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Bowling in Alabama

Legion Field, site of the Birmingham Bowl.
Legion Field, site of the Birmingham Bowl.

Post-season bowl games have a 75-year history in our state

By Emmett Burnett

Alabama loves college football. Motorists driving to Tuscaloosa on Iron Bowl day realize it immediately — with traffic snarled in three zip codes; where the only guaranteed parking is for the Goodyear Blimp; when for four hours, 103,000 fans make Bryant-Denny Stadium the state’s fifth largest city — this is a football state.

But “War Eagle” and “Roll Tide” are just the beginning. Are you ready for some football? There are bowls beyond the Iron one. So let’s kick off.

Our bowl games have a 75-year history, with one of the first being the 1939 Montgomery startup, the Blue-Gray Football Classic. The Blue-Gray is no longer with us, but the Capital City has a new game in town.

Raycom Media Camellia Bowl
RMCB

‘Twas four days before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring – because they were watching nationally televised football from Montgomery.

OK, maybe not everybody. But the country’s college football fans will be glued to the Camellia Bowl on Dec. 20, live from Montgomery. And oh, what a night.

“Think about it,” says Johnny Williams, the Camellia’s executive director. “At 8:15 p.m. Dec. 20, we will be the only ESPN college game playing in the country. Every sports bar from Seattle to Miami will have us on their screens.”

“There is tons of excitement supporting it,” Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange says of the Camellia’s premier. “Excitement is not just from corporate sponsors but from our city. Montgomery rallied to bring the game here,” he says.

The city’s massive downtown revitalization included major upgrades to Cramton Bowl. The 25,000-seat stadium underwent a $30 million renovation project, which included new turf, concession stands, and a 90,000-square-foot Multiplex. Montgomery kept pace with infrastructure upgrades, hotels, restaurants and a convention center, all designed to draw people downtown. “We will use this TV venue to show Montgomery,” Strange says. “This is a new Montgomery. We are proud of it and want others to know about and experience it.”

Montgomery also wants the experience of ka-ching, the kind cash registers make. Organizers admit that since this is the game’s first year, economic impact data are not available. But a similar event, the GoDaddy Bowl, brings in about $15-$20 million to host city Mobile. Ka-ching!

The Camellia Bowl plans to fill the stadium with 25,000 fans, about 75 ESPN production personnel, 200-400 band members per school and 150-170 football players and personnel.

The game features a team from the Sun Belt Conference against one from the Mid-American Conference. Both teams will be announced a few weeks leading up to the game. Football fever is already in progress.

Serious dialogue to bring the game to Montgomery started in May 2013. “ESPN picked us because of our strong football history with the Blue-Gray,” Williams says. The network was looking for a city that would be supportive, and Montgomery won over five other contenders. “What state is more supportive of football than Alabama?” Williams says. And Montgomery is its capital.

Birmingham Bowl
BHamBowl_2013_Ole Miss_Pitt

The only way Birmingham could be more entwined with football is if the Vulcan Statue wore a helmet. For Alabama’s largest metropolis, football is beyond a game; it is the Magic City’s history and passion. The namesake bowl game’s motto says it all: “Southern hospitality, serious football.”

Now in its ninth year, Legion Field’s Birmingham Bowl attendance is unique, organizers say. The predicted attendance is 45,000-55,000; half of them have no allegiance to either team. “That’s Birmingham,” says Mark Meadows, executive director of the Birmingham Bowl. “These people, local and state, love football, not just a specific contest but the game of football. They come here for the love of the sport and to enjoy it as a community.” They also welcome visitors who are here to win.

“We want all guests to enjoy Birmingham while they are here,” Meadows says. “I hear guests’ comments every game, ‘Wow, this is a lot more than we expected,’ or ‘I had no idea Birmingham had this,’ ” referencing restaurants, nightlife, and activities. The wow factor kicks off in town before it does on field.

“Prior to the game, we have a street party,” Meadows says. “It’s very popular and includes food, drink, bands and cheerleaders. Head coaches of both teams conduct pep rallies.”

Unlike winter’s frozen tundra up north, game-day Birmingham can see pretty decent weather — or you can freeze your Vulcan off. “But overall, January is a good time of year to host a bowl game,” Meadows says. “Holidays are over and restaurants and hotels are not as busy, a perfect time to bring in folks from out of state. We have had great success with that” — as in $97 million added to the local economy.

Set for Jan. 3, the Birmingham Bowl is the only bowl in America aligned with both the Southeastern Conference and the American Athletic Conference. Participating teams should be announced around Dec. 7.

GoDaddy Bowl
Arkansas State celebrates a 23-20 win over Ball State in the 2014 GoDaddy Bowl.
Arkansas State celebrates a 23-20 win over Ball State in the 2014 GoDaddy Bowl.

Mobile is the only Alabama city that hosts two nationally televised bowl games in the same month: The GoDaddy (Jan. 4) and Senior Bowl (Jan. 24). But they’re not at all alike.

“They are entirely different venues,” said GoDaddy Bowl president Jerry Silverstein. The Senior Bowl features players from many teams joining as one for the first time to play an opposing team formed the same way. It is an exhibition game for fans and pro scouts. “GoDaddy is two college teams, vying for a championship. For many of these teams and fans, with the parades, pageantry, and the game itself, GoDaddy is their Rose Bowl,” Silverstein says.

Questions surfaced when GoDaddy (originally called the Mobile Alabama Bowl) began in 1999. The Senior Bowl had been a city fixture since 1951. Could Mobile support another major sports event? Yes. GoDaddy’s economic impact is about $20 million a game. About 36,000 attended last year’s game, including 25,000 from out of town. But much of the fun is on the streets.

Mobile founded Mardi Gras, but one of the biggest parades isn’t during Carnival; it rolls during GoDaddy Week. “It’s a big night,” Silverstein says. “Several mystic societies participate.” The parade can see 70,000-100,000 people along the route. Add fireworks, pep rallies and street parties to the Sunbelt Conference and Mid-American Conference’s battle in Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and football rocks the City by the Bay.

From Birmingham to Mobile and all parts in between and beyond, let the games begin, one first down at a time.