The Pac-12’s new commissioner said out loud this week what his peers had been thinking for the last seven days: College Football Playoff expansion must be reconsidered. Not so much the actual expansion itself, but how there seems to be a bum rush towards it.
CBS Sports spoke with several high-profile administrators who will have a direct hand in the discussions. Their conclusion is that the entire proposed structure and access to the CFP must be reevaluated as a result of forthcoming conference realignment as triggered by the moves of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.
How can there be certainty when we don’t even know how many conferences will exist or what teams will be in them by the time this proposed expansion goes into effect?
“It’s certainly going to be readdressed,” George Kliavkoff, who took over as Pac-12 commissioner earlier this year, told CBS Sports. “Remember that was a two-year process done by four people. The proposal is good, but it’s not done. We’ve mis-set fans’ expectations that it’s going to move on a very fast timeline.”
That timeline was set in an April press release when CFP executive director Bill Hancock said the soonest expansion could be implemented was 2023. The issue had been studied for two years by a CFP subcommittee that included Greg Sankey (SEC commissioner), Bob Bowlsby (Big 12 commissioner), Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame athletic director) and Craig Thompson (Mountain West commissioner).
However, with the SEC’s pending addition of the Big 12’s two powers, that seems to have slowed the process on several tracks.
One of those tracks is something no administrator has mentioned publicly. Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC changes not only college athletics but the entire college sports business model.
In devastating the Big 12 to the point it has lost 50% to 75% of its value, the SEC enhanced its power, leverage and earning potential to the point some college leaders fear the conference could earn six of the 12 available playoff spots in the proposed expansion.
“With 12 teams, we could just be watching a lot of SEC teams in the 12-team playoff,” a highly-placed Power Five source told CBS Sports.
One Power Five AD added: “Why on God’s green Earth would the Pac-12 and Big Ten hand over these [playoff] rights, which only strengthens the SEC?”
A second Power Five AD agreed: “I don’t care if there are 10 SEC teams in; we just can’t make that a bonanza [every] year for them. You can’t strangle everybody else financially.”
An easy fix for the CFP would be limiting the number teams from one conference that could enter a 12-team field. The problem? None of the stakeholders want that. As dominant as the SEC could become, other power conferences do not want to give up the possibility of unlimited berths for their leagues.
Kliavkoff being a rookie in his job does not mean his voice stands alone. He is supported by three other Power Five conference commissioners and some of most powerful college administrators in the country.
They assert that one thing has become clear: Sankey was one of those “four people” working on expansion while simultaneously engaging in a significant side hustle — negotiating a blockbuster deal to lure Texas and Oklahoma to his conference. All while participating in those proceedings with Bowlsby.
That at least calls into question the CFP expansion process. Sankey was working on formulating logistics of a CFP expansion parallel while ensuring his conference would hold a more significant advantage in dominating the CFP.
“[The SEC] was not the conference clamoring ever for expansion,” Sankey told CBS Sports. “I heard that from essentially every other conference. Not this conference.”
With Sankey as one of the leading voices in the room, the appearance of a conflict of interest has led some to suggest he should have recused himself from the process.
“No,” Sankey said, denying such an assertion. “There’s a lot of checks and balances in the system. Things happened rapidly in the last eight days.”
Meanwhile, CFP executive director Bill Hancock told CBS Sports that the expansion timeline has not changed.
“The summer assessment period is continuing — the management committee members are gathering comments from their schools’ presidents, athletics directors, coaches, faculty and student-athletes,” he said.
The financial gain for having an outsized competitive advantage in a 12-team playoff would seemingly be minimal. Under the current contract, each Power Five conference gets $66 million per year from the CFP. Conferences get $6 million in additional funds for each semifinal berth and $4 million for a New Year’s Six bowl berth.
What’s of greater concern is a possible reshaping of college sports overseen by SEC and ESPN.
