Completed in 1941, it hosted the San Francisco Warriors of the NBA from 1962 to 1964 and again from 1966 to 1971. The Warriors temporarily returned to the Cow Palace to host the 1975 NBA Finals as the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum Arena was booked for an Ice Follies performance. It was the site of both the 1956 Republican National Convention and the 1964 Republican National Convention. During the 1960s and 1970s, the SF Examiner Games, a world-class indoor track and field meet, was held annually at the Cow Palace. The Cow Palace was also an important venue for professional boxing until the early 1980s, having staged regular shows, including ten world title fights and appearances of all-time greats like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Alexis Arguello. Additionally it has hosted professional wrestling and the Bay Bombers of roller derby; the Derby's world championship playoffs were held at the Cow Palace every fall beginning from 1959 through 1973, when the organization was disbanded. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Baily circus first visited the Cow Palace in 1956 when the circus abandoned the Big Top (circus tent) format for established arenas. From 1966 until 1999, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus visited the Cow Palace, joined in later years by what is now Disney on Ice; both events were later held at Oracle Arena, where Disney on Ice still plays since the demise of the Ringling Bros. organization.
The arena seats 11,089 for ice hockey and 12,953 for basketball. When the Warriors played there, its basketball capacity was just over 15,000. It has also been the home of the annual Grand National Rodeo, Horse & Stock Show since 1941 (except for a break from 1942 to 1945 due to World War II). The venue hosted the 1960 men's NCAA basketball Final Four and the 1967 NBA All-Star Game. Sesame Street Live has been held at the Cow Palace since the early 1980s, as has Champions on Ice. In recent years the Cow Palace has been the Bay Area stop for the Cirque du Soleil.
The idea for the arena was inspired by the popularity of the livestock pavilion at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. A local newspaper asked, as early as May 1935, "Why, when people are starving, should money be spent on a 'palace for cows'?" A headline writer turned the phrase around, thus "Cow Palace".