Why “Bowls”?

In America, the end of every college football season is celebrated with a variety of “bowl games”: the Rose Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl are just a few. And, of course, the NFL took a cue from the college game by naming its yearly championship the Super Bowl.

But why are they bowls? Did the winner get a bowl of roses or cotton or sugar or oranges? A free set of tableware? Did the first trophies look like bowls?

Haha… no. It actually comes from 1914, when Yale University built the first modern football stadium in the United States. Prior to this, most universities just took a large area of flat ground, marked off the football field, then built wooden or metal stands on one side of the field. As the team grew in popularity, the school would then build stands on the other side of the field, then on either end zone as needed. And by that time, the school would enclose the whole area with a fence of some kind, so that only paying customers could watch the game. Or they’d just use a baseball field, which presented its own set of problems.

But Yale’s new stadium was different. For one thing, the entire thing was recessed into the ground, so that the playing field was several feet (meters) below the surrounding ground. Bathrooms and food stalls were included. Access was controlled by various gates, and the entire building was circular. The whole thing kind of looked like a giant bowl from above, and this led people to call the stadium the “Yale Bowl”, which is the name it has today. It was new and it was breathtaking. And it was such a success that the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (1921), the Rose Bowl (1922) and Michigan Stadium (1926) copied the basic design.

yale_bowl
The Yale Bowl

But here’s the thing: the very first “bowl game” – the Rose Bowl – was originally created to help fund a preexisting event: Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses. If you’re an American, you’ve no doubt seen at least a bit of the famous “Tournament of Roses Parade” on TV every New Year’s Day. Well, what happened was that the tournament was barely breaking even most years, so someone on the organizing committee suggested holding a football game to generate a bunch of revenue.

Tournament of Roses parade

As envisioned, the game was to feature the best team from the western states playing the best team from the eastern states. However, in the inaugural game – played on January 1, 1902 – the eastern team (Michigan) crushed the western team (Stanford) by a score of 49-0. I don’t know if the Californians’ feelings were hurt or what, but for the next several years other sports were substituted for football. Given the immense popularity of college football today, it’s hard to believe that chariot and ostrich races were more popular than football, but so it was.

15 years later the game was resurrected. The first few games were played in nearby Tournament Park, but the game quickly grew so popular that a proper stadium became necessary. And so, in 1922 the “Tournament East-West Football Game” moved to the “Tournament of Roses Stadium”. Within a year, the stadium was called the “Tournament of Roses Bowl” (thanks to the Yale Bowl), and soon the game itself was just called the “Rose Bowl”.

Other cities saw Pasadena making a bunch of money off the game, and they too wanted to get in on the action. So you soon had the Orange Bowl (Miami, 1934), the Sun Bowl (El Paso, 1934), the Sugar Bowl (New Orleans, 1934), the Cotton Bowl (Dallas, 1936), the Gator Bowl (Jacksonville, 1945), the Tangerine Bowl (Orlando, 1946), the Liberty Bowl (Memphis, 1959), the Peach Bowl (Atlanta, 1968) and the Fiesta Bowl (Arizona, 1971) . But still more bowl games came: the Independence Bowl (Shreveport, 1976), the Holiday Bowl (San Diego, 1978), the Hall of Fame Bowl (Tampa, 1986), the Copper Bowl (Arizona, 1989), the Las Vegas Bowl (Las Vegas, 1992) and others.

To make it as complicated as possible, naming rights to most bowls have been sold to corporations. With the big bowls, the original name was retained, so it’s “The Rose Bowl presented by Vizio” or “the FedEx Orange Bowl”. But with lesser bowls, companies have been able to claim the entire name. So the Tangerine Bowl became the Citrus Bowl which became the Capital One Bowl. The Peach Bowl became the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl which became the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. And the Copper Bowl became the Domino’s Pizza Copper Bowl which became the Wesier Lock Copper Bowl which became the Insight.com Bowl, which became the Insight Bowl, which became the Valley of the Sun Bowl… and finally the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. And don’t you just know college athletes are PROUD to win that Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl? I know I would be!

