In 2019, three commissioners and an athletic director were commissioned to study whether the College Football Playoff field should remain at four teams. At that point, the CFP wasn’t even halfway through its 12-year contract with ESPN. Two years later, that working group has not only overseen a suggested expansion that would triple the field but a transformation of college athletics.
That’s what the future CFP has become less than three months since CFP executive director Bill Hancock teased expansion buried in the 17th paragraph of a press release. While some initial details of a potential 12-team bracket have been released, what we don’t know is how — or how fast — it will get to that point.
CBS Sports spoke with several CFP stakeholders — from athletic directors and university presidents to commissioners and media rights analysts — in hopes of gauging the key factors to the 12-team expansion.
The “why” of expansion has a familiar ring. In times of economic strife, college athletics has always come up with ways to produce more revenue: The SEC added the first conference championship game in 1992, the BCS debuted in 1998, a 12th regular-season game was added 2006, the CFP debuted in 2014.
Media rights for college sports exploded in that time, and an expanded CFP may be the biggest blast yet. Industry experts project a two- to five-fold increase in revenue generated by a 12-team field. The CFP distributes an average of $475 million annually. That means, as a conservative estimate, the CFP tripling in size would be worth $1 billion per year.
More revenue, though, creates more pressure and responsibility. Teams will be playing a maximum of 17 games — equal to the elongated NFL regular season. Player health and safety will have to be addressed. There is no doubt that bowls games will be impacted downstream, if for no other reason that their importance will be reduced.
The playoff’s influence has grown so quickly that college sports watchdog the Knight Commission has advocated for major-college football and the CFP to separate from the NCAA as part of sweeping reform. How does the Alston v. NCAA appeal recently settled in the U.S. Supreme Court and the institution of name, image and likeness rights contribute the discussion about athletes’ compensation?
The 11-member CFP Management Committee is in the process of doing a feasibility study to be presented to the CFP Board of Managers in September.
What follows are the most important factors to consider in the consolidation of college athletics revenue since the BCS debuted 23 years ago.
When would an expanded playoff begin?
Answering the top question on everyone’s mind requires weaving together every aspect of the playoff from bowl game relationships to media rights to the NFL. Hancock has said the bracket won’t expand until at least 2023, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Nothing happens until ESPN decides what it wants to do: renegotiate a new contract inside the current deal or allow the CFP to go out to bid when the contract expires after the 2025 season. ESPN surely wants to take advantage its exclusive negotiating rights. Despite sagging ratings, the CFP has been a TV success.
Except it may not be their call. If you’re an FBS commissioner, why would you not want to see a “platinum property” of this caliber, as once source referred to it, hit the open market?
“That … is one of the mysteries,” said West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee, a member of the CFP Board of Managers that will eventually make the decision. “We all know that if went to the open market … [it would] enhance the value of the whole playoff. ESPN has been such a valued partner, but if they got this question, how much of a premium would they be willing to pay and how much of premium does the College Football Playoff want?”
The CFP already is under pressure to expand sooner than later. It would face withering criticism if an anxious public was forced to wait five more years. Athletic departments are facing huge deficits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than anything, that may speed up the timeline.
There are complicated, existing bowl deals that would have be unspooled. Any shortfall in revenue could be made up by an expansion windfall as the games themselves become more valuable. More than one analysis used the term “money grab” referring to conferences needing to prop themselves up financially. Given the times, who can blame them?
“I don’t think it will be five years,” one Power Five conference official said. “It will be quickly.”
If the CFP hits the open market, there would be an extensive list of interested parties, including traditional TV networks and streaming platforms. Think of how the price could be jacked up if a streaming giant like Amazon joins the bidding. TV networks with streaming platforms — basically all of them — would have to be interested and may even have an edge. Now try to figure out what sports rights look like in five years as media mergers and acquisitions continue.
The rights deal for an expanded playoff would skyrocket the value of conference media rights. The games themselves become more valuable because they mean more. Conference championship games will become de facto play-in games. The CFP would become the priority conference renegotiations. ESPN recently turned down a request from the Big 12 to renegotiate its deal before it expires in 2024.
