Monday, February 6, 2023

College Football Playoff expansion: Board agrees to 12-team field with aim to implement as soon as possible

The College Football Playoff’s Board of Managers on Friday voted to expand the playoff field to 12 teams with an aim to implement the larger format as soon as possible, sources tell CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. The unanimous vote is an important first step in pushing the playoff beyond the current four-team format.

The expanded 12-team bracket, which the board wants to begin as early as the 2024 season, will feature the six highest-ranked conference champions as automatic qualifiers along with the six highest-ranked at-large teams following the season.

While the 11-member board — including university presidents and chancellors representing each of the 10 FBS conferences, plus Notre Dame president John Jenkins — approved expansion as a concept, it is only the first step in ensuring the field moves beyond four teams. It is now up to the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, those who comprise the CFP Management Committee, to oversee implementation.

The committee is scheduled meet on Thursday in Irving, Texas.

Among the main topics on the docket will be when to begin implementation of the 12-team field. It could be instituted as soon as 2024 or as late as the 2026 season once the CFP’s 12-year contract with ESPN expires. 

A CFP subcommittee comprised of FBS commissioners that developed this 12-team bracket received a favorable reception when it was first introduced in June 2021. Following that presentation and before expansion could be approved, realignment rocked college sports as Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to depart the Big 12 for the SEC.

Given SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and then-Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby were on that CFP subcommittee, the ranks were rattled with other conference commissioners putting a halt to expansion conversations while reevaluating their leagues’ places in the sport.

First came an alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 with the conferences agreeing to vote as a block on key issues. That alliance stood in the way of expansion on Jan. 10 with an 8-3 tally in support of moving to a larger field; a unanimous vote was required to pass expansion. In February 2022, given the board largely expected a rubber stamp in the prior vote, expansion was considered a shelved topic for the foreseeable future. 

The Big Ten swiping USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 this past offseason, a continuation of this round of realignment, brought a clear end to that short-lived alliance. It perhaps opened the door to revitalized talks given the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 will not be bringing in media rights revenue to the level of the Big Ten and SEC in the near future.

CFP executive director Bill Hancock previously stated that the playoff would not expand before the end of its current contract, which is set to expire in 2025. In releasing national championship game sites through the 2025 season just weeks ago — Atlanta will host following the 2024 season, South Florida the next year — the CFP seemingly confirmed a format change would not occur earlier.

If the CFP aims to expand prior to the end of its ESPN contract, it faces a hurdle of needing to find enough game sites (possibly on campus for early-round games) and enact appropriate logistics (hotel rooms, practice facilities, etc.) in a short period of time. While those remain large obstacles, several sources told Dodd all could be cleared with 28 months to go until a potentially expanded playoff in 2024.

“My response in general is, if people are willing [to do it], anything can happen,” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, one of the four key members of that subcommittee alongside Sankey, Bowlsby and Swarbrick.

A 12-team playoff has been valued at $1.2 billion annually, industry sources told Dodd, up from the current $600 million the CFP is earning from ESPN. By not enacting expansion prior to the 2026 season, the CFP would be leaving significant money on the table. ESPN would hold rights to any additional CFP games through the final two years of its 12-year deal.

There remains widespread support for CFP media rights to go out to multiple bidders once the ESPN contract expires. The Big Ten recently signed a $1.2 billion annual deal with CBS, Fox and NBC to air its games.

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