'Now is the time to explore it:' College Football Playoff broaches possibility of expanding to 14

On3 imageby:Eric Prisbell02/21/24

EricPrisbell

STOP Expanding the College Football Playoff | Why CFP Should NOT Go Past 12 Teams | 5+7 Model

IRVING, Texas – The College Football Playoff’s Management Committee convened for a nearly nine-hour meeting Wednesday, found no resolution on a handful of outstanding issues but did broach a headline-grabbing possibility sure to attract significant attention in the coming weeks:

The newly expanded 12-team tournament may expand even further – to 14 teams – for the 2026 season and beyond.

In a dizzying development for some, it bears repeating: College Football Playoff stakeholders are already discussing the possibility of further tournament expansion before anyone has even seen what a 12-team playoff actually looks like. That format takes hold this season.

“Fourteen teams was discussed – it is a possibility,” American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco told On3 after the meetings. “You have some large conferences with a lot of members, and there are a lot of marquee teams.”

As Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark added, “Now it is time to explore it.”

Several commissioners characterized the meeting overall as “very productive,” as the Management Committee – consisting of 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director – began the heavy lifting of addressing issues that include voting rights, a revenue distribution model and a tournament format for 2026 and beyond.

The clock is ticking – and stakeholders know it.

Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti called it the most productive CFP meeting he’s been a part of.

“We talked about some formatting and 14 came up,” Petitti said. “We’ve got more work to do.”

CFP leaders know there’s urgency

A heightened sense of urgency surrounded these discussions by the committee on the heels of last week’s report in The Athletic that ESPN and the College Football Playoff have agreed on terms for a six-year, $7.8 billion extension to broadcast the tournament.

But before the deal is ratified, the College Football Playoff needs to a resolution on the handful of important issues for 2026 and beyond. Almost all issues – except for a signed and sealed media rights deal for the additional inventory – are addressed for the next two seasons, when a 12-team tournament will be staged.

As the Puck’s John Ourand first reported, ESPN may become impatient while the College Football Playoff tries to get its house in order. 

“No question” there is a sense of urgency to address the CFP’s outstanding issues, ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said.

“This is not one of those things where you sit on it for several months,” he said. “We’ll continue to be pretty active on the talks.”

CFP hopes to resolve issues ‘within a month’

The next meeting has yet to be scheduled, but there will be another gathering – and likely soon.

Bill Hancock, the College Football Playoff’s executive director, said, “We need to be done with this within a month. I think today left everyone with the encouraging feeling that we will be done in a good, positive way [regarding the playoff for 2026 and beyond].”

Hancock said he was specifically referencing the TV deal, as well as the tournament format and revenue distribution model that would be in place for 2026 and beyond. Conversation Wednesday focused almost exclusively on 2026 and beyond. 

The next step is for commissioners to talk to leaders on the campuses of schools in their leagues and brief them on the concepts and ideas discussed Wednesday. This meeting was different than most in recent months, Hancock said, because there were more “ground-level detailed conversations” on complicated issues.

“Everybody rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘We need to get to work, and we need to share what’s on our minds,'” Hancock said. “And they all did. I mentioned 14 teams, but we also talked about four, and eight and 12 – and even 16 came up. It was just a productive day with a lot of good exchanges among the commissioners.”

Unclear if there was pushback to 14-team tournament

Hancock declined to characterize how much pushback, if any, commissioners had on the possibility of a 14-team tournament beginning in 2026.

For Notre Dame, Pete Bevacqua, who will succeed retiring Jack Swarbrick this year, attended the meetings instead of Swarbrick. For the Pac-12, both former commissioner George Kliavkoff – who recently parted ways with the league – and newly hired commissioner Teresa Gould were in attendance.

The meeting occurred a day after the College Football Playoff’s Board of Managers – consisting of FBS presidents of chancellors and Notre Dame – unanimously approved a 5+7 structure for the expanded tournament for the final two seasons of its current contract with ESPN. That means the five highest-ranked conference championships will be joined by the seven highest-ranked at-large teams.

Making swift decisions is not a hallmark at any level of college sports, including the College Football Playoff. After all, the demise of the Pac-12 was clear in early fall – and so was some inevitable change from the originally approved 6+6 model – yet it took CFP leaders almost six more months to formally adopt a new format.

As they are now trying to nail down important details for the tournament beginning in 2026, time is of the essence.

“At the end of the day, it’s what’s the right model for years 13 [of the CFP] and beyond,” Phillips said. “We’re just continuing to listen to one another and try to practically put something together that is good for college football, good for the conferences and Notre Dame, but also good for the health and wellbeing of college football.”

Difficult questions remain for CFP

The issues CFP leaders are now tackling, including finding agreement on a revenue distribution model that is palatable for all, loom as complicated and fraught with challenges: Who gets paid how many dollars in 2026 and beyond?

In its current 12-year contract, which expires after the 2025 season, ESPN has paid the CFP an average of $470 million annually. That payout increases to at least $600 million per year because of separate contracts the network has to broadcast the RoseSugar and Orange bowls. 

Power Five conferences have received 80% of the distribution, with Group of Five leagues receiving 20%. Power conference schools typically receive $5 to $6 million annually through the current deal.

This year, the Big Ten expands to 18 schools and the SEC expands to 16. Because they are also likely to earn the most tournament berths, how should that be accounted for in the financial model for 2026?

The two super conferences possess enormous leverage, enough to throw their weight around if they so choose. Will we see a move to create further separation between the Power Two and the Big 12/ACC?

What about Pac-12, multiple qualifiers?

How to handle the Pac-12 also remains a primary and thorny issue.

The two remaining schools – Oregon State and Washington State – have signaled they want to preserve the same CFP revenue for their schools long-term, even with the future of the league uncertain. They could rebuild the league or look to merge with the Mountain West Conference

Voting rights is also a potentially contentious issue. Should voting be weighted in favor of the two super conferences because they have a combined 34 teams and are likely to receive the most tournament berths in a given year?

On another note, when asked whether the possibility of a single conference receiving multiple automatic qualifier berths was broached in the meetings, the ACC’s Phillips said, “All that stuff is too premature.”

“This was a productive day,” Hancock concluded. “There is work still to be done. But this was a positive, productive and exciting day. I feel like we made big progress. We all left the room feeling very positive.”