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In North America, a bowl game is commonly considered to refer to one of a number of post-season college football games. Prior to 2002, bowl game statistics were not included in players' career totals and the games were mostly considered to be exhibition games involving a payout to participating teams, which had to meet strict eligibility requirements. As the number of bowl games has grown (in 2008, there were 34), a bowl game has become a season-ending event for virtually every team with a winning record and the games have gained increased importance for the revenue they bring to participating programs and the opportunity to recruit new players to the teams.

In recent years, the term "bowl" has become synonymous with any major American football event, generally collegiate football with some significant exceptions (see Super Bowl). One example is the Iron Bowl, a nickname given to the annual game between the University of Alabamamarker Crimson Tide and the Auburn Universitymarker Tigers.

The term "bowl" originated from the Rose Bowl Stadiummarker, site of the first post-season college football games. The Rose Bowl stadium takes its name and bowl-shaped design from the Yale Bowlmarker, the prototype of many football stadiums in the United States.

In Canada, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) plays two semi-final "bowl games" before the Vanier Cup Game. The Uteck Bowl is normaly played between the Atlantic Division Champion and the champion from another division. It is usually held at the venue of the eastern most team playing in the semi-finals. The Mitchell Bowl is played at the western most teams venue participating in the semi-finals


The history of the bowl game begins with the Tournament East-West football game, sponsored by the Tournament of Roses Association between Michigan and Stanford, a game which Michigan won 49-0. The Tournament of Roses eventually sponsored an annual contest starting with the 1916 Tournament of Roses football game. With the 1923 Rose Bowl it began to be played at the newly completed Rose Bowl stadiummarker, and thus the contest itself became known as the Rose Bowl gamemarker. Other cities saw the promotional value for tourism that the Tournament of Roses parade and Rose Bowl carried and began to develop their own regional festivals which included college football games. The label "bowl" was attached to the festival name, even though the games were not always played in bowl-shaped stadiums.

The historic timing of bowl games, around the new year, is the result of two factors: originally bowls began in warm climates such as Southern California, Floridamarker and Texasmarker as a way to promote the area for tourism and business. Since commercial air travel was either non-existent or very limited early on, the games were timed a substantial amount of time after the end of the regular season to allow fans to travel to the game site.

The Rose Bowl was the only major college bowl game in 1930. By 1940, there were four major college bowl games: the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl Classic, the Orange Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl. By 1950, the number had increased to eight games. In 1960 there were still eight major college bowl games, but by 1970 the number had increased again, to 11 games. The number continued to increase, to 15 games in 1980, to 19 games in 1990, 25 games in the year 2000 and , 34 games in total. Up until around the 1950s, games were played solely on New Years Day, with few exceptions. In the late 1950s, more bowl games began playing their games earlier in December. Also bowl games began to be set in cities which were not thought of as winter vacation destinations due to their colder climates.

Currently, college football bowl games are played from mid-December to mid-January. As the number of bowl games has increased, the number of games a team would need to win to be invited to a bowl game has decreased. With a twelve game schedule, a team may have six wins and be invited to a bowl game. As of 2007, the University of Alabama has played in and won more bowl games than any other school, with 55 appearances and 31 victories. The University of Nebraska holds the record for longest streak of bowl game appearances at 35 straight (1968-2003). The longest active streak is Florida State with 26.

The attendance of 106,869 for the 1973 Rose Bowl set the Rose Bowl Stadiummarker record, as well as the NCAA bowl game attendance record. The Rose Bowl stadium still is the largest capacity stadium and the Rose Bowl game has the highest attendance for post season bowl games.

Professional bowl games

The National Football League also used the name "bowl" for some of its playoff games. While the NFL Championship was not named a Bowl initially, the league instituted the Pro Bowl as the name of its all-star game in 1951, and introduced the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl as a matchup of the two second-place teams in each division from 1960 to 1969.

When the professional football AFL-NFL merger occurred in 1970, the AFL-NFL World Championship Game became the NFL's championship and is now known as the Super Bowl, as it has been named since 1968 (the name was coined by Lamar Hunt after playing with a super ball). There has also been the American Bowl, a preseason match held overseas, and various one-time games informally nicknamed "bowls," such as the Bounty Bowl, Ice Bowl, Snow Bowl, Freezer Bowl, Fog Bowl, Mud Bowl, Tuna Bowl, Manning Bowl and the proposed (but ultimately canceled) China Bowl.

As a result, other professional football leagues used or use the name "Bowl" for their championships, such as the World Football League, NFL Europa (both used the name "World Bowl"), Arena Football League ("ArenaBowl") and American Indoor Football Association (AIFA Championship Bowl). The Canadian Football League nicknames one of their rivalries as the Banjo Bowl and another QEW Bowl (also known as the "Battle of Ontario").