There’s also the possibility that an expanded CFP would be so pricey that multiple networks get involved. Think of the deal between CBS and Turner to televise the NCAA Tournament or the NFL model where different networks televise conference playoff games. Splitting the cost could increase the CFP’s value even further.
The length of the media rights deal is less important and may end up being shorter than the current 12-year contract. The commissioners have seen the value of being flexible and taken lessons from the NCAA Tournament contract negotiated in 2010 that expires in 2032.
What about the Rose Bowl?
Once a decision is made regarding the media rights, the next step is determining the fate of the Rose Bowl. If “The Granddaddy of Them All” wants to stay part of the CFP, it will almost certainly lose regular access to its traditional partners, the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
It may even be forced to abandon its traditional kickoff — Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET. (Moving the game’s date was a potential deal breaker in past negotiations.) In an expanded playoff, two sources said acquiescing to the Rose Bowl’s demands would be tantamount to “the tail wagging the dog”.
Boiled down, the major bowl games will no longer have the leverage their names once afforded. Those who want to participate will be rewarded annually with playoff games that matter. For some, that will be easier to stomach than it is for others.
In the current structure, the New Year’s Six bowls each get a semifinal game every three years. In the other two years, the Rose (Pac-12 vs. Big Ten), Sugar (SEC vs. Big 12) and Orange (ACC vs. SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame) get their traditional partners. The Fiesta, Cotton and Peach are open to at-large teams in years they don’t host a semifinal
No more in an expanded CFP. As proposed, play-in games would be on campus. The quarterfinals and semifinals would be played in bowls. The championship game would continue being bid out to cities on an annual basis.
It’s mind-boggling to consider the Rose’s best position in an expanded playoff may be hosting an annual quarterfinal. Those games are slated for Jan. 1 (or Jan. 2 when New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday). Whether the Rose will ever get its traditional time slot again will be a hot topic of discussion.
More complicated is the Rose getting one or both of its traditional partners. The CFP could assign a Big Ten or Pac-12 team with a bye (if one is available) to the Rose in the quarterfinals. As a semifinal in the expanded playoff, it would be a crapshoot for the Rose — frequently getting two foreign teams with perhaps no regional or traditional conference ties in a game no longer on or around New Year’s Day.
A 12-team playoff would trump everything, including those picturesque shots of the San Gabriel Mountains at sunset. The games themselves will matter more than where they are played.
This is an inflection point for the bowl system. Some bowls below the CFP are going to be damaged. Simply put, they will lose access to their top choices that will now be in the playoff.
The Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-12 had to be talked into the BCS a quarter-century ago. Back then, the Rose knew it would host a BCS Championship Game once every four years. That went away with the CFP, and the Rose may soon have another decision to make: Stay outside an expanded CFP with its traditional Pac-12-Big Ten game (featuring lower-ranked teams) or participate in the CFP and essentially lose both its conference partners and traditional kickoff.
The Rose, along with the Pac-12 and Big Ten, will not go down without a fight. Former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is consulting with all three entities. Even in retirement, Delany is a formidable figure who will be lobbying to keep those traditional ties.
“If the Rose Bowl insists on accommodations, it’s going to find itself on the outside looking in,” said one high-ranking official close to the expansion process.
Dates have not yet been determined for the semifinals or the national championship in a 12-team playoff. The CFP is aware of dates reserved for NFL playoff games years into the future, a source told CBS Sports.
Watch out, NCAA
Football pays for college athletics. That’s always been the case. Despite the importance of the NCAA Tournament, the CFP has a chance to become bigger — much bigger — than the NCAA because it is sport-specific. Ask any Power Five AD whether they are more likely to take a call from Hancock or NCAA president Mark Emmert.
Emmert oversees a basketball tournament run by an organization whose moral authority as watchdog of amateurism was stripped last month by the Supreme Court. Hancock’s organization is an LLC, a separate private company that controls major-college football. Increasingly, major-college football controls college athletics.
The CFP has its own network, presidential oversight and upside. The NCAA is in court. The CFP is in vogue. The NCAA’s influence is diminishing. The CFP’s is growing. Hancock is the gentleman CEO who plays well with his constituents and media. Emmert is the face of an association that he has largely been blamed for running into a ditch.
