American Football Database
File:2006 Rose Bowl go-ahead touchdown.jpg

2006 Rose Bowl, Texas vs. Southern California; January 4, 2006

In North America, a bowl game commonly refers to one of a number of post-season college football games that are primarily played by teams from the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. The term "bowl" originated from the Rose Bowl Stadium, site of the first post-season college football games. The Rose Bowl Stadium, in turn, takes its name and bowl-shaped design from the Yale Bowl, the prototype of many football stadiums in the United States.

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 2010, in terms of team-competitive games, there were 35), a bowl game has become a season-ending event for virtually every team with a non-losing 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 (such as the Super Bowl). One example is the Iron Bowl, a nickname given to the annual game between the University of Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn University Tigers.

The use of the term has crossed over into professional and collegiate Canadian football. A notable example is the annual Banjo Bowl between the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League (CFL). Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) plays two semi-final "bowl games" before the Vanier Cup national championship game. The Uteck Bowl is normally played between the Atlantic Division Champion and the champion from another division. It is usually held at the venue of the easternmost team playing in the semi-finals. The Mitchell Bowl is played at the westernmost team's venue participating in the semi-finals.


The history of the bowl game began 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 stadium, and thus the contest itself became known as the Rose Bowl game. The name "bowl" to describe the games thus comes from the Rose Bowl stadium. 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, Louisiana, Florida and Texas 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.[1]

The Rose Bowl was the only major college bowl game in 1930. By 1940, there were five major college bowl games: the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl (1935), the Cotton Bowl Classic (1937), the Orange Bowl (1935), and the Sun Bowl (1935). 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 as of 2010, 35 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 early 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 the 2009 season, the University of Alabama has played in more bowl games than any other school, with 55 appearances and 31 victories. The University of Southern California has the most wins, with 48 appearances and 32 victories. The Nebraska Cornhuskers hold the record for longest streak of bowl game appearances at 35 straight (1969–2005). The longest active streak is Florida State with 30.

The attendance of 106,869 for the 1973 Rose Bowl set the Rose Bowl Stadium record, as well as the NCAA bowl game attendance record.[2][3] The Rose Bowl stadium still is the largest capacity stadium and the Rose Bowl game has the highest attendance for post season bowl games.

Because of the vested economic interests entrenched in the various bowl games, the longer regular season compared to lower divisions of college football, and a desire not to have college players play several rounds of playoff games during final exams and winter recess, the Division I Bowl Subdivision has never instituted a playoff tournament to determine an annual national champion. Instead, the National Champion in the Football Bowl Subdivision has traditionally been determined by a vote of sports writers and other non-players. The current system, in use since 1998, is the Bowl Championship Series, a selection system that creates five bowl match-ups involving ten of the top ranked teams, including an opportunity for the top two to compete in the BCS National Championship Game. The BCS relies on a combination of both the traditional polls and computer selection methods to determine relative team rankings, and to determine the top two teams to play in the National Championship Game. Nevertheless, the system of bowl games has been challenged often, but little headway has been made to institute a playoff system.

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 (also known as the Playoff 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 watching his daughter play 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,[4] Manning Bowl[5] 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 (World Bowl), NFL Europe (World Bowl), Arena Football League (ArenaBowl), Indoor Football League (United Bowl), Great Lakes Indoor Football League (Great Lakes Bowl) 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. A rule change for 2010 allows bowls to tender a bid to any team with a 6-6 record before teams with more than six wins. 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 2010 season, 70 of the 120 Division I FBS teams played 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 1995, 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 against a more highly ranked opponent.

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 when there is not a post-season playoff in place, and the BCS attempts to match two national title contenders to play each other, instead of lesser teams.

For the 2006 season (with some bowl games taking place in 2007), the BCS added a fifth bowl that would decide the national championship. This BCS National Championship Game is 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. Another example is the College Fanz First Down Classic, a pre-season bowl game for NAIA teams. Starting with the now defunct Wheat Bowl, the NAIA found it easier to schedule bowl games early in the season rather than late—this allowed the schedule to accommodate large college bowl games and high school sports. The two most well-known and long-running of the small college bowl games are the Mineral Water Bowl and the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.

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. In the BUAFL, the Steel Bowl is contested between the Sheffield Sabres and Sheffield Hallam Warriors. 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 Bowl and Ice Bowl. However, any game that is part of the post season is considered a bowl game, even if it is not 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 and regular-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 referred to as Toilet Bowls or, in professional football, as Draft Bowls.[6]

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 Senior Bowl, and the newly-established NFLPA Game (originally the "Texas vs. The Nation Game").

Outside North America


In Germany, the national championship game in American football is called the German Bowl and was first held in 1979. Apart from the German Bowl, a Junior Bowl has also been contested in Germany since 1982 and a Ladies Bowl was introduced in 1990. Other, related, national championship games in Germany include the German Flag Bowl (est. 2000), German Junior Flag Bowl (1999) and a German Indoor Flag Bowl (2000).[7]

Great Britain

The annual championship game of the British American Football Association National Leagues is known as the Britbowl.

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)
  4. "Tuna Bowl II Goes From Folly to Foley". The Los Angeles Times. October 20, 1997.
  6. Austin Murphy, Washington-Washington State playing for pride in Apple Cup,, November 20, 2008, Accessed January 9, 2009.
  7. Bowls GFL website, accessed: 26 January 2011

Further reading

  • Oriard, Michael (2009). Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0-8078-3329-2.

External links

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