Championship Worthy: A Brief History of Iconic Sport Trophies

Raptors NBA Championship ring

Championship games are the pinnacle of sports, the ultimate title of best in the world and an elusive trophy that few will claim. The billion dollar sports industry spares no expense in keeping the experience of a championship entertaining, memorable, and attractive. Behind the spectacle of the game, every player and team works toward victory to hold up the most iconic and sought after trophy in their sport. Take a victory lap with us as we go back in time to learn about the origin, design, and history of the most cherished championship worthy prizes.

The Best on Ice

The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy awarded to a sporting franchise in North America. Unlike other sports, the National Hockey League awards the same trophy each year to the best team in the league. In 1982, Lord Stanley of  Preston, the Governor General of Canada commissioned the first hockey trophy to be awarded, at the time naming it the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. The original trophy was made from pure silver and replicated with a combination of silver and nickel alloy to make it easier for silversmith’s to engrave the names of players and coaches starting in 1924. Each year the names of Stanley Cup winners are engraved into one of the 5 detachable rings of the cup. As part of tradition, when the cup no longer has room for names, a layer is removed and put into “Lord Stanley’s vault,” otherwise known to the general public as the hockey hall of fame. After the ring is removed a new silver ring is attached to the cup for the next championship team to be part of history. 

If only fine silver was able to overcome the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic and the 2004-05 NHL lockout where the Stanley Cup was not awarded. Even with the unprecedented challenges that 2020 has presented the NHL was able to host playoffs and a championship series. The Stanley Cup was awarded to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who previously won in 2004. 

The Birth of Rings

Hockey inspired sports to start championship traditions, including one by the Montreal Hockey Club, who was the first team to order championship rings. However, major league baseball was the first to adopt the tradition annually in the 1930’s after the New York Giants beat the New York Yankees. Before championship rings were part of tradition, players were awarded fancy cufflinks, pocket watches, and tie bars. The first few championship rings contained a couple of diamonds and other stones keeping the price tags relatively low. It didn’t take long for the billion dollar industry to catch up and award players with rings made by well-known jewelers and memorabilia designers. By 2003, the World Series championship rings contained over 200 diamonds in each “A” ring setting, given to players, coaches, and executive staff. Ring types are awarded to various members of the team and organization. For example, manager-level and other full time staff receive “B” rings and entry level or part-time staff receive “C rings”. Each tier gets progressively more valuable.

It’s no surprise that championship rings became a trend across most major sports, including the NFL and NBA. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady hold the most Super Bowl Championship rings, a total of six with the New England Patriots. Belichick with an additional two as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants. The most memorable of the six championship rings can arguably be for the 2017 victory over the Atlanta Falcons after trailing 28-3 at halftime. The New England Patriots created a ring setting that contained 283 diamonds to remember their moment that year. 

As for the NBA, every championship winning team is granted freedom to choose a ring to their standards. To commemorate the first NBA championship by a Canadian basketball team, the Toronto Raptors kept it anything but modest. Their 2019 victory not only broke a franchise record, but championship ring record across all sports. The Raptors 2019 championship ring has the largest carat diamond on any sports championship ring of 1.25 carats. The not so modest ring has 74 diamonds on its face to represent the number of wins that season. Let’s just hope the whole team also got jewelry insurance to go with the other 566 diamonds that adorn the ring.

Image Courtesy of BBC News Canada

Scribbles Into Trophies

During a meeting in 1966 between former Tiffany & Co. vice president and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, a napkin was used to sketch the initial idea of the NFL Championship trophy awarded to winners of the Super Bowl. The trophy presented every year at the Super Bowl is a handspun piece made from fine sterling silver that endures a four month process at the Tiffany workshop in Rhode Island. 

The trophy was renamed in 1970 after Packer’s coach, Vince Lombardi, who led his team to claim the first two Super Bowl victories. Each Lombardi trophy is 22-inches high, weighs approximately 7 pounds, and worth upwards of $25,000. The hollow trophy stays true to the original design each year, including the regulation size football on top. After the Lombardi trophy is presented to the winning team at the Super Bowl, it is returned to Tiffany for cleaning and engraving. Just like engagement rings, you celebrate with it, show it off on the internet, but soon after you return it to the jeweler for proper fitting and customization. 

Humans have a long history of watching the best battle it out to victory: from gladiators, to the first olympic games and now modern day sports like football and basketball. Spectators share an attraction to championship games because of the entertainment, personal interests in athletes or teams, and to be part of a victory. Championship prizes are a symbol of the sport and its value to people across the world that cherish it.

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