How the Mother of All Football Games Became the Most Vigilantly Guarded Brand Name in America

The Super Bowl forever altered the world of intellectual property

For the NFL, and for companies that can afford its advertising and sponsorship rates, the Super Bowl is not just a game—it's a brand.
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One of the most important plays in football history was made on March 7, 1969, though it didn’t take place on a field anywhere. It happened at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where the claims examiners received registration No. 882283 from an office at 345 Park Ave. in New York: The National Football League was applying for a trademark for the term “Super Bowl.”

It was Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt (above) who came up with the name “Super Bowl” from a popular toy of the time, Wham-O’s Superball (below)—and it stuck.
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Nine months later, the NFL got its trademark—and the world of intellectual property has never been the same. The Super Bowl is, of course, a very important football game. But for the NFL, and for companies that can afford its advertising and sponsorship rates, the Super Bowl is something more. It’s a brand. An imperious, monumental, profitable brand: By one estimate, the value of “Super Bowl” the brand stood at $663 million in 2017.

Of course, plenty of companies own valuable trademarks, but few go to the lengths that the NFL does to protect them. Every year around this time, an uncounted number of cease-and-desist letters fan out to those commercial entities naive or foolish enough to use the “Super Bowl” name without having paid for it.

You’ve probably heard the stories. Best known was the 2007 case in which Pastor John Newland of Indianapolis’ Fall Creek Church received a letter ordering him to cancel his planned “Super Bowl Bash” because he had no right to use “Super Bowl” (nor to charge admission, nor to show the game on a big screen).

Corporate makes no apologies for its strict policing. “The NFL is vigilant about protecting its fans and business partners year-round, including with the respect to the Super Bowl,” communications vp Brian McCarthy said. “Advertisements, products or commercial services that run afoul of NFL intellectual property rights are likely to confuse our fans and impact our partners.”

After both schools and some 20 brands objected to the trademark application, the NFL withdrew it. Since then, the Big Game has become a legally safe stand-in for Super Bowl—unless you want to borrow Stephen Colbert’s favored trademark loophole, “Superb Owl.”

Fair enough—but even innocuous mentions of the game, if they imply any sort of commercial relationship, can bring trouble. Take, for example, a convenience store banner reminding customers to “Stock Up Snacks for the Super Bowl!” or a brand tweeting congratulations to a team.

“They’re called the ‘No Fun League’ for a reason,” said Kevin Goldberg, an intellectual property attorney with Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth. If the NFL takes a hit in the court of public opinion, “they don’t care,” he said, “and when there’s this many dollars at stake, who can blame them?”

It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that while “Super Bowl” is among the most valuable brand names in the world, it’s a name that—initially, at least—the NFL didn’t even want.

When the National Football League and breakaway American Football League agreed to merge in 1966, they inaugurated an end-of-season face-off called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

Seeking to replace that clunker of a name, commissioner Pete Rozelle suggested “The Big One,” but lost out to Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who said: “We need to come up with a name [for the game]—something like the Super Bowl.” The NFL kept pushing for alternatives, “Premier Bowl” and “Ultimate Bowl” among them, but it was “Super Bowl” that stuck. And it was “Super Bowl” that was trademarked.

And it’s “Super Bowl” that’s been one of America’s most valuable, and policed, brand names ever since.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 28, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.