By taking Texas and Oklahoma, SEC and ESPN — exclusive partners in the conference’s media rights deal — damaged Fox’s investment in the Big 12. Fox splits rights with ESPN in the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten.
To some, the takeover was bigger than realignment. It was a significant business maneuver.
That’s why one high-profile AD tells CBS Sports he has “major issues” with the 12-team expansion as proposed.
The 10 FBS commissioners are due to meet with the CFP Board of Managers (conference presidents) regarding expansion in September. The goal is to summarize findings after in-depth talks with athletes, coaches and administrators on their campuses. That’s the next step toward finalizing a 12-team structure.
However, more than one Power Five source told CBS Sports that the September date could be pushed back because of the SEC’s actions. Complicating matters is Bowlsby’s assertion that ESPN conspired with Texas, Oklahoma and the American Athletic Conference to take down his conference in realignment.
“Just looking at some of the public comments, it seems to be people are changing their minds a little bit,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports.
Per the CFP, it would take a unanimous vote of the conferences to approve playoff expansion. Could one conference refusing to play along scuttle the entire plan?
“We mange by unanimous consent, but it isn’t going to fall apart on that basis, I don’t think,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t think people want to have a situation where most of the strength is in one area.”
The greatest concern is the concept of expanding a playoff while realignment is reshaping college football. Does the proposal change if there are only two, three or four power conferences?
“It just feels uneasy relative to the 12 [teams],” Kliavkoff told CBS Sports. “I’m assuming my colleagues, nationally, this is a reason to pause on the 12. We need to pause.”
As proposed, an expanded playoff would include the top six ranked conference champions with no automatic bids. The top four ranked teams would receive first-round byes.
However, Sankey has raised the idea of accepting the 12 best teams, regardless of conference titles.
“Should we just say the 12 best teams?” Sankey proposed. “I’ve been asked that by our own membership.”
Such a structure would help the SEC, the nation’s strongest football conference. In the 12-team field was in effect over the first seven years of the CFP, the SEC would have averaged three entrants per season (based on final CFP Rankings 2014-20). Including Texas and Oklahoma in that mix, the average would have been approximately four.
With so much happening, more and more administrators in power are now asking: Why wouldn’t the CFP wait and go on the open market to maximize the value of product after the 2025 season? That’s when the current deal with ESPN ends. ESPN has exclusive negotiating rights with the CFP until then.
However, as one administrator pointed out, it’s a complete unknown what the media rights landscape will look like in five years. The general assumption is that the CFP will double in value to $1 billion per season. That could skyrocket with multiple bidders in the mix, including streaming services.
“Streaming is the future,” Kliavkoff said.
If the contract were open to bid, it could further be maximized by placing each level of the playoff on a different network.
Deeper into the discussion, the strengthening of the SEC with the Longhorns and Sooners creates a likelihood it is given more favorable broadcast windows on ESPN. Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione has been public with his distaste for the historic Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry game being played at 11 a.m. CT in the heat of September in Norman, Oklahoma.
The Pac-12 has long been stuck with the logistic problem of playing on the West Coast. When its rights come up for bid in 2024, it’s doubtful whatever money the conference gets will include games still lasting well into the night on the East Coast.
“The Pac-12 doesn’t get in the playoff very often in the current format,” Sankey told CBS Spots. “I think we all felt a responsibility to look at different models to provide access.
“If somebody wants to suggest this was motivated by some self interest, they’re missing a big picture. Why would I support any automatic conference access? Why would I have said pretty openly we shouldn’t leave the West Coast part of the country out of the playoff?”
It’s safe to say Bowlsby is bitter having worked alongside Sankey and Castiglione for years. Kliavkoff brought up the fact that only two of the Power Five conferences (SEC, Big 12) were involved in shaping the expansion process over a two-year period.
“That’s unfortunate,” Kliavkoff told CBS Sports. “Remember: The commissioners of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC weren’t in the room.”