Two months ago, college football could finally exhale. The drama regarding College Football Playoff expansion was over, at least for the moment. Not everyone was happy — far from it, in fact — but with a defined four years to go until the earliest expansion, there was plenty of time for the issues to sort themselves out.
The increasing reality: Four years might as well be the blink of an eye. The CFP’s next deadline looms in 30 months given an upcoming negotiation window with ESPN. Way in advance of that date, the network needs to know what exactly it will be bidding on.
By the time an expanded playoff potentially begins, the entire sport could be shaken up given ongoing court cases, the growing player empowerment movement and the shaky status of the NCAA itself in overseeing big-time college football.
All of it means the process toward expansion is about to get more — not less — complicated. A timeline that once looked broad now appears crunched.
Sources interviewed by CBS Sports may not agree on all the machinations for future expansion, but they almost unanimously came to the same conclusion: It’s becoming more difficult with each passing day.
“I think any image of smooth water ahead is simply a mirage,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
“If we can’t make decisions because of uncertainty,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey added, “we will never make decisions.”
When the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame formally voted 8-3 in favor of expansion on Jan. 10, the final count mattered little. The concept demanded unanimity. In voting against, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 had unique concerns — mostly because a series of legal, financial and NCAA decisions before 2026 that could directly impact expansion.
By that year, when the current CFP contract expires, there is a growing likelihood players will either be directly compensated for their labor or at least have the power to collectively bargain. That alone could reshape the collegiate model. If players are professionalized, it’s easy to envision them sitting across the table with commissioners who oversee the CFP and having a say in expansion.
That’s because the Alston v. NCAA decision rendered by the U.S. Supreme Court further eroded the NCAA’s credibility. In an instant last June, NCAA athletes were basically defined as laborers. Ominously, a National Labor Relations Board initiative seeks to classify athletes as employees.
“I hope the players will be at the table by the time CFP expansion talks resume,” said Michael Hsu, an athlete activist who has filed a complaint with the NLRB that would benefit players. “Players score points and deserve some of the revenue in an expanded format.”
The NCAA has been openly lobbying Congress to put guardrails around the benefits athletes receive for name, image and likeness. The association was outflanked last July when it didn’t act proactively to address NIL. Any attempt by the NCAA to do so these days without federal assistance would quickly be met by an antitrust lawsuit.
Hence, we are in the age of the million-dollar quarterback. For better or worse.
“We’re not going to be in a less litigious environment in 8-24 months,” Bowlsby contended. “We’re not going to be out from under student-athlete activism or judicial oversight. … We’re not going to be under less scrutiny from elected officials.”
Further complicating matters, the Big Ten will have a new TV deal by next year. Sports Business Journal reported recently the league could become the first to make $1 billion per year in TV rights revenue. Such a windfall could actually strengthen the Big Ten’s position in opposing expansion as the league would conceivably become less reliant on CFP riches.
Next in line for a new TV deal will be the Pac-12 in 2024 followed by the reconstructed Big 12 in 2025. The SEC’s new 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN starts in 2024. By that time, Texas and Oklahoma will either be in the league or a year away from joining it. That will clearly give the SEC the best, largest collection of brands in college sports history. Those nervous about the SEC’s growing influence will have to deal with that eventuality.
All those billions don’t necessarily make CFP expansion more likely. In fact, those new contracts might make the conferences more divided in their goals. As one high-ranking CFP official told CBS Sports last month, the SEC and Big Ten run the sport.
“Everything else is expendable,” that person said.
Perhaps the most daunting piece of this futurescape is that exclusive 30-day negotiating window ESPN has with the CFP. ESPN is not expected to get those exclusive rights. Several commissioners are already on record as saying they want multiple rightsholders to air CFP games in the future.
Parceling out the rights drives up the price of the product and makes good business sense. The CFP is the only major postseason that isn’t broadcast by multiple partners. Either way, expansion becomes further muddled.
On what structure, exactly, will ESPN be bidding? Eight teams? Twelve? Same old, same old remaining at four? The current disagreements among the conferences shows no signs of being resolved, even 2 ½ years from now.
“The silly part of it is we’re really not deciding anything, we’re just delaying [the debate],” Bowlsby said. “We’ve got that exclusive window. We’re only 30 months from it now. We’re going to have to engage well in advance of that.”
But how do you expect networks to bid on something that doesn’t have a defined shape? The ACC reportedly favors an eight-team bracket. The Big Ten wants automatic qualifier status for its champion.
Forget the playoff for now. By the time the commissioners take up the subject, there is the real possibility athletes may be collectively bargaining with schools, if not actually paid by them.
The NCAA constitution may be reconfigured to the point there will be fewer teams and conferences to consider for a playoff. The NCAA Football Rules Committee might have missed a chance to address athlete safety and welfare on Friday.
