How the Super Bowl Got Its Name: The Real Story

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Now that my New York Jets have been eliminated it's not for me to predict the winner—or even have much of a rooting interest—in this year's Super Bowl between the Packers and the Steelers. But there is one prediction that I will make. As the big game approaches we will once again be told that, as Wikipedia puts it, the name "Super Bowl" was "coined by [Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar] Hunt, who took it in part from the then popular toy, the Super Ball." Indeed this is all the more likely since this year's game will be played in Dallas, Hunt's long-time home. And my confidence in this prognostication is certainly not diminished by the fact that it has already come to pass: a story crediting Hunt with coming up with the game's name appeared in the Dallas Morning News a few days ago .

There is no question that crediting Hunt (who passed way in December 2006) with coming up with the name "Super Bowl" is one of the event's most cherished, and oft-repeated, traditions—and one that is immortalized in the Professional Football Hall of Fame, complete with a display of replica "super balls" in the Hall's Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery.

But is it true?

One popular story about Hunt's role in naming the game took root from the fact that the "Super Bowl" did not formally become the "Super Bowl" until after it had been played three times. In June 1966, the entrenched National Football League and the upstart American Football League agreed in principle that their respective champions would square off in an annual season ending showdown. As the pictures of game tickets over the years on the National Football League's Super Bowl website show, the official name for the historic inaugural match-up in January 1967 between the champions of the NFL and the AFL was the "AFL-NFL Championship Game." And the "World Championship Game" designation remained in effect for the next two contests, including the New York Jets' upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in January 1969 (what was formally designated the "Third World Championship Game"). The "Super Bowl" name was not officially recognized until the fourth renewal the next year, and the now iconic roman numerals were only added one year later when "Super Bowl V" was played.

According to various accounts over the years, including those in the New York Times in 1983 and the Wall Street Journal in 2000, after the first three contests were called the "World Championship Game," "one day, Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, noticed his children bouncing one of those hyper-springy 'super ball' around. The rest is history."

The problem with this story is that, whatever may have appeared on the face of the tickets, and whatever pro football officialdom had decreed, the "AFL-NFL Championship Game" was popularly being called the "Super Bowl" from the first time it was played. As the headline on the first page of the New York Times sports section read that very first Super Sunday—January 15, 1967—"The Super Bowl: Football's Day of Decision Stirs Nation." The lead in the Los Angeles Times' report on the game the next day read, "Like a stern parent chastizing a mischievous child, the Green Bay Packers soundly thrashed the upstart Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 Sunday in Memorial Coliseum in the first Super Bowl game."

As for a possible role for Hunt in coming up with that name, even before that first game was played, the press reported that Lamar Hunt "gave the playoff its [then unofficial] name," and he was quoted in the Los Angeles Times on January 13, 1967, saying that "I was just sort of kidding at first when I mentioned Super Bowl in the meetings....But then the other owners started using it and the press picked it up."

Case closed in Hunt's favor? Not quite. Lamar Hunt's own version of how he came up with the "Super Bowl" name appeared in a piece entitled "Naming the Game," which was published in the New York Times on January 20, 1986. According to Hunt, after Los Angeles was selected as the site of the first game and it was agreed that two networks would broadcast the game, the owners' committee "continued to have those conversational problems regarding the post-season games and the newly created title game," and "one day, the words flowed something like this: 'No, not those games - the one I mean is the final game - you know the Super Bowl.'" Accounting for his outburst, Hunt explained that "my own feeling is that it probably registered in my head because my daughter Sharron and my son Lamar Jr. had a children's toy called a Super Ball and I probably interchanged the phonetics of "bowl" and "ball."

But Hunt's own time-line does not confirm his authorship of the Super Bowl name—it challenges it. The date and place—January 15, 1967 at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles—for the season-ending game was not set until December 1, 1966, and arrangements to broadcast the game on both CBS (the NFL's network) and NBC (the AFL's) not announced until the middle of December. And for months before then the much-anticipated game was already being called the "Super Bowl" in the news media—without any apparent input by Hunt at all.

Immediately after the AFL-NFL merger was announced in June 1966, the label "super" was attached to the post-season showdown between the rival leagues. On June 10 New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley looked ahead to "a new superduper football game for what amounts to the championship of the world." By the time the 1966-1967 season got underway in early September of that year, that instantaneous superlative had already been refined into its now familiar form. The term "bowl" was, of course, a long-established usage for the traditional games that ended the college football season. On September 4, 1966 the Los Angeles Times recorded that the season ending game was being "referred to by some as the Super Bowl" and that day's the lead story in the New York Times sports section was headlined "NFL Set to Open Season That Will End in Super Bowl." A week later, on September 11, 1966, the Washington Post chimed in, describing the American Football League as "the brash upstarts who will tackle Goliath in professional football's ultimate production, a highly appealing 'Super Bowl' that promises extra pizzaz at seasons's end." And references to the game as the "Super Bowl" continued to appear regularly as the season continued—well before the sequence of events that Hunt would say provided the occasion for his "accidental" transmutation of Super Ball into Super Bowl. Rather than owing its inspiration to any one person, whether Lamar Hunt or anyone else, naming the much anticipated confrontation between the two recently warring league's champions the "Super Bowl" appears more likely to have been the entirely natural, indeed even inevitable, manifestation of the proverbial "wisdom of crowds."

So as Super Bowl XLV gets set to unfold in his Dallas home town, by all means honor Lamar Hunt for his role as a prime mover behind the creation and success of the American Football League and the wildly successful merger with the National Football League that made the Super Bowl a reality. But as for "naming the game," maybe not.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.
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