April 20, 2024

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The Sports Fanatics

College Football Playoff expansion delayed as officials fail to form consensus over numerous issues

INDIANAPOLIS — If the College Football Playoff expands, it does not appear as if it will happen anytime soon. The CFP Board of Managers failed Monday to approve a proposal for an expanded 12-team playoff field with Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby saying after the group’s scheduled meeting that the managers “didn’t even get close” to coming to an agreement.

While the CFP Management Committee (conference commissioners) did make a recommendation Monday to the managers (school presidents) on how to move forward with a 12-team expansion, the committee’s proposal was not unanimous, according to board chairman Mark Keenum, president at Mississippi State. The managers similarly failed to form a consensus Monday as a means of moving forward.

The hope from some officials was that an expanded playoff could begin as soon as the 2024 season. Instead, it appears more likely the playoff will not expand until its current 12-year television contract with ESPN ends ahead of the 2026 season.

Bowlsby was visibly upset Monday. After taking more than six months to digest a detailed 12-team playoff expansion proposal, he and the parties in charge of implementing it seem further apart than ever.

“I am disappointed,” said Bowlsby following meetings that spanned a combined 8 hours across three days. “… We have entrenched issues. They are no closer to being resolved than they were [before our meetings].”

CFP executive director Bill Hancock is “not closing the door” on expansion occurring before that 2026 date; however, he did admit Monday that coming to a consensus among college football’s commissioners and school presidents is “getting harder and harder” as the process continues.

“We’re going into overtime,” Hancock said. “… It’s getting late with every day that goes by.”

The original proposal, created by a four-person subcommittee that convened in 2019, was for the CFP to expand to a 12-team field consisting of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the other six bids going to at-large teams. The four highest-ranked teams would receive byes with the remaining eight teams playing first-round games.

That subcommittee was made up of Bowlsby, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, Notre Dame commissioner Jack Swarbrick, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. It came up with its suggestion of a 12-team field in March 2020 but delayed presenting it amid COVID-19. The first hint of a possible expansion was mentioned in the 17th paragraph of a CFP release on April 23, 2021.

After the original June proposal, it quickly became obvious the process was going to be rocky. Exactly a month after the proposal, word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma were joining the SEC. That created uncertainty around the college landscape to the point the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 created an “alliance” essentially to limit the SEC’s growing power.

Up for debate are numerous issues that remain familiar.

Automatic qualifiers: There is a chasm between those who support the original proposal and others who want a 5+1+6 model that would give AQs to the Power Five conference champions as well the highest-ranked Group of Five champion. “That’s a real sticking point,” Keenum said.

Revenue distribution: While there is not a divide not on the amount of the payouts, there’s consternation over how it will be parceled out. The current deal is worth an average of $475 million per year. Approximately 22% of that amount goes into a lump sum spread across the Group of Five conferences. The Power Five receive at least $66 million each annually. If TV rights for the playoff do come open after the 2025 campaign, the expectation is at least two networks will be involved. The increase in revenue is expected to be massive with expansion worth $1 billion per year on the low end. The CFP is using powerful media consultants Dean Jordan of Wasserman Media Group and Alan Gold of Creative Artists Agency to price the deal.

Bowls: How and when they will be used within the 12-team bracket remains an issue as there is some push for first-round games to be played on campuses. The Rose Bowl, Big Ten and Pac-12 favor a model that gets as close to its participants playing on the game’s traditional date of Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET. There is a solution out there that would allow the Rose a permanent spot in the quarterfinals where it would be assigned a Big Ten or Pac-12 team. The Orange Bowl has a complicated arrangement with the ACC, Notre Dame and the SEC. In times when those New Year’s Six bowls aren’t in the playoff rotation, they must be assured their games will be attractive enough. “It’s not only the Rose Bowl; it’s all the [New Year’s Six] bowls,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said.

Health and welfare: The ACC, at least, is known to have concerns over the potential for teams in the CFP National Championship to be playing their 17th game. The ACC also has a lengthy TV contract that runs to 2036. The contract is believed to be undervalued in the market. Virtually the only way it can be increased is by conference expansion, which would include adding Notre Dame. Does a delay in the expansion process, at least in some way, make it more likely the Fighting Irish will join? Notre Dame has shown no inclination to give up its independence. “A lot of this is on [the ACC],” said one source familiar with the process.

“Let me just say this: There is more parochiality than there needs to be,” said Bowlsby. “Everybody is concerned about their own silo more than somebody else’s.”

Bowlsby referenced powerful former commissioners Mike Slive (SEC) and Jim Delany (Big Ten) getting past their concerns to agree to the current four-team format. While a lot of issues have been worked out, sources tell CBS Sports, there seems to have been a much bigger divide in these Indianapolis meetings.

“We were never asking for more than four [teams],” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “To ask two teams [playing Monday night] to play another game, that’s an enormous give. That’s been missed in this. We have to have college football supported nationally.

“I don’t simply accept that other people would have been in a different place. We’re testing the boundaries and limits of adaptation.”

Sankey has similar frustration to Bowlsby. His conference was not unanimous in the first place moving forward with expansion, he said.

“Should we, the SEC, do this at all?” Sankey asked. “But we have to look forward collectively.”

The commissioners have met multiple times since the 12-team playoff was first proposed in June.

“Have you seen the movie ‘Groundhog Day’?” Bowlsby asked. “… It’s been a frustrating process.”

No date for the next meeting between the parties has been set. This weekend’s were seen as sort of a drop-dead date in order to implement expansion two years before the current contract expires before the 2026 season begins.

Keenum delivered two messages.

“I’m optimistic. I think we’re going to get there,” he said, noting that it’s possible the playoff moves forward with just four teams.

“The status quo has worked pretty good for the Southeastern Conference,” he added. “I won’t rule that out. … For the sake of college football, we may have to stay with a four-team playoff.” 

The CFP has been criticized for its lack of variety. Michigan and Cincinnati this season became only the 13th and 14th teams to play in the event across its first eight years. That’s 14 teams occupying 32 total spots.

An SEC team has played in the last seven CFP National Championships with two SEC teams playing in the game for the second time on Monday night.

College football is one of the most exclusive bodies in sports. Even with the playoff only 3% of the sport’s 130 teams participated in the championship postseason. A 12-team playoff would triple that number to 9%. By comparison, almost 20% of Division I basketball teams (68) play annually in the NCAA Tournament.