Organized by community leaders out of a need to fill hotel rooms during a traditionally slow period in a world-class destination city, the Las Vegas Bowl first kicked off on Dec. 18, 1992. It has since become one of the Silver State’s premier annual events and been nationally televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC every year of its existence.
Of the 39 bowl games recognized by the NCAA, the Las Vegas Bowl is now the 16th-oldest game overall and ranks No. 13 in age on a list of current bowls that have remained in one city during their entire history.
Originally pitting the champions of the Big West and Mid-American conferences, the game’s initial offering was a nail-biter as Bowling Green held on to slip by Nevada 35-34 in what was hailed by many as the best bowl game that year.
Known for the next decade as the first bowl each season, the event was switched to later in the month starting in 2001 when hometown entry UNLV defeated Arkansas on December 21. That was the same year that ESPN Regional Television (ERT) now known as ESPN Events, a subsidiary of ESPN Inc., assumed the ownership and management of the Las Vegas Bowl – marking the company’s first such venture.
Games on Christmas Day and then Christmas Eve were staged before organizers settled on a pre-holiday kickoff to annually pit teams from the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences against each other at Sam Boyd Stadium from 2001 through 2019. No less than nine of the current members of the Pac-12 conference (all but Stanford, Colorado and Washington State) have now appeared in the game as the Las Vegas Bowl enjoyed crowds of more than 32,000 for 10 consecutive seasons, including a run of six consecutive sellouts from 2005-2010. On Dec. 21, 2006, BYU defeated Oregon in front of what was then the largest crowd to ever witness a team sporting event in the state of Nevada – 44,615.
As its host community in recent years turned into the Sports and Entertainment Capital of the World, the Las Vegas Bowl grew along with it, including moving into one of the planet’s best sports facilities – 60,000-seat Allegiant Stadium — which opened its doors in 2020. The move into the $2 billion, state-of-the-art stadium located just off the Las Vegas Strip allowed the Las Vegas Bowl to enter into a historic agreement that features a team from the Pac-12 vs. a team from either the powerhouse SEC or Big Ten Conference on a rotating basis.
The new alignment of three top conferences that feature 40 powerhouse brands spanning the nation debuted with Wisconsin defeating Arizona State in what was the event’s first post-Christmas kickoff on Dec. 30, 2021. One year later, the SEC sent traditional power Florida to the state of Nevada for the first time where it took on Oregon State in what was, amazingly, the first prescheduled bowl meeting between the two conferences since 1989. To round out the current agreement, the Pac-12 will face a team from the Big Ten in 2023 and ’25 while the SEC will return in ’24.
The Las Vegas Bowl has been home to some notable college football firsts.
In 1995, Toledo and Nevada played in what was the first-ever overtime game on the Division I FBS level. The existing overtime rules were put into effect only for bowl games that season and the Rockets and Wolf Pack were the only teams that needed the extra time in the postseason. OT became standard for all college football games the very next season.
In 2002, Katie Hnida of New Mexico became the first woman to play in a FBS-level game when she entered in the first quarter to attempt an extra point. The attempt, which was low, was blocked by UCLA during the Bruins’ 27-13 victory.
2011’s game featured three scoring plays 98 yards or longer and was believed to be the first bowl game in history that included a kickoff return for a touchdown to start each half (Boise State’s Doug Martin opened the game with a 100-yard kickoff return while Arizona State’s Rashad Ross began the second half with a 98-yard KOR for a TD). That same game saw the No. 6 Broncos’ Kellen Moore become the first quarterback to reach the 50-win mark in NCAA history (50-3).
The 2016 bowl attracted national attention as San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey became the rushing king of college football when he passed Ron Dayne’s to finish with a career mark of 6,405 yards.
The Las Vegas Bowl Hall of Fame holds induction ceremonies every five years. In 2011, the inaugural class helped commemorate the bowl reaching the 20-year milestone. The group was made up of NFL star and former Oregon State RB Steven Jackson; CFL record-holder and former Utah State QB Anthony Calvillo; former NFL and UNLV coach John Robinson; and Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) president and one of the game’s founding fathers, Rossi Ralenkotter.
The bowl’s second hall of fame class welcomed legendary voice Brent Musburger, who called a record seven Las Vegas Bowls as a play-by-play announcer; former Cal and NFL star running back Marshawn Lynch; and another founding father, Rob Dondero.
The most-recent class, inducted in 2021, featured former head coaching great Chris Petersen, who won a Las Vegas Bowl at two different schools (Boise State and Washington); all-time winningest collegiate quarterback at Boise State Kellen Moore; and former ESPN Events college football bowl game visionary Pete Derzis.