When it comes to College Football Playoff expansion, the odds are stacked against eight ever being enough.
Structured one way, the Southeastern Conference would not go for doubling the current four-team playoff to eight and Notre Dame wouldn’t be thrilled, either. Done another way and the non-Power Five conferences would hate it — and maybe a couple of the power leagues, too.
And then there is this: If the playoff expands to eight before the current contract with ESPN expires after the 2025 season, the network would be under no obligation to pay more for the new format than it already is for the current one. And why wait for a potentially huge windfall?
The Associated Press spoke with several people involved with or familiar with expansion talks before and after last week’s CFP management committee meeting in Illinois to gauge where things stand and where they are heading. Most of the people spoke only on condition of anonymity to allow executive director Bill Hancock to be the sole public voice for the closely watched process.
Two things are clear: A 12-team playoff is still the most likely outcome when the event expands. And there is still a good amount of optimism that consensus can be reached in time to implement a new format for the 2024 season.
“I’m confident we can,” a person involved in the discussions said.
The 12-team playoff plan was publicly unveiled in June and there have been problems ever since.
Already skeptical of the work that was being done without their input, commissioners Jim Phillips (ACC), Kevin Warren (Big Ten) and George Kliavkoff (Pac-12) grew even more wary of how expansion was being handled after it was revealed in July the SEC was planning to add Texas and Oklahoma in a conference realignment blockbuster.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was part of the four-person subcommittee that worked on the 12-team format for about two years.
“Had Texas and Oklahoma waited until Dec. 1 to say they are joining the SEC it would have probably already been done,” one college sports administrator familiar with the process said of expansion.
Another said: “Greg should have recused himself.”
So instead of getting a 12-team model across the finish line last week, the CFP management committee — comprised of 10 conference commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director —- went back to weighing pros and cons of an eight-team playoff.
“Retracing” steps, as one person involved in the discussions told AP.
An eight-team format could alleviate concerns about the length of the season and disruption of the academic calendar, but it is also fraught with issues — including a big one that could cost the CFP a shot at at hundreds of millions of dollars sooner rather than later:
While the playoff is thought of as a three-game event — two semifinals and the championship game — ESPN pays about $600 million per year for a seven-game package: the three that determine the national champion, plus four New Year’s Six bowls.
An eight-team playoff would fit within the existing seven-game structure, turning four bowl games that currently have no impact on the crowning of a national champion into four more valuable quarterfinals. The problem is that ESPN would not be contractually obligated to increase its rights fee to broadcast them, according to a person familiar with the agreement between ESPN and the CFP. (ESPN through a spokesman declined a request for comment by the AP.)
Because eight doesn’t create new games, there would be no way for the CFP to bring aboard new TV partners — and their millions — before the end of the contract with ESPN.
That is seen by the group as vital. Multiple TV partners means multiple bidders to drive up the price of the new, bigger playoff.
Also, having more networks than just ESPN invested in the postseason could motivate networks to invest in the regular season. This is especially important to the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 as the expiration dates for their current media rights deals quickly approach.
There is no real disagreement among the CFP officials about the need to bring the new inventory to market, according to those interviewed by AP. The question is when? There has been concern that ESPN’s contract gives the network exclusivity to any new inventory before the deal expires, though CFP officials and those they consult with say that is not the case.
ESPN would get first crack at landing the new games, but the CFP would not be contractually bound to accept the network’s offer, according to multiple people familiar with the process.
If ESPN’s offer for the expanded playoff inventory for 2024 and ’25 was best, the CFP would be obligated to accept, but it wouldn’t prevent the new format from being brought to market after the original 12-year deal expires.
Hancock has said commissioners would have to agree within the next four months for a new playoff format to be implemented by 2024. The deadline is tied to the need to pick sites and dates for the ’24 and ’25 championship games.
Otherwise, expansion will come in 2026.
While the issues with an eight-team format tied to the current ESPN contract go away after 2025, other sticking points persist, according to the AP interviews.
The current CFP allows any team to make the four-team playoff, making them effectively at-large berths. The SEC would not accept any fewer at-large spots in an eight-team expansion. Others see automatic bids for at least five or six conference champions as essential.
“The impediments to eight are still going to be there,” a person involved in the discussions said.
The university presidents and chancellors who make up the board of managers and have to give final approval to CFP expansion are next scheduled to meet in-person in January. They could meet earlier if necessary.
The clock is to ticking, but maybe that’s a good thing.
“Sometimes with these big sea change ideas,” that first person said, “it doesn’t happen until it has to happen.”