Super Bowl LII is right around the corner, with the New England Patriots, the Philadelphia Eagles, and tens of thousands of fans gathering in Minneapolis for the biggest football game of the year. As a celebrated national pastime, the Super Bowl attracts throngs of viewers who don't normally tune in to football games, and many of them might be a bit confused by the name. What does "Super Bowl LII" stand for, exactly?
It's quite simple: Super Bowl games are denoted using Roman numerals, and Sunday's game will be the 51st Super Bowl in NFL history. LII is the Roman numeral for 52; hence, Super Bowl LII.
Although roman numerals are an antiquated system of numerical notation, there's a practical reason why Super Bowls still use them. The Super Bowl is the final competition that caps off an entire season's worth of games — and yet the event itself takes place the year after the season in question was played. Needless to say, this would cause confusion if the games were denoted by year: Would "Super Bowl 2016," for instance, refer to the game that took place in 2016? Or would it refer to the game that capped off the 2016 season, which took place in 2017?
According to a press kit that the NFL distributed in 2005, this was a problem during the first four championship games, which were not labeled using roman numerals. To make things easier, the NFL started using roman numerals by the time Super Bowl V came along — and for consistency's sake, the first four games were renamed with roman numerals.
That's not the end of the story, however. Although the NFL has stuck with roman numerals for most games since the fifth one, the league made an exception for the 50th championship game, which took place in 2016. Rather than being called "Super Bowl L" — L being the roman numeral for 50 — that game was simply called "Super Bowl 50."
Why? Because the NFL doesn't like the letter L.
“It’s very asymmetrical,” Shandon Melvin, the NFL's creative director, told the San Jose Mercury News in 2016. “And three-quarters of the letter is negative space. It’s like, what do you do with this thing to make it look attractive? I’ll take an X any day of the week. Or any other letter for that matter.”
Compounding matters, Melvin said, is the fact that the letter L "immediately brought up so many negative connotations." He was right, because in sports circles and elsewhere, "L" is often used as shorthand for "loss." Sports almanacs will often refer to a team's "W-L percentage," which is short for "win-loss percentage." The phrase "take the L" refers to accepting a loss with grace — and of course, placing your finger and thumb in the shape of an "L" on your forehead is a common way of calling somebody a "loser."
Given that winning is, obviously, the central goal of sports, it makes sense that the league would ditch a letter that's usually associated with losing.
That said, it's worth noting that "Super Bowl 50" was, in the narrowest technical sense, an incorrect label. The first two championship games, when they were played, were called "the AFL-NFL World Championship Games," not the Super Bowl. Only years later did the league retroactively begin referring to them as Super Bowls I and II.
In any event, the switch away from roman numerals only lasted a year. The next championship game was called "Super Bowl LI," and presumably, the NFL will continue to use that naming system (until it finds another reason not to).