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). For most of its history, the Division I Bowl Subdivision had avoided using a playoff tournament to determine an annual national champion, which was instead traditionally determined by a vote of sports writers and other non-players. In place of such a playoff, various cities across the United States developed their own regional festivals featuring 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. Despite attempts to establish a permanent system to determine the FBS national champion on the field (such as the Bowl Coalition from 1992 to 1994, the Bowl Alliance from 1995 to 1997, the Bowl Championship Series from 1998 to 2013, and the College Football Playoff from 2014 to the present), various bowl games continue to be held because of the vested economic interests entrenched in them.|
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). U Sports 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.
As of the completion of the 2018 season, the University of Alabama has played in more bowl games than any other school, with 69 appearances (counting College Football Playoff semifinals and finals). Alabama also holds the record for most bowl victories with 41 under that same metric. As of the 2018 season, Florida State held the record of consecutive bowl berths at 36 bowl appearances from 1982 until 2017. However, it is not recognized by the NCAA due to the NCAA vacated FSU's 2006 Emerald Bowl victory over UCLA due to an academic issue. Virginia Tech Hokies have the longest active streak of consecutive bowl appearances, with 26 recognized by the NCAA .
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)
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.
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).