All the momentum to fast-track the expansion of the College Football Playoff has screeched to a halt amid the vast uncertainty surrounding conference realignment and whether there will even be five Power 5 conferences once the dust settles.
But that is not the only factor giving stakeholders pause. They also are keenly aware of what taking a more deliberate approach likely would yield: a more lucrative media rights deal with potentially multiple television partners.
The current four-team CFP structure is in place at least the next two seasons. If the CFP wants to negotiate an expanded format before its current contract with ESPN expires following the 2025 season, it can negotiate with only ESPN, which has exclusive negotiating rights until its contract expires.
But if the CFP instead pumps the brakes now, it could in a few years take the expanded concept — regardless of the number of teams proposed — to the open market. That almost certainly would attract multiple bidders, driving up the cost even further.
Ultimately, the event — which would include 11 games for a 12-team field — could be split between multiple TV partners beginning after the 2026 season, much like the NFL playoffs.
"You absolutely want to go to the open market — period — no matter what the format looks like," a prominent college athletic official told On3. "And one advantage to having a bigger format — whether you’re talking eight or 12 teams — is having multiple networks. Having multiple networks is a huge advantage because when you add the two packages up, it’s typically greater than one network having the whole package. Plus, it gives you greater exposure."
The calculus involved in the decision-making process by stakeholders — the CFP board of managers consists of 11 presidents and chancellors — underscores how TV networks and the rights deals they choose to negotiate dictate virtually everything important in college football, ranging from why schools seek membership in certain conferences to when an expanded playoff could start and what the format may look like.
What’s more, the source noted, having a bite of the postseason package could translate into more buy-in from a network during the regular season. For instance, the Big Ten’s six-year, $2.64 billion deal with Fox and ESPN expires in 2023. If Fox were to secure a piece of the CFP package, it potentially could choose to invest even more in the sport and its regular-season package. And one former Power 5 commissioner said that while CBS may jump into the bidding for the Big Ten, he expects it ultimately to land back primarily with Fox, which runs the Big Ten Network.
Two-network approach for CFP a possibility
Another element lost on no one in the industry is whether it is in the sport’s best interest to allow ESPN solely to control the rights package for an expanded CFP when it has moved swiftly to control so much already in the sport, most notably the $300 million annual deal with the SEC that was announced in December.
"If the powers that be decide to go to a 12-team playoff before the current contract expires, who benefits?" said the former Power 5 commissioner. "ESPN, because they hold the current contract. They can say, ‘If you don’t negotiate with me for the 12-team, we will hold you to our current contract.’ Then it won’t begin until after 2026. If the CFP became available for all TV suitors, you’d probably wind up with a two-network approach because the money would be so high.
“It benefits the other conferences to say, ‘Let’s wait and let this contract run its course because then we will have more suitors throwing money at the playoff.’ ”
ESPN currently pays the CFP $470 million annually as part of the 12-year deal. That payout increases to $600 million per year because of separate contracts the network has to broadcast the Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls.
Navigate, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in professional and college sports rights valuations, projects that a 12-team CFP could garner $1.9 billion annually in a television rights deal. Add in ticket sales and sponsorship deals, and the total value of the expanded format could grow to $2 billion annually.
The CFP has not disclosed whether it would follow a similar revenue distribution formula post-expansion. Revenue figures from the 2019-2020 season show that each Power 5 conference received $67 million while the Group of 5 conferences shared $92 million. Navigate estimated that each Power 5 conference could receive $244 million annually in the expanded structure.
In light of the moves by Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, Ohio State’s Gene Smith, one of the nation’s most powerful athletic directors, said it might be prudent to pause the College Football playoff expansion process. New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who has been a vocal proponent of expansion in general, echoed that sentiment.
There are myriad questions, including whether the Big 12 will survive and whether 12 teams is its magic number. Multiple sources suggested that because of the typical large gap between the nation’s best few teams and the 12th-best, an eight-team field may make the most sense, with five automatic qualifiers and three wild cards.
Regardless of structure, fans hoping to see an expanded playoff in the next few years may need to wait.
“I don’t see how it moves forward in the two-year time period that was hoped for,” the college athletics official said. “It might even be a start-over at some point.”
(Top photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)