The Accidental Origins of the Super Bowl’s Name

The pun on a popular kids’ toy was only ever meant to be a placeholder.
The logo changes, but the words don't.
The logo changes, but the words don't. / (Left to right) (Top) George Rose/Getty Images; Carmen Mandato/Getty Images; Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images; Elsa/Getty Images; (Middle) Jason O. Watson/Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Newsmakers; (Bottom) Stephen Dunn/Getty Images; Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images; Al Bello/Getty Images; Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Not all the balls on display in Canton, Ohio’s Pro Football Hall of Fame are footballs. One is a Superball, the classic Wham-O kids’ toy that makes even the bounciest tennis ball look bad.

This particular Superball sits in the Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery next to a plaque explaining how the artifact earned its spot on the wall: by having inspired the phrase Super Bowl. As the story goes, Lamar Hunt—a founding father of the Super Bowl itself—coined it after seeing his children play with Superballs.

The tale is told in Hunt’s own words, leaving little room to doubt the details. But Hunt wasn’t perfectly consistent from retelling to retelling—and there’s much more nuance in Super Bowl’s origin story than you can fit on a single plaque.

A Rose Bowl by Any Other Name

aerial view of the yale bowl stadium in the 1920s
The Yale Bowl in the 1920s. / National Archives at College Park // Unrestricted Use

On November 21, 1914, Yale’s football team played the first game in a brand-new stadium known as the Yale Bowl—so named because the seats fully encircled the field. It was the first bowl-shaped arena in American football, and other architects took note of the innovation. 

Chief among them was Myron Hunt, who broke ground on a stadium for the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena, California, in 1921 [PDF]. The Tournament of Roses, a New Year’s Day tradition dating back to 1890, comprised a parade of floral floats followed by various sporting events. College football had been a permanent fixture of the festival only since 1916 (excluding a one-off game in 1902), but its popularity had quickly proven the need for a larger venue. And though Hunt initially arranged his arena’s seating in the shape of a horseshoe—more seating was added to close the loop in 1928—that didn’t stop people from calling it “the Rose Bowl” soon after it opened in October 1922.

The Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day became such a cultural phenomenon that when similar annual match-ups started cropping up across the country, many of them got “bowl” names, too. The 1930s saw the creation of the Sugar Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Sun Bowl, and the Cotton Bowl, to name a few. In this way, the phrase bowl game—and even just the word bowl—became shorthand for any postseason college football game.

Eventually, the meaning of bowl broadened to include other significant and recurring football games. In 1950, for example, the National Football League (NFL) christened its all-star game “the Pro Bowl.” The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers—among the biggest rivals in the NCAA—have been calling their clashes “the Iron Bowl” at least since 1964.

All this to say that by the time professional football’s two leagues revealed plans for a joint championship game in the mid-’60s, it was already a bowl in spirit if not yet in name.

If You Can’t Join ’Em, Beat ’Em … And Then Join ’Em

In 1959, Lamar Hunt, the 27-year-old son of a Texas oil magnate, wrangled together a handful of entrepreneurs to launch the American Football League (AFL) as a counterweight to the uber-popular NFL. He established the Dallas Texans—which would soon become the Kansas City Chiefs—for himself to own, and his fellow founders fanned out to head up new teams in seven other cities spanning Los Angeles to Boston.

Over the next several years, the NFL and the AFL grappled for everything from players to broadcast contracts until the pressurized competition threatened to burn out both leagues. So, on June 8, 1966, they announced a merger. According to its terms, the NFL and the AFL would maintain separate regular-season schedules until 1970, but they’d combine certain operations within mere months. After the 1966 season, the best team in each league would battle it out for a championship title.

A committee of eight—including Hunt and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle—formed to tackle the new union’s most pressing matters, including hammering out the championship’s specifics. By Hunt’s own account in a 1986 editorial for The New York Times, the championship game wasn’t the only postseason game discussed at committee meetings, and members occasionally got confused about which one was being referenced.

pete rozelle in 1957
Pete Rozelle in 1957. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

“Then 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,’” Hunt wrote. He dated the meeting to early fall 1966, after the Los Angeles Coliseum had been chosen to host the game, and NBC and CBS had both agreed to broadcast it.

Never mind that those logistics weren’t set until December 1966. Even if Hunt correctly remembered the timing of that meeting—early fall—it’s impossible that he coined Super Bowl during it. Because by that point, newspapers had already been calling the championship game “the Super Bowl” for months. In fact, they’d been doing so since before the committee started meeting at all.

This discrepancy has been used to suggest that the media, not Hunt, named the game. But purveyors of that theory—and Hunt himself—have overlooked a key detail. It was Hunt who floated the phrase to reporters in the first place.

Bouncing Around an Idea

On a cool Friday in mid-July, Hunt went to observe a Kansas City Chiefs practice and ended up chatting with Kansas City Star sports editor Joe McGuff. Hunt shared some predictions for the future of the merger, including plans for the interleague committee to “meet soon.”

“I think one of the first things we’ll consider is the site of the Super bowl—that’s my term for the championship game between the two leagues. I’m in favor of playing it on a neutral site where we would be assured of good weather,” Hunt said, proposing Pasadena’s Rose Bowl as the best option.

The Star printed the interview on July 17. The very next day, nearly 100 newspapers from all over the U.S. published an Associated Press report identifying the Rose Bowl as a likely venue for the Super Bowl. Hunt’s quote was cited in full, and plenty of papers actually put Super Bowl in the headline. The term continued to make headlines as summer faded into fall and news about the game ramped up.

While there’s always a chance that someone described the game as a Super Bowl before Hunt did, it’s fair to say that he’s the reason it caught on in such a huge way. Proving definitively that Superballs inspired him is a slightly tougher feat. Hunt often mentioned that his children played with Superballs, but it was usually more of a hypothesis about where he might have gotten the name, preceded by something like “I don’t know how I came up with it” or “The name actually came out of space.” It’s certainly a plausible explanation, just not quite the “Eureka!” moment people tend to picture.

In any case, Hunt never intended the name to stick. “If possible, I believe we should ‘coin a phrase’ for the Championship Game,” he wrote in a letter to Rozelle on July 25, 1966. “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which can obviously be improved upon.”

Rozelle didn’t like it, either. “Pete was a pretty regular person, but he was a stickler on words and grammar, and ‘super’ was not his idea of a good word,” committee member Don Weiss said, according to Michael MacCambridge’s book America’s Game. “He thought ‘super’ was a word like ‘neat’ or ‘gee-whiz.’ It had no sophistication.”

Apparently, big did. Rozelle reportedly proposed “The Big One,” which got rejected, and “the Pro Bowl,” which was still being used for the all-star game. He finally found success with “The AFL-NFL World Championship Game” … sort of. That was technically the title of the first championship game—in which the Green Bay Packers defeated Hunt’s own Chiefs by 25 points—and the 1968 follow-up. 

But Hunt’s catchy placeholder remained so widely used that in 1969, officials stopped trying to fight it. The third championship game became the first official Super Bowl, and the previous two were retroactively dubbed Super Bowls, too. Really, they saved themselves some work: When the two leagues fully integrated in 1970, they would’ve had to update the name, anyway.