Bowl games today

Post-season bowls

At the NCAA top level of football, the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (known as Division I-A from 1978 through 2005), teams must earn the right to be bowl eligible by winning at least six games and by not having a losing record during the season. They can then be invited to a bowl game based on their placement and the tie-ins that the conference has to each bowl game. As per NCAA rules, six-win teams without an automatic bowl tie-in cannot be picked above an available seven-win team. Bowls are popular among coaching staffs because the NCAA allows college teams going to bowl games extra weeks of practice they would otherwise not have, and bowl games pay the teams for their participation. Teams belonging to a conference split the money with their conference mates. For the 2009 season, 68 of the 120 Division I FBS teams will play in a bowl game. At lower levels, teams play in playoff games with a national championship game at a neutral site, like a bowl. The Heritage Bowl was the only true bowl for teams below the FBS level. It invited the top teams from historically black colleges and universities, one from the SWAC and one from the MEAC.

Prior to 1992 most bowls had strict agreements with certain conferences. For example, the Rose Bowl traditionally invited the champions of the Pac-10 and the Big Ten conferences. The Sugar Bowl invited the SEC champion and the Orange Bowl hosted the Big 8 conference champion. These conference tie-ins led to situations where the top-ranked teams in the country could not play each other in a bowl game. The national championship was decided after the bowls, solely by voters for various media polls, who tried to decide which team was best, sometimes based on wins against far inferior teams. As a result there could be multiple championship titles and no single champion. This led to the term "Mythical National Championship," which is still used to describe high school national champions, since high school sports have state championship tournaments but not national.

In 1992, the Bowl Alliance, formed by the major bowls and conferences, put in place a system where the two highest ranked teams would play each other, even if they were each affiliated with a different bowl. However, the Pac-10 and Big Ten and the Rose Bowl did not participate. Number 1 vs Number 2 bowl match-ups became far more likely, but were not guaranteed. After the 1997 season, undefeated Michigan was ranked first in both major polls, but as the Big Ten champion, they played eighth-ranked Pac-10 champion Washington State in the Rose Bowl. The top Bowl Alliance team, #2 and unbeaten Nebraska, faced one-loss, third-ranked Tennessee in the Orange Bowl. Michigan won by five in the afternoon and later that night, Nebraska beat Tennessee by twenty-five. The AP kept Michigan as the champion, but the Coaches' Poll jumped Nebraska in part because of their more lopsided victory.

The following season, the Rose Bowl, Pac-10, and Big Ten joined the other bowls and major conferences to form the Bowl Championship Series. The BCS attempts to match the two highest ranked teams in the country with the winner named champion at the conclusion. The AP poll reserves the right to crown a separate team champion, last done after the 2003 season, when three teams were equally worthy of reaching the BCS championship game. One-loss LSU won the BCS National Championship over Oklahoma, but the AP crowned one-loss USC champion after its Rose Bowl win. It is the nature of college football that there may be more than two teams worthy of playing for a title, but the BCS ensures that two national title contenders play each other, instead of lesser teams. In 1991, LSU, Oklahoma and USC could have played in three separate bowls. If they all won, the polls would have to choose between three teams instead of two.

For the 2006 season (with some bowl games taking place in 2007), the BCS added a fifth bowl that would decide the national championship. In the first game, called, descriptively, the BCS National Championship Game, between the first and second ranked teams according to the BCS formula.

Small college bowls

Aside from the BCS System and the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, there are a few bowl games for smaller colleges. One such example is the Victory Bowl sponsored by the NCCAA, a group that does not restrict its membership to either NCAA or NAIA.

Special games and rivalries

Bowl games that are not part of the post-season are traditional games against rival schools such as Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl and the Friends of Coal Bowl pitting Marshall Universitymarker against West Virginia Universitymarker . Recently, the term "bowl" has been added to other games that have some special note or sub-plot to the actual game, in college or the National Football League. Examples of this are the Bowden Bowl, Manning Bowlmarker and Ice Bowl. However, any game that is part of the post season is considered a bowl game, even if it isn't a formal bowl game, such as all-star games. The Super Bowl, the NFL's championship game, started as a "world championship" between the champions of the rival American Football League and NFL in the same way many college bowl games bring together the champions of different college conferences.

There have also been pre-season games carrying the "bowl" title, including the Mirage Bowl and Glasnost Bowl.

Several games between bad teams, particularly poor in play quality, have been jocularly to refer to as Toilet Bowl or, in professional football, as Draft Bowls.

All-star bowl games

Following the Bowl Championship Series, a series of all-star bowl games round out the post-season schedule. These games showcase the best departing college players, just as the NFL showcases its all-stars in the annual post-season Pro Bowl. Such college all-star games include the East-West Shrine Game, the Hula Bowl, the Senior Bowl, and the newly-established Texas vs. The Nation Game.

See also


  1. Frank Deford, The earmarks of athletics: Sheer lunacy of bowl games defies all traditional logic,, November 29, 2006.
  2. UCLA Football - 2007 UCLA Football (Media Guide). UCLA Athletic Department (2007), page 165 (PDF copy available at
  3. 2002 NCAA Records book - Attendance Records page 494 (PDF)
  6. Stewart Mandel, Bowl Projections: ACC, Big 12 title games will cause big domino effect,, November 27, 2006.
  7. Austin Murphy, Washington-Washington State playing for pride in Apple Cup,, November 20, 2008, Accessed January 9, 2009.

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