There are a ton of bowl games that no longer exist. I remember Georgia Tech going to the All-American Bowl in Birmingham in 1985. I also remember the Bluebonnet Bowl, the Garden State Bowl and the Heritage Bowl. And there were many more either before my time, or from when I was too young to remember, or just too obscure for me to know as a kid: the Boardwalk Bowl (Atlantic City, 1961-1973), the Boot Hill Bowl (Dodge City, Kansas, 1970-1980), the California Bowl (Fresno, 1981-1991), the Freedom Bowl (Anaheim, 1984-1994) and the Orange Blossom Classic (Miami, 1933-1978, played between historically black colleges; for years the winner was considered the “black college football champion”).

Most bowls got their original names from a local industry. The previously mentioned Peach Bowl was played in Atlanta because Georgia’s nickname is the “Peach State”. Since Kansas is known as the “Sunflower State” it hosted the Sunflower Bowl from 1982-1986. So, yeah. But did you know that Toledo, Ohio has long been a big center for glassmaking… and that America’s biggest glass makers are headquartered there? That’s why it hosted the hilariously-titled Glass Bowl from 1946-1949. Likewise, Evansville, Indiana was known as the “The Refrigerator Capital of the World” in the 1940s and 50s, which is why it hosted the Refrigerator Bowl from 1948-1956. And since Birmingham, Alabama was the steel center of the South, it only makes sense that it hosted the Vulcan Bowl from 1941-1948 and again in 1951. And someone was certainly cheeky when they came up with the Salad Bowl, a post-season game played in Phoenix from 1948 to 1952.

And then there’s Hawaii. Most bowl games are held in the southern parts of the country, because most people would prefer Miami to Boston when it comes to sitting outside for four hours in late December. So you’d think Hawaii would be a natural for college games. But no. There were the moderately successful Aloha and Pineapple Bowls (1982-2000 and 1939-1951, respectively), but then you have the failure of the Oahu Bowl (1998-2000) and the Poi Bowl (1935-1938).

And there are few bowls that simply wouldn’t fly these days. I can’t imagine anyone approving the Tobacco Bowl (Virginia, 1935-1941, 1948-1984) or the Cigar Bowl (Tampa, 1946-1954) today. I sometimes wish I was one of those “nutty billionaires”, ‘cos I’d buy the rights to some game and name it the “Hit The” Bowl… just so I could hear Verne Lundquist say “hit the bowl” several times over four hours. Better yet, I’d hire Vin Scully to call the game, ‘cos it’s somehow funnier to imagine Scully saying “hit the bowl”.

There was also the Bacardi Bowl. Played in Havana, it was the first officially-sanctioned NCAA game played outside the United States, and was informally called the Cigar Bowl until it moved to Tampa where the name was permanently changed. The Bacardi Bowl featured teams from the southern United States playing Cuban teams: in the inaugural game, LSU beat the University of Havana 56-0. I would have loved to have been a player (but would hate to have been a chaperone) for those games!

The Bacardi Bowl was the only official NCAA game to take place outside the US until the Mirage Bowl, which was played in Japan from 1976-1993. But it was played during the regular season, so it wasn’t an official bowl game. The next postseason bowl game to be played outside the US was the International Bowl, held in Toronto from 2006 to 2009.

There was also supposed to be the Haka Bowl in New Zealand. A “haka” is a Maori dance, usually (but not always) a “war dance”; New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team performs a haka before each match, as seen here:

This proposed bowl would have been the first NCAA game ever played in the Southern Hemisphere, but the local Haka Bowl committee could not guarantee income for the game, so the NCAA revoked their license.

Those of you in North Carolina might be interested to know that the Belk Bowl (previously known as the Queen City Bowl, the Continental Tire Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl) isn’t the first bowl game to be played in the state. The 1942 Rose Bowl – played less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – was moved to Duke University in Durham after the US government banned large public gatherings on the West Coast. Duke, in typical fashion, lost the game to Oregon 20-16. And the first Pelican Bowl – a game between the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference champions – was originally scheduled to be played at Southern University in Baton Rouge… but was also moved to Durham after unrest broke out at Southern’s campus following the shooting of a student.

And lastly… could someone explain to me how in the world the town of Alexandria, Louisiana (2010 population: 47,723) ever got something called the “Cosmopolitan Bowl”? It was a one-time only bowl played in 1951 between McNeese State and Louisiana College. I can’t think of a less cosmopolitan place than Alexandria, Louisiana!

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