In North America, a bowl game is one of a number of post-season college football games that are primarily played by teams belonging to the NCAA's Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). 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. The bowl games proliferated in place of the historic lack of a post-season tournament to determine an annual national champion in the FBS. This number of bowl games has grown in recent years, climbing to 39 team-competitive games starting in 2014–15. The increase in games allows virtually every team with a non-losing record to play in a bowl game. With the increase to 39 bowl games, the NCAA has eased the bowl eligibility rules to make teams with a losing record fully eligible to participate without the need to apply for a waiver.
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. The term has since become almost synonymous with any major American football event, generally collegiate football with some significant exceptions. Two examples are the Egg Bowl, the name of the annual matchup between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels, and the Iron Bowl, a nickname given to the annual game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. In professional football, the names of the National Football League (NFL)'s "Super Bowl" and "Pro Bowl" are references to college football bowl games.
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 plays two semi-final "bowl games" before the Vanier Cup national championship game, the Uteck Bowl and the Mitchell Bowl. The matchups are determined on a conference rotation basis, with the Uteck Bowl being played at the easternmost host team, while the Mitchell is at the westernmost host team.
The history of the bowl game began with the 1902 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 East-West 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—warm climate and ease of travel. The original 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, the games were scheduled well after the end of the regular season to allow fans to travel to the game site. While modern travel is more convenient, all but 5 of 35 bowl games (as of 2013-14) are still located in cities at or below approximately 36° N.
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 12-game schedule, a team may have six wins and be invited to a bowl game.
As of the completion of the 2015 season, the University of Alabama has played in more bowl games than any other school, with 63 appearances. Alabama also holds the record for most bowl victories with 37. The Florida State Seminoles hold the record for longest streak of consecutive bowl game appearances at 36, having never missed qualifying for a bowl game since 1980 and will extend that streak to 37 at the completion of the 2016 season. Florida State has played in a bowl game since 1980, However the vacated win in the 2006 season has had some speculate that this streak should have ended.
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 the only major exception being the holiday occurring on a Sunday. 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.
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. The Rose Bowl stadium still is the largest capacity stadium and the Rose Bowl game has the highest attendance for post season bowl games.
In the 1990s, many bowl games began to modify or abandon their traditional names in favor of selling naming rights. While some include the traditional name in some form (e.g. the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio), others have totally eliminated their traditional name in favor of solely using their corporate sponsor's name (e.g. the former Citrus Bowl became the Capital One Bowl for some time after the financial services company Capital One bought the naming rights).
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.
Attempts to determine a national champion
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 long avoided instituting 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.
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 on New Year's Day and the next night, Nebraska beat Tennessee (playing with an injury-hobbled Peyton Manning) by 25. The AP kept Michigan as the champion, but the Coaches' Poll jumped Nebraska, playing its final game for retiring coach Tom Osborne, 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 attempted to match the two highest ranked teams in the country based upon calculations from various sources, including statistics and coaches' polls, with one of the four bowl games in the consortium (the Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl) rotating the role of "national championship", or beginning in 2006, a dedicated BCS Championship Game rotated among the BCS venues. The BCS Championship Game, while separate from the four main bowls, was still rotated between their sites. The Coaches Poll was contractually obligated to recognize the winner of the game as its national champion. However, other polls such as the AP Poll may deviate and pick a different team, particularly in years when multiple teams were equally worthy of reaching the game, such as in 2003, when one-loss LSU won the BCS National Championship over Oklahoma, but the AP crowned one-loss USC champion after its Rose Bowl win.
For the 2014-15 season, the BCS was replaced by a new consortium, the College Football Playoff. The new system uses a four-team single-elimination tournament, with its participants selected and seeded by a committee; the semi-final games are rotated between pairs of the six member bowls yearly (Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, then Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl Classic, and then the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl). The winners from the two semi-final bowls advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship, which is played at a neutral site determined using bids. Members of the "New Year's Six" which are not hosting semi-final games revert to their traditional tie-ins.
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, Manning Bowl, Harbaugh 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 (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); like most Canadian sports leagues, however, the CFL's championship is instead known as a cup (in the CFL's case, the Grey Cup).
Bowl games today
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.
