The New Year’s Day sunset looms over the Rose Bowl stadium on January 1, 2020, during the game between the
Oregon Ducks and Wisconsin Badgers. Photo Courtesy Rose Bowl Operating Company

If you like bowl season, you have the Rose Bowl to thank.

One of the first stadiums to get the bowl moniker, the legendary Pasadena, California, venue pretty much gave rise to the term “bowl games” and the season in late December and early January when the biggest college football showpieces are staged.

To walk around the Rose Bowl today is to step into a mix of the modern but to somehow go back in time. There are activations and merchandise booths and food stands all over the place; there are benches inside the gates that have inscribed the scores of games past, dating to the first time it was called “The Rose Bowl Game” in 1923.

The stadium has a gigantic 30-foot by 77-foot-wide LED video board at the north end. On the south end sits a retro 1940s-style scoreboard. Yes, there have been renovations around the stadium that cost $183 million, including the Terry Donahue Pavilion that was unveiled in 2013 with 54 luxury suites, 48 loge boxes and 1,200 club seats. But even as changes have modernized the facility and decreased the capacity to approximately 92,500 from the peak of 104,000 of the 1970s, there still are thousands of bleacher seats in the style of old venues past.

Advertising billboards plastered everywhere? No, not here. There are a few advertising boards above both the north and south ends of the structure, plus another one at the 50-yard line on the east side of the stadium, but not much more. Naming rights? It’s officially known as Spieker Field at the Rose Bowl after a $10 million donation two years ago, but you would not know that from a quick glance. It’s signified on hedges adjacent to both sides of the field, never on the field.

“The Rose Bowl is our civic institution. It’s as much a part of L.A. as Hollywood, the beach, the mountains,” said longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke ahead of the 2020 game between Oregon and Wisconsin. “This is my civic duty to be here, and I think people in L.A. feel that way, too. This shows who we are at our best. … It’s just pristine, it’s unspoiled and it’s been around forever.”

Wisconsin fans pose for a picture before the Rose Bowl against Oregon on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Rose Bowl’s iconic nature is, in one way, an issue when it comes to making sure fans go through security screening and metal detectors before they get into the stadium. “We’re a unique facility and we realize some of our crowd flow challenges we have are because of the age and history of our venue and the changes that have happened in the world over the past 5, 10, 15 years,” Rose Bowl Stadium Chief Operating Officer George Cunningham said.

To that end, the Rose Bowl’s crew set off fireworks outside the stadium to signify it was 60 minutes to the pregame ceremony organized by the Tournament of Roses, then 45 minutes, and then 30 minutes. Of the 90,462 in attendance, Cunningham said up to 32,000 were at the stadium’s fan festival and went through security screening before they entered the stadium area, easing up on the volume of people that had to go through the security areas later.

[Did you know? Adjacent to the Rose Bowl is the Brookside Golf and Country Club, which is the oldest golf course in Los Angeles County. It hosted the Los Angeles Open in 1968, which was won by Billy Casper, and hosted an LPGA major in the early 1970s.]

Outside activations, no matter the age of the stadium, are a key part of the modern sporting event. Knowing that, the Rose Bowl in the fall 2019 asked Los Angeles-based architectural firm Jerde to look at possibilities for the surrounding area outside the stadium. On the list were any permanent changes that would be needed to accommodate programming, including improvements to parking areas.

“We gave them some challenges and visions of our future and they put together some great conceptual opportunity plans for us,” Cunningham said. “We’re not committed to dedicating any of those visions but it was a start, a kickoff, to partner with a great firm that has done some great visions for other stadiums, cities and corporations, and we felt ‘let’s bring them to the table and see what we can think of.’”

Game of Memories

Being at the Rose Bowl every year makes Art Spander think back to great moments of the game’s history — and he has seen almost every one of them. Between his time first as a program vendor and since then as a journalist, Spander has not missed a Rose Bowl since 1954.

“When I grew up in L.A., there was nothing else,” said Spander, who was inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 2017. “It was the Rose Bowl and minor league baseball.”

Talking to Spander is to get a course in Rose Bowl history — and not only recent games, although he makes sure to mention USC vs. Texas in 2006 and USC vs. Penn State in 2017 in reflecting on the game’s history. He remembers as a UCLA student when the Gary Beban-led Bruins “tackled Bob Apisa on the 1-yard line to save a two-point win; 1966, I think that was” — No. 5 UCLA beating No. 1 Michigan State 14–12.

Also getting a special mention is “the year that SC played Wisconsin and it went on forever, and the lights weren’t what they are these days.” Spander recalled the top-ranked Trojans beat No. 2 Wisconsin 42-37 in the 1963 Rose Bowl, the first time a bowl game featured a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.

“I remember that game,” Spander said, before pausing. “It’s funny, I’m 81 now. You remember that, and sometimes you can’t remember who you just said hello to.”

But that’s what the Rose Bowl game does. It makes memories for all who come to see it.

“We realize the Rose Bowl game is a checklist item for a lot of people who have grown up in the Midwest or anywhere in the world who wake up and watch the Rose Parade then watch the game,” said Cunningham. “We want to give them an experience that can make them say ‘that was great, that was worth it.’”

If Wisconsin fans did not have a great experience at the 2020 game, that cannot be blamed on the staff — the Badgers lost 28–27 to the Ducks in the closest game of the bowl season. But in a very California aside, it was 66 degrees and sunny at kickoff — 26 degrees warmer than it was in Wisconsin, weather that made Spander recall an old joke he would hear in the press box at Rose Bowls of the past from former Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray.

“He’d say ‘Oh no, not another beautiful day. Another 10,000 people will be coming from the Midwest and moving to California and jamming up our freeways,’” Spander joked.

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert runs for a touchdown past Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose during the second half of Rose Bowl on January 1, 2020, in Pasadena, California. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Rose Bowl by the Numbers

  • 8: Number of FIFA World Cup matches hosted in 1994, including both the third-place match and championship
  • 5: Number of Super Bowls hosted (1992, 1986, 1983, 1979, 1976), second-most for one venue
  • 4: BCS National Championships (2014, 2010, 2006, 2002)
  • 3: One Direction played three sold-out nights in September 2014 on the same tour, the first act to accomplish the feat
  • 2: Olympic Summer Games that have held events at the Rose Bowl (1932, 1984)
  • 1: Only venue in the world to have hosted a FIFA Women’s World Cup Final (1999), FIFA World Cup Final (1994) and an Olympic Summer Games gold medal soccer match (1984)