Schools will need a richer CFP to pay for Emmert’s mistakes. One Power Five official estimated athletic departments will incur an added $1 million annually in expenses from the Alston decision. That’s one estimate of it will take to pay for new, unlimited benefits tethered to education.
Another round of realignment?
In one sense, an expanded CFP slows the need for conference realignment. Conferences have reached critical mass in that moving beyond their current structure doesn’t make much economic sense. The Big 12 found that out when it dabbled in expansion a few years ago, eventually turning down a possible $1 billion payday (per the existing ESPN contract) because there simply aren’t enough available teams that made economic sense for the league.
Conferences have become so entrenched that only a handful of programs control potential realignment. Think about the likes of USC, Texas and Oklahoma — schools that could facilitate the demise of one conference and the rise of another.
The so-called “grant of rights” that binds teams together expires for the Pac-12 in 2024 and the Big 12 in 2025. These agreements ensure that, if a team leaves its conference, the league retains the departing team’s television rights. That has never happened, which speaks to the power of the agreement itself.
Schools can use the grant of rights to their advantage. For example, Texas could attach — as a condition to to its future membership in the Big 12 — that the league does not expand beyond its current 10 members without the Longhorns’ approval. USC could stipulate which teams would be acceptable should the Pac-12 decide to expand.
Though conference championship games aren’t part of the CFP discussion, expansion would make them de facto play-in games. Even if two teams from one conference are assured CFP berths, that league title game could be for a first-round bye.
Look for at least a couple other conferences to imitate the Big 12 by moving to a single division to match their two best teams in December. The Pac-12 has reportedly discussed that possibility. A single division lessens the possibility that an upset by an inferior opponent knocks a title contender out of the playoff. At the same time, it enhances the opportunity for two teams from the same conference to get in.
The Cinderella factor
The concept of an expanded CFP became more attractive when it was revealed that Cinderella would be allowed to attend. For the first time, the Group of Five has a guaranteed spot.
Forget that team winning it all for the moment, the mere fact that the other five conferences can compete gives the playoff that March Madness feeling where anything can happen, particularly in the early rounds.
That can be a ratings winner for a property that has seen its audience steadily decline. In 2018, ratings for the CFP National Championship were down more than 25% from Year 1 in 2014, according to Sports Media Watch. Ratings were down a record 28% year-over-year for this season’s national title game.
“The sameness of it [became a problem],” said a source involved in modeling the 12-team playoff. “It was getting stale.”
It’s becoming evident that league commissioners were swayed to expand because the regular season will be enhanced. One source estimated as many as three dozen teams will have realistic shot at making the CFP when each season starts. One conference president predicted 40 teams would still be in the running as late as two months into the season on Nov. 1.
Will the players benefit … at all?
There’s also significant health and safety issues to consider. The possibility of two teams playing 17 games must be disconcerting for a game that has battled significant medical issues over the last two decades. More than 30 players have died in that timeframe, mostly from heat exertion during practice.
One CFP source said as many as half the 12-team field could play no additional games (assuming six teams do not play in a conference championship game and lose in the first round).
For a team to play the maximum of 17 games, it would have to participate in its league championship game, a first-round playoff game and reach the national championship.
“That’s such an unlikely occurrence,” one Power Five AD said. “We could go a decade with that not happening.”
With more games and more revenue comes increased responsibility. At $1 billion per season in an expanded playoff, an extra $12 million would pour into the coffers of Power Five athletic departments (assuming 78% of the revenue continues to be distributed to teams in those conferences).
Will that lead to enhanced medical coverage from institutions or conferences for athletes, some of whom will put their bodies on the line nearly as often as professionals? Perhaps it results in additional funds going into the pockets of athletes in the CFP beyond what is now possible through name, image and likeness rights?
“Can [CFP participants], if they graduate, walk away with an additional $20,000 or $30,000?” another Power Five AD suggested. “I know the CFP committee is talking about those kinds of things. … At the end of their careers, they get a check for whatever. Those kinds of things are the type of things we’re going to have to consider.”