Playoff expansion is unlikely and not a quick fix as college football faces economic uncertainty


In times of financial strife, college athletics has always responded by expanding its postseasons. After all, more games equals more money, right?

Just this century, annual bowl games have grown from 25 to 40. The NCAA Tournament expanded from 32 teams to 68 over the last 42 years. College basketball postseason tournaments have been around since the 1970s. College football added its own conference championship games in 1992. The BCS evolved into the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six.

But anyone looking for a quick economic fix from the CFP during the coronavirus pandemic needs an education.

The playoff isn’t saving college athletics in these uncertain economic times. At least not now, and certainly not because of the pandemic.

“It’s probably the worst time in recent memory to have a conversation about anything [related to that],” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “That’s part of the reality we all face.”

Start with the fact that CFP rightsholder ESPN isn’t in the business of tearing up its $7.2 billion contract and paying more during a recession. Especially now, only halfway through the 12-year term of the CFP deal.

It’s not just ESPN. Every rightsholder wants cost certainty in these times. Where exactly would additional revenue be coming from?

Plus, one veteran media rights advisor told CBS Sports that the CFP doubling its field from four to eight teams would not result in a windfall. Adding four quarterfinal games doesn’t mean more is better.

“They wouldn’t even get 50 percent of what they’re getting now [for the additional games],” the advisor said.

The CFP contract averages out to $475 million per year from ESPN for the 130 FBS schools. The 2019 distribution was slightly less than $462.5 million with 80 percent of the money ($367 million) going to the 64 Power Five schools plus Notre Dame.

Half that total would add an average of $2.82 million to a Power Five budget. Not insignificant, but not a exactly difference-making money.

Then there is the safety issue that will have to be addressed whenever the bracket is expanded. Two teams would be playing 16-game seasons, the same as the current NFL regular season. More football means more chance for injury.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the pandemic and any potential playoff expansion are “unrelated.”

“There are a multitude of issues that go into the expansion of the playoff. None of them can be quickly implemented,” he said.

Speculation about CFP expansion has become a cottage industry. Just call your average Group of Five athletic director. Of course they would like more access to the playoff. The 65 Group of Five schools share less than 20 percent of that annual CFP revenue. Last year, that was $91.4 million.

“Unless the revenue-share formula changes, [an expanded playoff] will not solve the financial issues for many Group of Five schools,” said Glenn Wong, distinguished professor at Arizona State and executive director of its Sports Law and Business Program.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock has consistently said the four-team bracket will stay in place. He told CBS Sports previously that the first hint of how the playoff will look in the future is Year 9 of the 12-year deal. That’s after the 2022 season when the CFP will be starting to go out to bid.

None of this is to say the CFP won’t expand eventually. Scores of college football sources have suggested it probably will when the current contract ends after the 2025 season.

For now, we can only dream.

“Everybody is looking for revenue today. Everybody is looking for revenue for tomorrow,” said Dean Jordan, managing director for Wasserman Media Group.

“Even if there was a college football czar who waved a wand and said, ‘We’re expanding the College Football Playoff,’ it’s probably two years before that takes place.”  





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