Every year, the same easy targets for jokes embark on their month-long journey of semi-relevance.
The Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl? The Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl, more commonly known as the Weedwhacker Bowl? The BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl? The Bitcoin Bowl? No one has ever pointed to college football's bowl system as a shining example of the purity of sport, but more and more, bowls have traded tradition for legal tender. That can mean serious publicity for obscure companies serving as, let's call it, exotic sponsors.
"Would I like to be a traditionalist? To say, we're still the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl? Maybe," said Rick Catlett, president and CEO of the TaxSlayer Bowl. "But I'll tell you this: Then you're not going to have the ability to compete in the marketplace."
The idea that obscure companies are prioritizing capitalism over tradition doesn't necessarily hold up. Simpler bowl names like the Sugar Bowl, Orange Bowl or Rose Bowl only got those names to promote the sugar cane industries native to southern Louisiana, the orange industry in Florida or the vibrant floral industry in California that's still celebrated at the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year's Day.
As America's economy has gotten more complex and evolved over the past century, the location of money for bowl sponsorships has adjusted as well. The bowls are living by the same code as just about any business, including the teams they host each year: adapt or die.
As for the snickers behind their backs? Even those willing to laugh in their face? Bowls will deal with it.
"I promise you it's not a joking matter for the community where that company may employ an awful lot of people," said Wright Waters, executive director of the Football Bowl Association. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
The Gator Bowl -- now known solely as the TaxSlayer Bowl -- was born in 1946 and has been hosted annually every year since, making it college football's sixth-oldest bowl. In the 1978 game, legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson lineman Charlie Bauman after Bauman's late interception sealed a win for the Tigers. Hayes was fired the next day, ending his 28-year run in Columbus.
Outside of the New Year's Six bowls, its game between what is now the ACC or the Big Ten and the SEC has been one of college football's most historic. At one time, it was one of the best non-major bowl games. This year, it will serve as the morning lead-in to the College Football Playoff semifinal games on New Year's Eve. However, the bowl's prestige has slipped as it has tumbled in the pecking order. Since the Gator Bowl at the end of the 2011 season, only two ranked teams have appeared in the bowl. Since the end of the 2006 season, just one team in the top 20 has played in it. From 1997-2004, ranked teams faced each other in the game every year but one. Georgia Tech (8-4) and Kentucky (7-5) will meet in Jacksonville this year.
From 1946-85, the game existed solely as the Gator Bowl, without any sponsors butting their way onto the game's masthead. It added a carousel of sponsors like Mazda, Outback and Toyota that gave the bowl a longer name but didn't sever the Florida-based game's Gator Bowl roots. After the game's four-year run on CBS ended in 2010, ESPN purchased the rights to broadcast the game, further strengthening its monopoly on college football's bowl system. As part of the deal, ESPN wanted the rights to sell the title sponsorship. The Gator Bowl granted it, and in September 2011, it joined forces with a sponsor built to make any CPA wince: TaxSlayer.com.
After two years, those who made slaying taxes their life's mission had a problem. The game was officially known as the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, which produced some unforeseen issues.
"Tradition of the Gator Bowl is very important, but the media in general will reference the Gator Bowl and leave title sponsors off," Catlett said. "If you're going to pay large sums to be sponsors of a sporting event, it should be named that event."
Jimmy Rhodes, the company's president, asked to officially change the name of the game to the TaxSlayer.com Bowl.
"We were more than happy to accommodate that request," Catlett said.
The Gator Bowl was officially relegated to the history books.
For sponsors whose chief exposure comes in bowl games, it can change how they're viewed. GoDaddy.com experienced that phenomenon after taking over the GMAC Bowl in Mobile from 2011-15.
"Prior to GoDaddy signing on in Mobile, they had a reputation that was not real good among certain colleges," Waters said.
Most college administrators weren't even sure what the business did and identified the company with provocative Super Bowl ads it ran for most of the past decade. Even a brief run in college sports helped refine their image and relationship with the game and universities involved with the game and conferences.
"It was a great thing for them," Waters said. "Suddenly, the athletic community and university community could look in and understand what a company does instead of, perhaps, an image they don't really understand. [The bowl sponsorship] becomes the vehicle for that."
The ideal bowl sponsor is one that can sign a long-term deal, but in an ever-shifting market, that's rare.
"Look at who's sponsoring the Super Bowl broadcasts today vs. who was doing it a few years ago or further back," Waters said. "Budweiser is about the only one who's been consistent over the years and even that's taken a lot of forms. Every bowl is looking for long-time commitments. I'm not sure the days of those type of sponsorships are out there at any level for any sport."
Even college football's biggest bowls are confronting that reality. PlayStation is the Fiesta Bowl's fourth different sponsor in its last four games, following Tostitos, Vizio and BattleFrog.
Holding onto tradition in many ways is hoping you can hold onto your spot in the bowl pecking order, punting on opportunities to climb the rung like the Peach Bowl and Cotton Bowl did, joining the New Year's Six in the playoff era. From 2006-13, like the Gator Bowl, the Peach Bowl was dead, known only as the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Only after being included in the playoff rotation did "Peach" make a return into the game's name.
"The marketplace is shifting so fast," Waters said. "You'll see continued shifting in the marketplace."
College football's bowl traditionalists are fighting a losing battle with eyes toward a spurious era. The brands are coming, and those that seem out of place like BattleFrog, Poulan Weed-Eater, GoDaddy and TaxSlayer aren't going anywhere anytime soon.