How did the Super Bowl get its name?

The Eagles have three NFL titles, but no championship wins.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
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The Eagles have never won a Super Bowl.

If you didn’t know that, get ready for it to be pounded into your head for the next two weeks as they gear up to battle the New England Patriots (who’ve won it many, many times). The Philly has won three NFL championships, but that was before it was called “the Super Bowl.” The Big Game’s name is the big deal.

So…why is it called that in the first place?

It’s a question my 7-year-old son Max asked me. And I realized I didn’t actually know. I knew the Super Bowl began in 1967, after the AFL-NFL merger.

“Why isn’t it just called the Super Game?” Max asked.

Good question, kid. I told him the latter part of the phrase stemmed from the Rose Bowl — after that, most important matchups became known as “bowl” games.

But I realized I didn’t know the whole story. So I decided to find out.

The origins of the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl wasn’t originally called the Super Bowl. At least not officially. The first American Football League-National Football League Championship Game was held in Los Angeles on January 15, 1967.

Of note, there were plenty of seats available. Attendance was 63,036 — in a stadium that fits more than 90,000 fans. (Think about that when you’re looking for tickets to the Big Game.)

Packers receiver Max McGhee (85) escapes Chiefs defensive back Willie Mitchell (22) during Super Bowl I at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the first ever meeting of the AFL vs NFL World Championship.

Packers receiver Max McGhee (85) escapes Chiefs defensive back Willie Mitchell (22) during Super Bowl I at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the first ever meeting of the AFL vs NFL World Championship.

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The 1967 title game was the first held between NFL and AFL teams, as the two leagues merged the summer prior, with an agreement to play a championship game at the end of each season. Commissioner Pete Rozelle settled on the cumbersome title after league owners were unable to come up with anything better. This, from football historian Harvey Frommer, for Time in 2016:

One of Rozelle’s suggestions for the name of the new game was “The Big One.” That name never caught on. “Pro Bowl,” was another Rozelle idea. Had the name been adopted, there would have been confusion, for that was the name used for the NFL’s All Star game. “World Series of Football” died quickly, deemed too imitative of baseball’s Fall Classic.

Frommer wrote that Rozelle settled on the ‘AFL-NFL World Championship Game,’ but as you can see in the Super Bowl logo graphic above, the logo for the first title game was actually just the words, “First World Championship Game AFL vs NFL.” That’s certainly not as catchy as…anything else they could have possibly picked.

As for the term Super Bowl, credit goes to AFL founder and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.

As his son, Lamar Hunt Jr., explained, the idea came from his “Super Ball” toy.

My dad was in an owner’s meeting. They were trying to figure out what to call the last game, the championship game. I don’t know if he had the ball with him as some reports suggest. My dad said, Well, we need to come up with a name, something like the ‘Super Bowl.’” And then he said, “Actually, that’s not a very good name. We can come up with something better.” But “Super Bowl” stuck in the media and word of mouth.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find some questions regarding the origin story of the game’s name. In January of 2015, The Christian Science Monitor published a story about how the Super Bowl got its name, crediting Hunt, but calling into question when the game officially took on the name Super Bowl.

Although “Super Bowl” was used unofficially by fans and the media alike, the term was not officially adopted until the fourth annual championship in 1970 – the year before the now famous roman numerals were attached. In prior years the championship game was officially called the AFL-NFL Championships or World Football Championships.

Over the years, people challenged the name, and others have questioned the legitimacy of Hunt’s role in coining the term.

In 1969, there was a contest to rebrand the game under a more sophisticated name. “Ultimate Bowl” and “Premier Bowl” were the most well received of the many suggestions, but neither stuck and the championship game has been officially called the Super Bowl ever since.

An SB Nation post three days later regurgitated that point, reaffirming the stance that the game wasn’t officially called the Super Bowl officially until the fourth iteration. But the logos above and this photo from the first Super Bowl below seem to indicate the name was more than just a passing comment in an owners meeting that took off with the media for four years before the NFL adopted the term.

SuperBowl_I_-_Los_Angeles_Coliseum
Wikipedia

In Frommer’s book, he even referenced the first use in newsprint of the term Super Bowl in early September, 1966, with stories published by both the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. 

So while the official timeline for when the NFL started using Super Bowl might be inexact, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: The NFL brass hated the name Super Bowl.

Rozelle, specifically, didn’t care for ‘Super’ and wanted to find a better word. Hunt was embarrassed by the origin, and how his seemingly off-the-cuff comment turned into something so big. But sometimes simple works.

The Super Ball

Speaking of simple, there is no denying the staying power of the Super Ball, one of the best inventions in the history of childhood fun. From History.com:

The Hunt kids’ beloved Super Ball was the brainchild of chemist Norman Stingley, who developed it as a side project while working for a California rubber company in the early 1960s. He discovered that highly pressurized synthetic rubber had remarkable bounce when shaped into a sphere. Stingley’s employer passed on the innovation, but toy manufacturer Wham-O—maker of the Hula Hoop and Frisbee—understood its appeal and bought the concept. By the summer of 1965 the Super Ball was one of America’s most popular playthings.

Why ‘Bowl’ anyway?

NFL: Super Bowl LI-Winning Team Press Conference
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This is the real question Max wanted to know. Why is a popular football game called a bowl?

In baseball, the championship is decided by the World Series and while, no,  it’s not the entire World, it is a series of games to determine the winner. The NBA Finals are pretty self explanatory. The Stanley Cup Final is a hockey competition to win Lord Stanley’s Cup, adopted by the NHL in the 1920s. MLS Cup is an actual cup as well.

Cups make sense. Bowls do not, especially when the NFL trophy is shaped like a football, not a bowl.

Alas, the bowl isn’t about the trophy, it’s about the stadium. For that, credit goes to the Rose Bowl and the Yale Bowl.

The Yale Bowl opened in 1914 as, you guessed it, a field surrounded by a large bowl of seats. The first Tournament of Roses parade and games predated that by nearly a quarter century, held on January 1, 1890, with the first football game in conjunction with the event played three years later, in 1902, between Stanford and Michigan.

The football game was halted until 1916, and as the contest became more popular, the site of the Pasadena, California town dump was converted into a large stadium, modeled after the Yale Bowl. From RoseBowlStadium.com:

1923 — The stadium is named “The Rose Bowl” and is dedicated, hosting its first college football game. Start of play was delayed more than an hour after Penn State’s team was stuck in traffic. USC defeats Penn State, 14-2. This original stadium seated 57,000.

Because the stadium was called the Rose Bowl the game took on the same name, and other college football games around that time of year modeled themselves after it. A ‘bowl’ became synonymous with a big postseason game of football, which is how the Pro Bowl, and subsequently the Super Bowl, also became bowls.

That, or in 1966 at an owners meeting, Hunt actually said, “let’s call this game the Super Ball,” as a total joke because of a popular bouncy toy his kid liked, but his accent made it sound like “Super Bowl” and, yes, that’s a real theory that even Hunt, himself, had floated.

History is weird. Maybe just tell your kids that when they ask how the Super Bowl got its name.

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