Bowl season provides its own rewards

Now that the annual BCS furor has died down -- this year's theme: SECede! -- and the first bowl games are upon us, it's time to remind ourselves that bowls are about more than determining a national champion. One game does that. The other 34 aren't there as arm candy.

And bowls haven't even been in the business of putting on a national championship game for very long. Finding a No. 1 isn't why the bowls came to be. From 1946 to 1991, No. 1 played No. 2 in a bowl exactly eight times. Only in the last 20 years did the bowls and the conferences begin to clunk their way toward the, um, seamless system that we have today.

The original purposes of the bowls remain valid. They promote tourism in their cities. They promote the teams that performed well enough to be invited. They promote the sale of junk food, beer and firewood from sea to shining sea. And they promote agita in their critics, who see a boondoggle for the bowls, schools and the networks at the expense of the student-athletes who play in them.

The idea of promoting tourism dates to the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club, which in 1890 modeled its civic celebration on the "Battle of the Flowers" in Nice, France. Members settled instead on the name Tournament of Roses. In 1902, they staged their first football game. Michigan led Stanford 49-0 in the third quarter when the losers decided they had had enough.

The Tournament of Roses abandoned football for chariot races. Football didn't return to Pasadena for 14 years. Once the Rose Bowl took root, the decision to pair a Western team with an Eastern team made the game important to college football fans across the nation.

The Rose Bowl inadvertently gave birth to the Sugar Bowl, according to the official history of the New Orleans game, published in 2008. When Tulane went 9-0-1 in 1925, New Orleans Item sports editor Fred Digby campaigned to get the Green Wave an invitation to the Rose Bowl. However, the Tulane administration declined the invitation, citing the length of the trip. Digby decided it would be easier if New Orleans had its own bowl game.

By the time that New Orleans staged a bowl, nine years later, Dallas and Miami had started bowls as well. You know them as the Cotton and Orange Bowls.

Bowls now are about more than filling hotel rooms. They also are about filling TV schedules -- for which you may thank/blame my employer. The increase, from 26 to 35 bowls in the last decade, has expanded the number of student-athletes who play in the postseason and diluted the meaning of the reward itself.

Seventy FBS schools will send a team to a bowl; 50 will not. See, it just seems like everyone gets a trophy.

The players who reach a bowl game get much more than a trophy. Advocates for paying student-athletes may not consider the loot a bowl participant receives to be sufficient. But bowl time is when the NCAA provides the most latitude for student-athletes to benefit.

Every bowl game may provide a gifts or gifts worth $550 to every player. It is typically the hottest electronic toy. But the bounty does not stop there. The school also may provide gifts worth $400 to every player, usually clothing and an overnight bag or backpack, all festooned with the logos of the school and the bowl. The institution also may provide a $30 per diem, which, given that meals and lodging are paid for, goes right into the player's pocket.

And, in what is a universally recognized boondoggle, the school may pay a player's transportation from home or campus to the bowl and back. Traditionally, the NCAA allowed the student-athlete to put in for the "greater cost" of flying or driving, whether the round trip involved home or campus.

This year, the NCAA tightened the rule somewhat. Expenses must be "actual and necessary" -- i.e., goodbye, greater cost. It also clamped a ceiling of 400 miles each way on how much mileage a school may reimburse. Still, if five teammates pile into a car and drive to the bowl site, all five will get mileage. A round trip means as much as $444 in every player's pocket.

The players also get a game and a trip that serve as a reward for the previous 12 months of work. Florida State played in the 2006 Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. When the bowl surveyed the 99 Seminoles players, it found that 98 of them had never set foot in California. Those who play in the Orange Bowl stay on Hollywood Beach and Miami Beach, the lures of which will test a team's collective maturity. Curfew, anyone?

At their best, bowls provide matchups of college football's best teams that the fans otherwise wouldn't see. This season, No. 6 Arkansas will play No. 8 Kansas State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl; No. 5 Oregon and No. 10 Wisconsin, champions of the Pac-12 and Big Ten, will play in the Rose Bowl presented by VIZIO as God and Brent Musburger intended. No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Stanford will play in the Fiesta Bowl. And in the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, No. 1 LSU will play No. 2 Alabama -- again.

A playoff, depending on the size of the bracket, would provide any or all of those games. It also would replace the reward quotient of a bowl with the pressure of "survive and advance." That's not why a playoff hasn't made any headway with the powers that be. But if college football moves to a plus-one, and it turns into a four- , eight- or 16-team playoff -- we all should live so long -- it is a tradeoff that the sport, its student-athletes and its fans would have to make.

In the meantime, load up on the snacks, beer and firewood. Bowl season is upon us.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.