What the Super Bowl's gold '50' really means

San Francisco City Hall was one of 10 locations around town where a giant gold 50 landed. Ryan Young

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 8 Super Bowl 50 Issue. Subscribe today!

5 A.M., DEC. 19. Fifty days before Super Bowl 50. It's black and cold in downtown San Francisco. Heavy rain is beginning to fall. Five workmen grunt as they open the rear door of an 18-wheeler parked near city hall. Inside, there is a giant wooden crate.

The lead workman, Tug Orr, has a name that sounds like the groans of heavy lifting. People will be here soon! Orr shouts into his cellphone. This has to get done! As rain slides off his ball cap, he gets behind the wheel of a small forklift. With the care of a Jurassic Park game warden, he slides the tines under the crate and lowers it to the ground, then pries off one side of the crate. "There it is," Orr says. "Pretty cool, isn't it?" Illuminated by the headlights of the forklift, they can see a giant, golden No. 50. The workmen move it onto the sidewalk.

Even within San Francisco's everything-is-awesome aesthetic, the 50 makes for an outré piece of street art. It measures 6 feet high. It is made of aluminum and steel. Printed on the front of the digits are photos of the 49 previous Super Bowl rings. The base has the wrong date for the game (it says Feb. 7, 2015), so Orr and his men quickly peel it off, leaving only a hashtag -- #SB50 -- by way of explanation. Then they leave. The golden 50 sits in a lonely plaza with seagulls squawking overhead.

After a time, the rain eases and San Franciscans begin to drift by, like patrons who'd accidentally entered an art gallery. A man places a red laundry sack on the ground, turns his back to the golden 50 and practices tai chi. A woman in giant heels passes within inches, her chin held high, as if the 50 is an acquaintance she is trying to ignore. Old men with expensive windbreakers and bedrolls slow briefly, then excuse themselves -- they are on a "street retreat" to connect with the homeless.

Eventually and without coaxing, passersby begin to do what the NFL wants: They begin to take selfies with the 50. And they beam the brand all over the world.

This 50 is not alone. San Francisco, the host of the Super Bowl, will soon have nine more 50s in locations around town. On TV, golden 50s glow from the midfield stripe every Sunday; in the refrigerator aisle of 7-Eleven, they glow on the sides of Bud Light cans. To further "romance" the brand -- the verb of Super Bowl host committee CEO Keith Bruce -- the league went to Tiffany & Co. and asked: Could the jeweler make a golden 50? Like, a real golden 50? The resulting bauble, cast in bronze and plated in 18-karat gold, weighs close to 70 pounds.

In the age of CTE, Deflategate and the Revel Casino elevator, it has become common to view the people who run the NFL as bumbling bureaucrats. This characterization is accurate. But it also obscures a much older critique: that the NFL is run by very, very rich men with a weakness for shiny things. Super Bowl 50's golden 50 is worth thinking about, because it suggests that both of these critiques are true.

THE FIRST SIGN that the NFL regarded Super Bowl numbers as branding tools could be glimpsed in 1971. The early Super Bowls were branded with Arabic numerals. To give the game the air of a classic spectacle, the league transformed Super Bowl 5 into Super Bowl V. When the Colts and Cowboys delivered a turnover-filled disaster, writers pounced. "It featured a total of XI fumbles and interceptions and XIV penalties," the New York Post's Larry Merchant wrote.

As the Roman numerals began to stretch across wide-screen TVs, even league men found them inscrutable. Asked by the Wall Street Journal which Super Bowls his team had won, Jerry Jones admitted he had no idea because he could not decipher the numerals. But mind-blowing grandiosity was precisely the point. "Excess had no downside," Michael Oriard, a former-player-turned-writer, noted in his book Brand NFL. "The Super Bowl had become not just an NFL championship game and an unofficial national holiday but also the NFL's own best advertisement for itself."

Indeed, it's a testament to its self-promotional magic that the league was able to market inscrutability. In 2006, one NFL advertiser morphed Super Bowl XL into "Super Bowl Xtra-Large." The following year, the league plucked the "I" from Super Bowl XLI and used it for a playoff slogan: "One Game, One Dream, One Champion."

Beginning with Super Bowl XL -- that is, Super Bowl 40 -- the NFL saw a Roman numeral on the horizon that even its marketing wizards considered hopeless. L -- that is, 50 -- didn't seem grand. L was clunky, boring. "There was a feeling L was going to be very, very uncool," says Shandon Melvin, the league's creative director. The league prepared mock-up logos of "Super Bowl L" and "Super Bowl 50" and brought them before Roger Goodell. Goodell enthusiastically voted to return, for one year only, to an Arabic numeral.

Golden 50s are not unknown in the branding universe -- the Canadian doughnut chain Tim Hortons used one to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014. To secure its own niche, the NFL first searched for a font. "Modern," says Melvin. "Very readable, of course. And very bold." Finding no fonts that fit the bill, Melvin and his team drew the numbers themselves. They chose the color gold not just because 50 is the golden anniversary but because the game is being played in the Golden State.

A 50th Super Bowl, NFL officials thought, also called for the creation of some kind of curio -- a real anniversary present. The league considered making a one-time-only gold Lombardi Trophy but decided that would make the other 49 Lombardis seem less precious. "That to us is obviously not what the NFL is about, that parity," says Jaime Weston, the league's VP of brand and creative.

