Alabama vs Texas in BCS championship game: Who has the best swag?

When Alabama and Texas players square off in Thursday's BCS championship game, they'll already have pocketed up to $500 in free stuff. But which bowl offered the best swag?

The University of Alabama Marching Band makes its way through Universal Studio Hollywood during ''Fan Day'' at the park. Alabama will face Texas in the BCS championship football game on Thursday night. Texas and Alabama may be duking it out for college football's highest pedestal, but which bowl teams took home the best free stuff?

You already know it's Alabama versus Texas in the vaunted BCS championship tilt, gametime 8 p.m.

What you don't know is that when the Tide clash with the Longhorns, both squads have already squirreled away several hundred dollars' worth of free goodies from the swag bags distributed by the BCS national championship.

And the nation's top two squads aren't the only ones bringing home serious loot. In fact, they don't even have the best haul.

That honor goes to this year's Sugar Bowl, which offered among other things a Lane recliner to each player and staff member of the Florida Gators and Cincinnati Bearcats. In addition, they received a Timely Watch Co. watch, a New Era baseball cap, an Ogio Politan laptop pack, and a trip through a "gift suite," where players could select from items like noise-canceling headphones, boomboxes, MP3 players, digital cameras, camcorders, PlayStation 3s, a Bravia LCD HDTV, an Apple iPod Nano, a Garmin GPS, or a Trek mountain bike.

Other bowls also laid the gifts on heavy. The Emerald Bowl handed out an HP Netbook to the Eagles of Boston College and the Trojans of USC; the Pittsburgh Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels walked away with a commemorative Richard Petty driving experience photo; and the Capital One Bowl threw a Best Buy party for LSU and Penn State, with each player walking away with up to $420 in merchandise.

So what did the contenders for the national championship collect? They got a Fossil watch, a New Era cap, Ogio Politan laptop pack, and a walk through the gift suite from Trek and Garmin.

NCAA rules limit bowl sponsors to doling out $500 in gifts to student athletes in addition to the $175 for underclassmen and $325 for seniors that schools are allowed to offer as a season-ending gift.

Why do bowls pay out what the Sports Business Journal estimated at around $12 million for their entire gift packages during the December and January season?

It's a classic case of keeping up with the Joneses, says Jon Cooperstein of Davene Inc. For a decade, Mr. Cooperstein and Davene have worked to connect bowls with companies to fill bowl goody bags.

"The bowl itself wants to be known as a competitive bowl. There are only four BCS bowls, not including the BCS championship. All the other bowls, either second- or lower-tier bowls, they want to do what they can to entrench themselves with their own notoriety," Mr. Cooperstein says.

In a competitive atmosphere bracketed in many ways by BCS standings and historical prestige, every little bit that bowls can do to gain momentum as a hot destination can help.

"It helps in regard to their publicity, to be known as a more popular bowl from the school’s standpoint. If all the better schools want to go to the bowl, it might help them with negotiating television contracts," Cooperstein says. "Every little thing helps make each bowl what it is."

Which all begs the question: How did the Gators and Bearcats lug their Lane recliners back to Gainesville and Cincinnati on the team plane?

According to a Sugar Bowl spokeswoman, they didn't have to: All the goods were shipped back to campus for them.

And it doesn't get much better than that.

There's a big market in bowl gifts for college athletes. Check back here tomorrow for more on the curious world of college bowl gifts or get a heads-up on our future report by following us on Twitter.

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