The College Football Playoff will probably expand some day. It makes sense that a sport that’s gone from no playoff to a two-team playoff to a four-team playoff will eventually go bigger. Enough people have been calling for it since the moment the sport went to four teams. There are many possible models, none of which will ultimately satisfy everyone, but one of which the powers that be will eventually decide to go with anyway.
That time will not be now. Hours before Alabama and Clemson’s National Championship meeting on Monday, Playoff Board of Managers chairman Mark Keenum said this:
As far as expanding the number of teams in the Playoff, it’s way too soon – much too soon – to know if that is even a possibility. It’s fair to say the speculation about expansion has outdistanced the reality of what the commissioners and the presidents have discussed. If a decision were to be made down the road, the Presidents would be the ones to make it and we are not there.
The lack of immediate Playoff expansion is not surprising. The industry consensus has long been that it will probably take a while.
When the Playoff became official, ESPN and the then-11 active FBS conferences (RIP, the WAC) reached a 12-year deal for the network to broadcast it. That runs through the 2025 season, and it makes FBS schools a dump truck of cash.
Each Power 5 conference made approximately $54 million in base Playoff money in 2017, plus $6 million per team it got into the field. That worked out to a little more than $6 million per P5 school, distributed however the conferences chose. The same year, the Group of 5 conferences got about $16 million on average, or a bit more than $1 million per school.
The vast, vast majority of that money comes from ESPN paying the conferences (through the Playoff itself) to show the games. ESPN doesn’t own the Playoff, and the network has tried to stress it doesn’t control the event’s format.
But the Playoff won’t change until both the conferences and ESPN want a new deal. That might not be now. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports the parties don’t expect to tinker until the deal’s up. Dodd also reports that, as things stand, expansion won’t come up until 2022, when it’s time for the Playoff to start indicating to ESPN and other broadcasters what they might be buying for 2026.
The conferences don’t deal directly with ESPN, but all of them have representatives on the fancy committees that run the Playoff’s operations, and together, they call the shots. The 10 FBS conferences all have reps, and Notre Dame gets its own vote, too.
ESPN’s contract with the conferences isn’t public, but if both sides wanted to, they could tear it up and make a new one.
Would they, though?
There are seven years left on the initial Playoff TV deal. Everyone involved (except the players, obviously) stands to keep making money on it.
If the Playoff expanded, that’d create more games for ESPN to broadcast. At some point, maybe the event would get so big that it would dilute the value of individual games. But in an eight-team model, the likely outcome is just that ESPN would have four more games it could air that would dominate ratings.
The conferences would want more money from the network, though, and ESPN might not be into that right now. Cord-cutting has created general uncertainty for ESPN, and the prospect of TV-related conference realignment is another big unknown. It might not want to pay more for a new Playoff deal a few years before the Big 12 could dissolve, which would force ESPN to figure out another complicated deal with whatever rises up from that league.
For the leagues, Playoff expansion seems like a generally good idea. All of the Group of 5 conferences would be interested, especially because an eight-team playoff could include an auto-bid for one of their teams. Would the Power 5 leagues like it? Who knows, but two three of the five commissioners — the Big Ten’s Jim Delany and Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby recently, the ACC’s John Swofford in 2015 — have supported the idea publicly.
It’s unclear how much of a distribution bump the conferences would want in a new deal. But if the average Power 5 school’s $6.2 million (or so) in annual Playoff funds right now became $8 million or $10 million, would it get everyone on board? Would $12 million?
It’s not a perfect picture. The prospect of future realignment might give some schools pause the same way it would give ESPN pause. Group of 5 schools might want more even revenue-sharing if they became part of the actual Playoff, and the power-conference schools might not like that. The leagues might have to negotiate among themselves.
So, ESPN and the conferences have their own variables to sort out. Keeping the Playoff as is would provide more certainty for everyone.
Certainty’s a valuable thing, especially while a changing media environment threatens to slow down the TV gravy train that’s fueled the sport for a generation. But nobody’s requiring the important people to stay with a four-team playoff. The dollar amount associated with going to more teams could make it worth it for everyone.
That they haven’t reached that conclusion in January 2019 doesn’t mean they couldn’t at some other time in the near future.