It all started on Jan. 1, 1902, with Michigan's crushing 49-0 shutout of Stanford in the inaugural Rose Bowl. Reportedly, bowl organizers pocketed a respectable $5,000 profit on the game.

More than a century later, Michigan will again be making an appearance in Pasadena in a few days, but that's about the only facet of postseason collegiate football that hasn't changed dramatically over the years.

For one thing, this year's Rose Bowl will almost assuredly feature at least one forward pass, an innovation that wasn't legalized until 1906. I'm also guessing that there will be a few more fans in attendance than the 8,500 or so who witnessed that first contest. And yes, the monetary stakes will also be quite a bit higher.

Is there room for one more?
Of course, while the Rose might be the "granddaddy of 'em all," it will still have to share the spotlight with 31 other bowl games this season -- beginning with the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl back on Dec. 19 and culminating with the Tostitos BCS Championship Game on Jan. 8.

Is that number -- which has almost tripled since 1976 -- too high? I say no. A weak matchup won't dilute a strong one, and if "Bob's Heating and Air Conditioning Bowl" can't manage to turn a profit, then it won't be around too long -- which brings us to our central point.

Forget for a moment the pageantry and excitement on the gridiron, and understand that off the field, bowl games are big business for everyone involved: the teams, the host cities, the title sponsors, the broadcasters, the ticket scalpers ... the list goes on and on.

Fingers in the pie
Here in my hometown of Shreveport, La., tens of thousands of partisan Oklahoma State and Alabama fans descended on the town for Thursday night's PetroSun Independence Bowl. When they return home after the game, those visitors will have left behind $15 million to $20 million at local hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, and -- it's a safe bet -- area casinos.

For top-tier bowls like the Allstate (NYSE:ALL) Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the total economic impact can reach $175 million or more. Meanwhile, the schools participating in this year's bowl games will collect approximately $210 million, which will then be divvied up among their conference rivals.

Of course, we are far more concerned with the cash impact that bowl season has on Wall Street.

Regardless of who finishes the season at the top of the polls, Disney (NYSE:DIS) could well be one of the biggest winners. Through ABC and ESPN, the company is heavily invested in college football -- with the broadcast rights to 23 of this year's bowl games, as well as outright ownership of five.

ABC has agreed to shell out $30 million per year to showcase the Rose Bowl through 2014, and until recently, it also paid around $25 million to televise the other three BCS bowls -- Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta. Fox has since picked up that trio -- along with this year's National Championship Game between Florida and Ohio State -- for roughly $80 million.

By many accounts, these high-profile bowls have historically been money-losing propositions. However, they are subsidized by the smaller bowls, which carry a fraction of the fees yet command a majority (57% last year) of the gross ratings points.

For its part, ESPN has reported that Capital One (NYSE:COF) Bowl Week is one of its strongest draws of the year, and rising ratings naturally translate into higher advertising revenues.

Sponsorship has its privileges
Aside from the broadcasters, around two dozen title sponsors will also have a lot riding on the line over the next week.

Depending on the status of the game, companies might write a check for anywhere from $400,000 to as much as $10 million annually to place their corporate icons on these bowl games. Of course, that's not all they get.

According to Image Impact, a company that evaluates the value of product placement for sponsors, the four companies associated with last year's BCS games received the equivalent of $106 million worth of in-game signage.

For example, PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) effectively milked its sponsorship of the Fiesta Bowl for more than $30 million of exposure. Meanwhile, FedEx (NYSE:FDX) did the same at the Orange Bowl, based on 745 detections of the company's logo totaling 58 minutes of airtime.

And with each 30-second ad spot going for approximately $800,000, the Rose Bowl was worth around $25 million to Citigroup (NYSE:C).

And the winner is ...
In a mock exercise (because the powers that be would apparently rather have sportswriters and computers determine a national champion than the athletes themselves), several sports-related websites have let popular vote determine which of this season's top teams would emerge victorious from a hypothetical playoff.

If the sharpest minds and most astute analysts in the sporting world can determine the best football squad among this year's BCS contenders, surely their financial counterparts can do the same for the companies that sponsor those games.

Fortunately, we have just such a mechanism already in place here at the Fool, a community-intelligence system we like to call CAPS.


CAPS Stars (out of five)

Bulls (%)

Bears (%)

Allstate (Sugar)


111 (90%)

12 (10%)

FedEx (Orange)


714 (96%)

28 (4%)

Citigroup (Rose)


785 (90%)

90 (10%)

PepsiCo (BCS Title)


561 (94%)

33 (6%)

Tallying the results from my admittedly arbitrary brackets, it appears that FedEx and PepsiCo would win round one and play for the title. And by the narrowest of margins (we'll call it a blocked field goal on a contested call), our voters have handed this year's Bowl Sponsor Stock Tournament trophy to FedEx.

All lightheartedness aside, corporate America has stamped its signature indelibly on the most visible outward face of college athletics. The benefits from such an intangible investment are impossible to calculate, but they clearly wouldn't be made without a winning game plan in mind.

To weigh in on these and thousands of other companies, join our growing Motley Fool CAPS community. Click here to get in the game.

FedEx and Disney are both Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. See what other stock recommendations Tom and David Gardner have made by taking Stock Advisor for a free, 30-day spin.

Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter is hoping for a clean 9-0 sweep by the Southeastern Conference, highlighted by a convincing LSU win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. He owns none of the companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.