That’s one of the concerns ACC commissioner Jim Phillips had in voting against a playoff. Research by the SEC showed that reducing the average number of plays in a game could shorten the season by the equivalent of 1.2 games.
“I fail to believe there is any time in the future that presents less controversy right now,” Bowlsby added. “The more pieces of challenge we can resolve, the better off we’re going to be. [Expansion is an issue] we could have — and should have — gotten behind us.”
Further complicating that future is the real possibility that the roster of key decision makers in the process could change significantly. Bowlsby is 70. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will be 68 this month. CFP executive director Bill Hancock is 71.
Whoever is guiding the CFP in the future, the organization will likely have to take on more responsibility. That means the CFP could potentially even run college football if the NCAA’s influence continues to decrease. It certainly means there will be more scrutiny on the CFP, which will be at the center of overseeing the longest season in history — a maximum of 17 games if a 12-game bracket is adopted.
There is already a push for college athletes to receive postgraduate medical coverage. Could the CFP fund that initiative? One informed source said the CFP’s revenue in expansion could hit as much as $1.4 billion per year. It currently averages $600 million per year.
Then there will be the touchy process of dividing that revenue. That alone could decide whether the reconfigured Big 12 will be a Power Five conference or if that designation even matters should FBS be whittled down to a fraction of its present-day membership (130 schools). That’s assuming there is no additional conference realignment between now and then.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff recently described part of the reason why he voted against expansion. The Rose Bowl remains somewhat of a deal breaker for the Pac-12. The league wants to hang on to its standard broadcast window: Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET. That’s doable, according to CFP sources, but continues to rankle peers who believe it’s shortsighted to value a parade (the traditional Tournament of Roses event on New Year’s Day), date and a kickoff time over a transformation of the sport’s postseason.
Kliavkoff has suggested the Rose Bowl hold a traditional game on Jan. 1 even in years where it would also host a CFP semifinal. The issue there is the Granddaddy Of Them All being populated with second-, third- or even fourth-place teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten. Remember, the champions of those leagues (and any at-large qualifiers) would be in the CFP.
The Pac-12 commissioner referenced recently how complicated revenue distribution could become. Currently, the Power Five evenly divide 78% of that $600 million annually. The Group of Five and lower divisions split the other 22%. The monster revenue bump in an expanded CFP has yet to be discussed in-depth. That’s part of the ongoing uncertainty. It’s hard to price something that has little identity.
Kliavkoff said the question put before the commissioners in January was whether they would vote for expansion in years 11 (2024), 12 (2025) “and beyond”. There was no revenue split for what is being referred to as “Year 13” going forward, he said.
“In my life, I’ve never voted or signed a contract where I don’t know the financial terms of that contract,” Kliavkoff said on a recent podcast. “So, I was forced to vote ‘no’.”
That despite a statement issued on the day of the CFP National Championship that stated the Pac-12 was basically up for anything in expansion.
“We’re going to structure ourselves to be successful no matter what the playoffs looks like,” Kliavkoff told CBS Sports. “If it stays at four, we’re going to restructure to stay at four. If we go to 12, historically [the Pac-12] would have had teams in a 12-team playoff. It gives more programs an opportunity to participate.”
That’s precisely why the eight other conferences who voted yes are trying to understand the “no” votes from the ACC and Pac-12. Those conferences need access to an expanded playoff, especially the Pac-12, which hasn’t found itself in the CFP since 2016. Without expansion, the Pac-12 now faces the possibility that ignoble CFP streak could reach nine consecutive years by the end of the current contract.
“It’s not good for college football to have an entire region [excluded],” Sankey said. “The West, for example.”
Sankey was one of four administrators on a subcommittee that took two years to come up with the 12-team expansion proposal. He stressed several times that his league, the SEC, was fine whether his peers voted for expansion or not. The SEC has snagged 10 of 32 total spots in the CFP’s eight years of existence.
There’s no assurance that, even with a 12-team field, the SEC wouldn’t dominate. But that’s hardly the point.
“If your focus is on frustration, I think you’re missing the perspective,” Sankey said. “We walked into this not inclined for any expansion. We’ve worked diligently to be open to other approaches. Those who asked, really demanded, this consideration are not ready to act. It’s clearly in my best interests to leave it at four. I had 14 bowl-eligible teams [in 2021]. That’s never happened.”
Maybe, at least in a metaphysical way, we’re rushing things. Expanding the playoff would have been done at a record pace. The human polls decided national champions for 62 seasons (1936-97). The BCS lasted 16 years. A four-team bracket will be around for at least 12 years.
Still, as the days, weeks and months tick by and 2026 approaches, it’s obvious an expanded CFP does not have time on its side.
“If we can’t move, we’re just stuck,” one FBS commissioner said. “We’re at loggerheads, collectively.”