One L of a con­tro­versy Drop of Ro­man nu­meral for 50 seen as a win-lose de­ci­sion

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Bruce New­man

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The Na­tional Foot­ball League didn’t be­gin lard­ing Ro­man nu­mer­als on to the Su­per Bowl un­til its fifth year, hop­ing to im­bue its cham­pi­onship game with a cer­tain chis­eled-in-stone gravitas. The block let­ter­swere “one of the things that de­fined the Su­per Bowl for us,” a league of­fi­cial ac­knowl­edged re­cently.

So why ditch a sig­ni­fier of the game’s iden­tity on the oc­ca­sion of its big­gest event ever: Su­per Bowl 50?

It turns out the NFL hates the let­ter L, which is the Ro­man nu­meral for 50.

The league got its first snoot­ful of the Ro­man em­pire’s ugli­est num­ber a decade ago at Su­per Bowl XL, and re­al­ized it faced a de­sign de­ba­cle if some­body didn’t come up with a way to get the L out. That some­body­was Shan­don Melvin, the NFL cre­ative di­rec­tor, who de­voted two years to the strug­gle.

“L im­me­di­ately brought up so many neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions,” Melvin says. The for­ma­tion of an L with thumb and fore­fin­ger had be­come a uni­ver­sally ac­cepted, de­ri­sive ges­ture for “Loser.” And un­like most of the Ro­man sys­tem’s other block nu­mer­als, L had such a ver­ti­cal shape it nearly dis­ap­peared into the equally upright Lom­bardi Tro­phy, awarded to the win­ning team ev­ery year.

“It’s very asym­met­ri­cal,” he says. “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 Xany day of theweek. Or any other let­ter for that mat­ter.”

If Ro­man nu­mer­als can be ditched for this game, why not for­ever? Melvin in­sists that ev­ery­one at the league of­fice, from­com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell down, is “very com­mit­ted” to re­vert­ing to the old sys­tem­next year for Su­per Bowl LI. “They’re part of us, such a strong icon for the game,” he says. “We just­wanted to do some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for once.”

Melvin and the league’s vice pres­i­dent for brand and cre­ative, Jaime We­ston-Parouse, be­gan look­ing for ways to spare them­selves the shame of un­veil­ing a de­sign disas­ter in Sil­i­con Val­ley, the vis­ual hot­house that pro­duced Ap­ple’s iPhone and the Tesla Model S.

Onany given Sun­day, there is al­most no con­tin­gency for which the NFL doesn’t plot and plan, and prepa­ra­tions for its cham­pi­onship gamerival amoon­shot. Two years ago, an in-house com­pe­ti­tion be­tween Su­per Bowl lo­gos fea­tur­ing the Ro­man L and the Ara­bic 50 pro­duced 73 mock-ups. Melvin didn’t re­ally be­lieve 50 had a chance. “There’s no way,” he thought. “If Ro­man nu­mer­als are our thing, why would we break from tra­di­tion?”

It’s a tra­di­tion the NFL shares with only a few in­sti­tu­tions, most no­tably the Olympics and the Catholic Church, which owned Sun­day for cen­turies un­til pro foot­ball be­came claimant to a more sec­u­lar sab­bath. Popes are known by their adopted names andRo­man num­bers, but not even the hardi­est pa­pal lin­eage — which hit its high­est num­ber with Pope John XXIII in the 20th cen­tury— has ex­ceeded the con­stancy of enu­mer­at­ing Su­per Bowls. Or their in­fal­li­bil­ity as mon­ey­mak­ers for ev­ery­one in­volved.

That in­cludes the San Fran­cisco 49ers, a fran­chise firmly rooted in the Ara­bic num­ber­ing sys­tem. To arouse aware­ness and ex­cite­ment for the 50th cham­pi­onship game, the NFL com­mis­sioned the cre­ation of 10 golden “50s,” and a month ago be­gan scat­ter­ing them around the Bay Area. Demon­strat­ing its cus­tom­ary light mar­ket­ing touch, the league made the num­bers as big as a pair of lineback­ers at 6 feet tall, gilded them in gold, and planted them with no­more ex­plana­tory con­text than the runes at Stone­henge.

The NFL also com­mis­sioned Tiffany to cast a spe­cial gold-plated tro­phy thatwill be given to the win­ning team at Su­per Bowl 50. Each of th­ese keep­sakes fea­tures the num­ber “50,” weigh­ing 33 pounds, and suit­able for dumb­bell work­outs in the off­sea­son.

At its cre­ation, the Su­per Bowl was the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of a shot­gun­wed­ding forced upon theN­ational Foot­ball League by the threat of com­pet­i­tive par­ity from the up­start Amer­i­can Foot­ball League. So to cel­e­brate 50 years of mar­riage, a golden an­niver­sary ex­trav­a­ganza such as the one at Levi’s Sta­dium on Feb. 7 seemed like the very least the NFL could do.

Of course, it’s not re­ally the 50th an­niver­sary of the game — like birth­days, an­niver­saries aren’t cel­e­brated un­til a year has elapsed, so that golden game will comenext year atReliant Sta­dium in Hous­ton.

It’s ac­tu­ally not even the 50th Su­per Bowl. The first two events were called AFL-NFL World Cham­pi­onship Games, and were only dubbed Su­per Bowls 1 and 2 retroac­tively. Af­ter the NFL adopted Ro­man nu­mer­als in 1971, they were retro-retroac­tively re­dubbed Su­per Bowls I and II.

The league has sought to re­as­sure its Ro­man nu­meral fan base that it will raise L at next year’s game. But the sin­u­ous suc­cess of 50, with all its se­duc­tive curves, has led many ob­servers to put the odds of a re­turn at L-L.

The few L’s on the of­fi­cial balls for next week’s Su­per Bowl don’t in­clude the Ro­man nu­meral for 50. Rick Osentoski, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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