It’s unlike the NFL to pass up the chance to note an anniversary, and yet, heading into Super Bowl LV, the league has so far failed to recognize the significance of Super Bowl V, the first to bring Roman numerals to the big game.
Five years ago, the NFL celebrated the Super Bowl era’s golden anniversary (depending on how you count), and for the occasion dropped the numerals in favor of a more modern—or at least less ancient—script for Super Bowl 50. Plenty of onlookers hoped that would be the end for the X, L, I, and Vs.
NFL execs added the Roman numerals in 1971 to solve a problem—Super Bowl champions are technically the winner of the previous calendar year’s season. To avoid confusion, numbers were added to the title game, with Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt advocating for Roman numerals because they “made the game even more of an event,” according to Chiefs historian Bob Moore. Or, as NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy put it in 2016 (emphasis added): “It provides even more gravitas.”
The choice has also brought headaches.
Tom Brady’s first dynastic run included the most bloated title yet, Super Bowl XXXVIII, for which not even excessive kerning could save the NFL from an overstuffed logo. If that moniker means nothing to you, that was the Super Bowl in 2004, which Brady’s Patriots won to become the 2003 world champs even though it was his current franchise, the Buccaneers, that claimed Super Bowl XXXVII in January of 2003. Confusing? That’s Oskar Garcia’s point.
“For me, the Roman numerals themselves are largely useless,” the former AP deputy sports editor said. Many more football fans could tell you who won the championship in 1973 (the undefeated Dolphins) than who won Super Bowl VII. “They don’t actually distinguish the game. They end up being mostly a marketing feature.”
Ahead of the 2018 game, Garcia basically said as much on the @apstylebook Twitter account. “Instantly there were a lot of folks saying, ‘Since when do you get to decide what it’s called,’” Garcia said. “It was just like instant backlash.”
But Garcia, now at The New York Times, has held firm. The Times sports department’s guidance to writers this year was to avoid the numerals unless “the full, formal name of the game is needed.”
Plenty of other institutions have dropped their own outdated counting system. Even as Roman Reigns rose to champion status, WWE hasn’t touched Roman numerals since Wrestlemania XXX. Star Wars flirted with them for Episodes I-III but left numbers off the posters for its most recent trilogy. One of the few lasting use cases has been on the final page of movie credits, where films list their copyright year, using an alphabet soup of Roman numerals because it is confusing, thus hiding a movie’s datedness.
Fans are also moving on.
ESPN is typically “pretty formal about the title of events,” ESPN audience engagement director Emily Schaible said. But a couple years ago, her team noticed that people weren’t searching for full Super Bowl titles using either Roman or Arabic numbers.
Now, she encourages writers to use “Super Bowl 2021” in headlines, even if this year’s version is technically the 2020 championship, because that’s what people are looking for.
“I’m a Patriots fan,” she said. “We won a ton of Super Bowls during the late ’30s, but Super Bowl 36 and 38 are really hard to remember. It’s much easier to remember 2002, 2004, 2005.”
Don’t like that? Blame Google. Users who type “Super Bowl” into the company’s all-powerful search bar are greeted with a Super Bowl LV autocomplete that includes the game’s logo (the staleness of which is a topic of a different story). But click it and you’ll be taken to the search results for Super Bowl 2021, where dozens of sites will tell you about the event’s odds and ads as well as—yes—what time kickoff will be. Up against autocomplete and search engine optimization, an invention from the 9th century BC never stood a chance.
“When people look back on this Super Bowl in five years, they are going to search for Super Bowl 2021,” Schaible said. “They’re not going to search for Super Bowl LV. No one is going to remember the number. They’ll remember this was the Super Bowl played during a pandemic.”’
Fifty years on, the Super Bowl’s Roman numerals have finally got their L.