But what if the NFL created a golden 50 that was presented alongside the Lombardi Trophy? That would both preserve tradition and head off any hurt feelings. That's when the NFL turned to Tiffany & Co. The league will not divulge the value of the Tiffany 50. It simply says it is "priceless."

NOW THE GOLDEN 50 is an omnipresent part of our football lives, like Cleatus the Robot and the NFL shield itself. So what does it say about the state of the league? Well, a couple of things.

First, it's the NFL's way of showing us that in terms of actual gold, the league is doing great. After years of damning reporting and heavy think pieces, we critics allow ourselves to imagine that the NFL is in existential danger. In December, Concussion director Peter Landesman boasted, "The issue is the iceberg; the league is the Titanic."

There's little evidence that this is true. The NFL expected to take in $13 billion in revenue in the 2015 season, up from $12 billion from the 2014 season -- which itself was a 14 percent increase from 2013. In the fall, CBS's Les Moonves said he was hawking 30-second Super Bowl ads for $5 million -- $500,000 more than last year. (Meanwhile, Concussion debuted in sixth place at the box office on its opening weekend, earning slightly more than the value of two Super Bowl ads.) The golden 50, then, is a kind of asset statement that proves the league is still filthy rich.

Second, the golden 50 helps clarify fans' relationship with the NFL. Here's what fans don't like about the NFL: Roger Goodell; apparatchiks like Jeff Pash and Mike Kensil, who were shoved into searchlights by Deflategate; and LA-hungry owners like Stan Kroenke, who are forever looking to skip town. Here's what fans like: football. The spectacle, like the golden 50, is the shiny object that keeps us from walking away.

You'd think such on-the-nose plugs would be oppressive, especially as owners squeeze cities from St. Louis to San Diego for money to build stadiums. But if we feel such angst, we have a funny way of showing it. We like to blast away at Super Bowl hype on Twitter, then spit out "wows" and exclamation points with the first big play. Pretty soon, everyone's reading promo copy.

On Dec. 19, the first person who happens by the 50 near San Francisco's city hall is Jorge Duran. Duran moved to the United States five years ago from the tiny town of Ticul, in the Yucatán. He glances at the strange object in his path and says: "Who's going to play at the Super Bowl? It's Coldplay, right?"

Finally, we might think of the golden 50 in purely metaphorical terms. Imagine the NFL as a billionaire -- a smirking, misbehaving billionaire. Imagine us, the fans, as the billionaire's mistress -- pliant and ever-available. (Are you free Sunday night? Sure. Thursday? Of course.)

Now imagine the billionaire giving the golden 50 to his mistress as a gift. A token of affection? Sure. A sign of true love? Possibly. But, mostly, the mistress -- which is to say, us -- would be advised to treat the gift for what it is: a down payment against future bad acts.

WALKING THROUGH THE terminal of the Oakland airport in December, I am a test subject for the power of the 50. I see the 50 on everything from T-shirts to stuffed monkeys. Later, in a commercial for San Francisco's CBS affiliate, KPIX, well-coiffed anchors pose next to a CGI 50 as if it were an alien intelligence that has taken over the newscast. On Dec. 20, I stand on the sidelines of Levi's Stadium, site of the Super Bowl, before kickoff. The golden 50 painted at midfield, so eye-popping on TV, looks small and lusterless, like a yellow stripe on the other side of a parking lot.

"It wouldn't surprise me if there was some kind of opportunity for every fan to somehow touch a gold 50 in some way when they get to the game," Keith Bruce says of the Super Bowl.

In fact, you don't even need tickets to reach out and touch the 50. During Super Bowl week, the walk from Super Bowl City at the foot of Market Street to the NFL Experience theme park will be called "the 50th mile." In December, the Super Bowl host committee placed a golden 50 on the clock tower of the famous Ferry Building. At 5 p.m. on the 19th -- the same day workmen deposited the 50 near city hall -- the number lights up with white lights. No one from the NFL is standing around to explain -- 50th Super Bowl, 50 days out, etc. But two 20-something women on Steuart Street turn their backs to the 50 and begin taking selfies anyway.

Meanwhile, the Tiffany & Co. 50 -- the real golden 50 -- embarked on a garden gnome tour of the Western Hemisphere. It accompanied the Lombardi Trophy to Visa corporate events in Mexico, Panama and Brazil. Later, the 50 traveled to 19 military bases and air shows across the country as part of an "unforgettable photo opportunity" for service members. According to a league representative, the 50 was mostly out of public view after Nov. 21 as the league got into Super Bowl mode.

Or, I should say, the 50s were out of view. The league wound up having Tiffany & Co. make five golden 50s, explains Weston, the NFL vice president. One goes to the Super Bowl winner. A second goes to CBS, the network showing the game. The third goes to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The destination of the final two is the league office.

The 50 won't be the NFL's last act of numerical chest-beating. In 2019, the league will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Weston says gold is out; she jokes that the new brand might include platinum or diamonds. Such grandeur seems unlikely even for the NFL. But it raises an interesting question: What do you get for the league that has everything?