Small college bowls
At lower levels, teams play in playoff tournaments with a national championship game at a neutral site, making invitational bowl games less popular than in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
The Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) features only one bowl game, the Celebration Bowl (formerly the Heritage Bowl). It invites the top teams from historically black colleges and universities, one from the SWAC and one from the MEAC. (The SWAC has historically had a longer regular season that extends past Thanksgiving weekend, preventing its teams from participating in the FCS tournament and more closely mirroring the FBS.) There are also three bowl games at the Division II level: the Mineral Water Bowl, Live United Texarkana Bowl and the C.H.A.M.P.S. Heart of Texas Bowl (the last of which is a name used by two separate bowls, one for Division II and one for junior colleges).
Outside the NCAA, the Victory Bowl is sponsored by the NCCAA, a group that does not restrict its membership to either NCAA or NAIA. The NAIA does not have any invitational postseason bowl games. 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; one such extant example is the College Fanz First Down Classic, a pre-season bowl game for NAIA teams.
The Division III championship game has historically been known as 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.
The Heidi Bowl, so named after the fact, was a 1968 regular-season game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets whose NBC telecast was interrupted with 61 seconds left to play so that the network could broadcast the movie Heidi as contracted with their advertiser. Angry viewers missed the final minute of the game during which the Raiders scored two touchdowns in a come-from-behind victory.
Games between very poor teams and/or of very poor play quality have been jokingly referred to as Toilet Bowls (in college football) or as Draft Bowls (in professional football).
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, Texas vs The Nation, and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Outside North America
European Football League
In the European Football League (EFL), a European Cup style tournament for European American Football teams affiliated to EFAF (European Federation of American Football), the final game of the EFL is called the Eurobowl, and has been held annually since 1986.
In Finland, the national championship game is called Vaahteramalja ("Maple Bowl") and was first held in 1980.
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).
The winner of the Israeli Football League is determined every year in the Israel Bowl. The first to lift the Becker Trophy was the Jerusalem Lions in 2008.
The championship game of the Swiss Nationalliga A is called the Swiss Bowl. It was first held in 1986.
The championship game between the East Japan and West Japan champions in college football, is known as the Koshien Bowl. While the pro football championship is known as the Japan X Bowl. The winners of the Koshien and Japan X bowls play each other for the Japan National Championship in the Rice Bowl.
Many fans have criticized the growing number of bowl games, calling many of them pointless. Reasons include many of the games having corporate sponsors as their name (e.g. the Meineke Bowl) or featuring teams which had a mediocre record (three teams with losing records of 5-7 were selected to take part in bowl games in 2015, due to a shortage of eligible teams). Also criticized is the loss of classic names like the Peach Bowl, which became the Chick-fil-A Bowl, though since becoming a component of the College Football Playoff, the name has been restored as the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
Another criticism is that as of 2016, of the over 40 Bowl Subdivision bowl games, all but two of the games are exclusive to ESPN's networks, including ABC and sublicensing partners such as American Sports Network; ESPN has also flooded the market with twelve bowls managed or created by the network itself through its Events division on top of the other bowls to which it has acquired rights, effectively preventing any other network from either creating or acquiring any competition. (The two exceptions are the Sun Bowl, the only bowl game to still air on CBS; and the Cure Bowl, on CBS Sports Network.) As a result, Fox Sports and NBC Sports, both of whom carry regular season college games and carried bowl games in the past, have been shut out of bowl games (this was a factor in NBC carrying the NHL Winter Classic in direct competition with the bowl games since 2008). ESPN also has a monopoly on all college football championships in the NCAA's lower levels and the NAIA as of 2014. ESPN has, in recent years, systematically moved several games that used to air on ABC over to ESPN, which can only be accessed by subscription, thus reducing the number of games an over-the-air viewer can see.
In previous years, it was criticized that some teams were "guaranteed" to make a bowl game regardless of record. Like the mediocre teams mentioned above, this was criticized as allowing a bad team to make a bowl. This practice was eventually abolished.
- List of college bowl games
- List of announcers of major college bowl games
- Bowl Coalition
- Bowl Alliance
- Bowl Championship Series
- List of NCAA football bowl records
- AP Poll - Bowl game results were not included in the AP championship until the 1968 season (1974 season for the UPI championship)
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