The Super Bowl, it could be said, is the National Football League’s top product. The final contest of the year pits the two best teams of the year against one another for the league’s championship.
The gravitas is enough to draw in more than 100 million viewers, including a large constituency who might not even care about football. It’s enough to generate the refrain that the day is an unofficial American holiday. It’s enough to even make the commercials that show during the game an attraction. The fact that you already know all this further drives home the point: The Super Bowl is a big deal in the United States.
So how funny, then, that the NFL didn’t even come up with the name. In fact, the title of the league’s most quintessential asset is just one example of the NFL’s willingness to embrace somebody else’s idea and see it become a hallmark of the company.
A History of Embracing External Ideas
According to the NFL, the name “Super Bowl” was originally proposed by Kansas City Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, when the National Football League agreed to merge with the American Football League. (Today these are the National and American Football Conferences, within a unified NFL).
Under the new arrangement, the champions of the AFL and NFL were slated to play one another in a championship contest at the end of the year. Hunt reportedly suggested calling it the Super Bowl after seeing his children play with super ball toys, though Hunt noted he wasn’t entirely serious about it. Whether this is actually true is the subject of dispute — some football historians alternatively suggest the media originally proposed it.
But either way, the league’s authorities decided to go forth with the less spectacular “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” for the first couple years. But fans and the media adopoted the name Super Bowl. That popular sentiment eventualy won out, and the NFL reluctantly embraced the title in time for the 1970 Super Bowl. Could you imagine it by any other name today?
The league also owes much of its success to the documentary and filming arm, NFL Films. But the idea to film the game did not originally come from the NFL. NFL Films creator Ed Sabol approached the NFL asking them to let him film games in the early 1960s, and a few years later convinced the league to acquire his filming company and embed it into the NFL’s larger practices.
Another example: The NFL was approached by a young ESPN, asking if it could televise its annual draft of rookie players. The NFL didn’t think anybody would be interested in watching, but said okay. Now the draft is a three-day extravaganza, and the first round drew more than 6 million viewers in 2013.
The Point: Embrace Outside Innovation
It would be easy to look at those above examples and say the NFL has, in some ways, succeeded in spite of itself. But a less cynical reading would suggest that it speaks well to the NFL that it has done so.
The league has acquiesced to the wisdom of the crowd, the wisdom of the filmmaker, and the wisdom of the broadcast network in establishing some of its top assets. That requires a level of self-awareness and a willingness to lessen their grip that many business owners are loathe to allow for.
To follow the NFL’s example, a company needs to be willing to let people with ideas — potential partners, employees, or customers — to knock on the door and make their suggestion. That doesn’t mean you need to say yes automatically, of course. Leaders should work with an appropriate level of skepticism, and must see real value in the opportunity.
Still, for leaders who struggle to acknowledgee that others might know best, even getting to the point where they’d hear a potential partner out and turn them down would be a step in the right direction. But again I ask, could you imagine the Super Bowl by any other name?