would literally bounce over a house,” Hunt said. “My son and daughter loved them and were always talking about them.”

The other committee members began to refer informally to the final game as the “Super Bowl.” However, the official name of the game would be the AFL-NFL World Championship. According to writer Michael MacCambridge, Hunt said that no one pushed to make “Super Bowl” the official name. “Far from it,” Hunt said, “we all agreed it was far too corny to be the name of the new title game.” Regardless, the term seeped into the news media and reporters began using it.

Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner who would run the combined league, didn’t like the “Super Bowl” name. He thought super was a slang word and inappropriate. Don Weiss, a long-time NFL operations chief, described Rozelle’s reactions in MacCambridge’s book, “America’s Game.” “He was a stickler on words and grammar, and ‘super’ was not his idea of a good word. He thought super was a word like ‘neat’ or ‘gee-whiz.’ It had no sophistication.”

Rozelle reportedly organized a naming contest among sportswriters, but suggestions such as “Ultimate Bowl” and “Premiere Bowl” didn’t light any fires.

The official program and tickets for the first championship game on Jan. 15, 1967, used the league-mandated name – AFL-NFL World Championship. The Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10 in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Best in the world! Take that Europe and Asia.

By the third championship in 1969, the fans and news media were calling the game the “Super Bowl.” The program featured “SUPER BOWL” in huge letters in patriotic colors across the top, but the fine print at the bottom still included the words AFL-NFL World Championship. Rozelle, in his Jan. 10 news conference two days before the game, ruefully acknowledged that the name had stuck.

The Wham-O company draws attention to the Super Ball’s connection to the “Super Bowl” in the product packaging. “We are proud that one of our products inspired the name of such a prestigious event,” said Martin Marechal, the firm’s director of marketing.

Similarly, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, displays a Super Ball in its Super Bowl gallery to remind visitors of the toy’s role in naming the game.

Now, about those annoying Roman numerals. The first four games got by without any numbers. Reporters and fans didn’t need designators for the games; they could just say “last year’s game,” or Broadway Joe Namath’s game. That got harder to do by 1971, and that year’s game was the first to use the Latin counting system – Super Bowl V.

Using the year of the game could be confusing because it happens early in the year following that of the regular season. Was the 1971 Super Bowl between the 1970 champs of the renamed AFC and NFC? Or the title game of the 1971 season? Hence the need for a designator not based on a calendar year.

Yet Super Bowl 3 or Super Bowl 5 seemed pedestrian in view of the growing enormity of the game. Roman numerals, on the other hand, carry more pizzazz and heft. Arthur Daley of the “New York Times” saw the distinction in 1971. “Kindly note the Roman numerals. The league historians are taking no chances that this should slip into the prosaic for want of impressive nomenclature.”

Weiss confirmed Daley’s thought in his 2003 book, “The Making of the Super Bowl.” “While we’ve been chastised to no end for appearing to be pretentious, our sole intent was to avoid confusion.”

Chris McCarthy of the NFL headquarters staff recently confirmed the nature of the Roman numeral usage. “They are unique to the NFL and provide even more status and importance to the Super Bowl. Numerals I through IV were added later for the first four Super Bowls.” Of course, the added benefit is how the Roman angle helps set the gladiator spectacle tone of the whole show.

Still, 99 percent of football fans, borrowing a measurement in the news, can’t tell Super Bowl XLVI from Shinola. Similarly, writers can’t easily use the labels without more information – “Super Bowl XLVI (46), played on February 5, 2012 between the 2011 regular season AFC champions New England Patriots and . . . .”

So that’s the short story of how the NFL super-sized its championship game.


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