This Sunday, football fans will gather for high-level sports, delicious munchies, and insanely expensive commercials to watch the Atlanta Falcons face off against the New England Patriots for Super Bowl LI. What does the “LI” in Super Bowl LI mean? And perhaps more importantly, why use Roman numerals at all? It turns out that the biggest football game of the year doesn’t use the ancient numeric system just to be fancy — there’s a good reason for it.
The “LI” in this year’s Super Bowl stands for the number “51.” In this numeric system, “L” stands for the number 50, and “I” stands for one. It’s actually much simpler than some previous Super Bowl years. In February of 2014, for example, we had Super Bowl XLVIII, or Super Bowl 48. (“XL” means “ten less than 50,” or 40. “VIII” means “five plus three,” or 8, so all together XLVIII adds up to 48. If you think that’s needlessly complicated, you are not alone.)
The Super Bowl has used Roman numerals since the championship was first held in 1967. It was an issue of practicality: According to the International Business Times, former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle claimed that organizers of the first Super Bowl used Roman numerals to avoid confusion over the fact that the Super Bowl is the championship game for the previous year. This year for instance, the Super Bowl on February 5, 2017 will be the championship for 2016 — so calling it “Super Bowl 2016” or “Super Bowl 2017” could create confusion over which football season the game is capping off. Giving the game a number, rather than a date, thus allows game organizers to avoid misunderstanding. In 1996, Rozelle explained to the Los Angeles Times, "It’s not an affectation, as some charge. It’s for clarification. When you say Super Bowl I, it helps you remember it as a 1967 game for the 1966 championship.”
You may have noticed that last year the Super Bowl did away with Roman numerals and simply went by “Super Bowl 50.” The choice to switch things up was an aesthetic decision. The Roman numeral for “50” is simply the letter “L,” and it turns out that “SUPER BOWL L” just doesn’t look that great on t-shirts. Furthermore, the lone “L” carries connotations one doesn’t want in sports. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy explained to Rolling Stone, “Some would ask, ‘The letter L, what does that associate with?’” As anyone who was ever a teenager knows, the answer is a big ol’ “LOSER” (preferably signaled with an “L” hand to the forehead).
The switch to Arabic numerals was short lived, and this year the Super Bowl will go back to its Roman roots with “LI.” And if the numbers get complex and hard to decipher again? Well, that’s part of the Super Bowl’s charm. “[Using Roman numerals] is, in many ways, unique to the Super Bowl,” McCarthy told Rolling Stone. “It provides even more gravitas to an event that's a tradition that's decades long. It is unique. At the NFL, we like to stand out and here's one way that is fun to do so.” Remember that when we get to Super Bowl LXXXIV in 2050.