bowl, Super Bowl

With every new year comes the onslaught of bowl games: the Sugar Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Aloha Bowl, and of course the Super Bowl. Why do we call these football contests bowls?

The word bowl is an old one, and the most basic meaning of the word has remained unchanged for over a millennium. A bowl is a round vessel for liquids that is wider than it is deep. The word can be found in Old English, such as this example from Ælfric’s Life of St. George, written in the late tenth century:

Athanasius ða ardlice genam ænne mycelne bollan mid bealuwe afylled and deoflum betæhte ðone drenc ealne and sealde him drincan, ac hit him ne derode.

(Athanasius then eagerly took a large bowl filled with poison and dedicated all that drink to the devils and gave it to him to drink, but it did not harm him.)

But what does this have to do with American football?

Bowls are associated with sports because modern stadiums are shaped like bowls, and because of this are often given names that include bowl in the title. The first of these was the Yale Bowl, construction of which began in 1913 and was completed the following year. The earliest known reference to the stadium as a bowl is from the Yale Alumni Weekly of 4 July 1913:

I voice the thanks of all Yale graduates for the “Bowl” [....] I am glad that Yale [...] prefers the good old word “bowl” with its savor of manly English sport, to the “coliseum” of the Romans or the “stadium” of the Greeks.

The Yale Bowl inspired the building of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in 1922 to host the Tournament of Roses football game, which had been first held on 1 January 1902. An early use of the name Rose Bowl is from the 14 November 1922 Los Angeles Times:

An observer of the game between California and U.S.C. at the opening of the new rose bowl, writing for the Berkeley paper, seems to discern just enough good points about this mammoth structure amid surroundings of unsurpassed beauty to damn it with faint praise.

The game inspired other ones, which about a decade later were being referred to as bowl games. From the 29 December 1935 New York Times:

Dorais suggested that a committee be formed to investigate the bowl games to determine whether they are “healthy appendages or cancerous growths.”

Bowl games are, with one exception, played between university teams. The exception is the Super Bowl, the championship game of professional American football. In the late 1960s, there were two competing football leagues, the American Football League (AFL) and the National Football League (NFL). (In 1970, the leagues would merge into a single NFL, with two conferences, the AFC and NFC.) In 1966 it was decided that the champions of each league should play each other, and the first AFL-NFL World Championship Game was played on 15 January 1967, in which the NFL’s Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. But the game was popularly dubbed the Super Bowl.

The name was coined by AFL co-founder Lamar Hunt, who was quoted in the 18 July 1966 New York Daily News as saying:

I think one of the first things we’ll consider is the date 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 did not intend the name Super Bowl to be official. A few days later he was quoted as saying:

I have kiddingly called it the “Super Bowl,” which obviously can be improved upon.

But the name caught on anyway, and in 1970 the newly merged league made the name official. Hunt said of it:

I guess it is a little corny, but it looks like we’re stuck with it.

That year Hunt also elaborated on his coinage:

I don’t know how I came up with it. I think it must be related to a ball which was popular with kids at the time. It was called super ball. It was tightly wound and very live. You could bounce it all over the house.

This last about the super ball must be treated with skepticism. After the fact explanations of a term’s origin, even by the coiner of an expression, are very often inaccurate. Other sources have often taken this explanation as gospel, even though Hunt, when he gave this explanation, said he was unsure about what inspired the name.

The more likely explanation is the prosaic one. Bowl was a well-established football term referring to a championship game between college teams, and the professional championship would presumably be at a higher, or super, level.


Sources:

Clayton, Mary and Janet Mullins. “Saint George.” Old English Lives of Saints, Volume 2, Ælfric. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 59. Harvard University Press, 2019, 57.

“Corny And Bit Presumptuous, But It’s Still The ‘Super Bowl.’ St. Petersburg Times, 7 Jan 1970.

Dictionary of Old English: A to I, 2018, s. v. bolla, bolle.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. bowl, n.1.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, Nov. 2010, s. v. Rose Bowl, n.2.

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, Jun. 2012, s. v. Super Bowl, n.

Shapiro, Fred. “Slight Antedating of ‘Super Bowl.’” ADS-L, 13 Jan 2020.

Williams, Harry A. “Sport Shrapnel.” Los Angeles Daily Times, 14 Nov 1922, 38.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2020, by David Wilton