What the L? Why the NFL Sacked Roman Numerals for Super Bowl 50

For this year's Big Game, the league broke from tradition and benched Roman numerals. Turns out it has everything to do with the 'L'

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Super Bowl 50
The NFL gave Roman numerals the boot for Super Bowl 50. Rick Osentoski/AP

Unlike the social ramifications of dodgeball, Roman numerals are one of those things you probably learned in school and haven't relied on much since.

Except when it comes to the Super Bowl. It's the only thing in life that seems to use Roman numerals besides old clocks. Roman numerals are so MCMLXXVI. But there's good news for those who want the NFL to ditch its method of numbering the Big Game: Roger Goodell is giving you a one-year reprieve. This Sunday, you can tune in to Super Bowl 50. And you'll be able to reference the winner of Super Bowl 50 down the road without having to look up the Roman numeral for 50.

It's L, by the way.

You don't have to brush up on your Roman numerals because it's not going to be Super Bowl L for a few reasons. At the top of the list: Nobody wants to be associated with a loser. Especially the NFL.

"Some would ask, 'The letter L, what does that associate with?'" NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy says.

The answer, of course, is "Losing."

Football is a game of X's and O's. But it's also long been one of I's and V's, as virtually the only institution in our society that incorporates Roman numerals. Roughly a decade ago, the NFL first began examining what "Super Bowl L" looked like on social media, on mobile devices and on merchandise like T-shirts and caps. The short answer? It didn't look good.

Using the number 50 was found to be much more appealing than an L, on many levels, from the negativity associated with losing to the aesthetic challenges posed by using the letter. So this year, and this year only, the Super Bowl will use more traditional numbering.

"The genesis is with Super Bowl XL 10 years ago," McCarthy says. "We spent some time looking at what a block L would look like on its own, and [NFL Creative Services] said, 'It could be a problem from a creative and design element that the letter L, on its own, without an I after it, looks unusual within the design world.'"

Next year, Super Bowl LI will crown a champion and you'll be forced to look up the Roman numeral of the game again when you're typing up your Super Bowl party e-vites and filling out box pools for your office. Which is strange, because the Super Bowl numbering system is virtually the only difficult system Americans haven't roundly rejected over the years.

The rest of the industrialized world uses the metric system, but Americans have been too stubborn to ditch our inches and pounds for the more universal meters and grams. Despite the metric system arguably being an easier one to navigate, Americans get a taste of it in elementary school and are never expected to use it again unless they travel to another country. But if you've been abroad lately, you probably just used your iPhone to figure out weights and measures anyway.

"For Super Bowl 50, we have a unique opportunity to do something different," McCarthy says. "The marriage between the creative element and the marketing element produced the number 50. So it's a neat way to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl."

Roman numerals? They can be even more challenging once you get beyond V. Think about the places in society you currently find Roman numerals and after inscriptions on really old buildings and the Super Bowl, you'd be hard pressed to cite examples. Even WrestleMania ditched them a few years back.

That's why the NFL continues to use them. Just not this year.

"Because it is, in many ways, unique to the Super Bowl," McCarthy says. "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.

"We also know that teachers across the country appreciate keeping the Roman numeral system alive."

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