By: Brandon McCoy
The College Football Playoff (CFP) Board of Managers decided in September 2022 that they will expand the playoff from 4 teams to 12 teams as early as the 2024 season. Fans and teams alike welcomed the adoption of the current 4-team playoff, as it was seen as more equitable than the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) model, which pitted the top two ranked teams in one winner-takes-all game for the championship. Still, the playoff has been dominated by the college football “blue bloods.” Every champion has come from either the SEC, ACC, or Big Ten, and until the 2021-2022 season, every participant in the playoff had been a member of a Power 5 conference, aside from independent Notre Dame. The new 12-team model will include automatic bids for the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked teams who did not win a conference championship. A postseason system with guarantees of non-traditional powerhouses having a shot at the title is a win for all parties involved. Fans receive more postseason games. Media companies, schools, and locales profit, as more games mean more revenue. Players from smaller programs now have a greater chance at the ultimate prize.
While this seems like a deal where nobody loses, there are points of conflict that parties should consider when implementing the expanded playoff. One potential criticism is that non-playoff bowl games will be cast further into irrelevance. It’s clear from fans and commentators alike that these games lack luster. This problem emerged at the inception of the College Football Playoff, and may be emphasized as the playoff is expanded. Those concerned about the culture of college football fear that many programs and fans will perceive a non-playoff bowl game “as a failed season entirely.”
College football fans care significantly about the culture of the sport, and while a fear of a culture shift is widely held, the playoff committee can do little to save the remaining bowl games. With the exception of the coveted New Years’ Six Bowls, most bowl games rarely sell out their stadiums, and this was true in the BCS era. The committee, media and advertisement, venues, and the colleges themselves, will all financially benefit from expanding the playoff. Unlike the status quo of the 4-team playoff, where only three postseason games “matter,” now we will have a system where eleven postseason games matter. Playoff expansion offers additional high stakes games for fans, and revenue increases for all stakeholders.
Talks of revenue bring in another criticism—the balancing of the athletic conferences. Over the past few years, it has become more apparent that the SEC and the Big Ten are the kings among the other Power 5 conferences. Both conferences will soon expand to 16 teams each, reducing the numbers in the Pac-12 and Big 12 conferences. These expansions already have major implications in the competition for media deals, and may even alter the landscape of the NCAA. Pursuant to the current contract, the CFP distributes 80% of its revenue to the Power 5 conferences. However, with the predominance of two conferences over the remaining three, there is the lurking concern the Big Ten and SEC will ask for a larger share than the others. Although college football will not be destroyed by the emergence of “superconferences,” they will certainly have an impact on the discussion on how the sport operates.
Parties should also consider the impact an expanded playoff will have on the players. Because the playoff has rendered other postseason games meaningless in the eyes of many, athletes who are NFL bound have been opting out of bowl games to protect their bodies. “At least twenty-nine star players” opted out of bowl games in the 2021-2022 season to prepare for the NFL draft. It is possible that expanding the playoff will result in fewer opt-outs, since no player has yet to voluntarily sit out the playoff. But this doesn’t render the phenomenon impossible. Last year, four players on Ohio State’s team opted out of the heralded Rose Bowl—a bowl game nicknamed the “Grandaddy of Them All.” Given the prestige and historic significance of a game like the Rose Bowl, potential profits in professional football may leave even the playoff vulnerable to losing star players.
Given the nomenclature “student-athlete,” many may fear that additional play on the field means even less time focused on academics. In theory, college football is a sport for amateur student-athletes. Many observers believe college football has overtaken academics as the primary mission of many schools, and an additional 2-3 weeks of games and practice do no help that image. The proposed schedule would end at roughly the same time as the current playoff schedule, around mid-January, but now the first two rounds plus the conference championship games will encompass all of December. A team that loses in their conference championship game, but obtains an at-large bid into the playoff, could conceivably play 17 games in the fall and winter months on the road to winning the national championship.
Lastly, there are concerns about player profit-sharing stemming from the projected increase in revenue. Prior to 2021, students couldn’t profit from their status as a collegiate athlete. They receive athletic scholarships, often have paid meals, receive paid travel, but could not receive payment for play. The Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston permitted athletes to receive compensation for their names, images, and likenesses (NIL). However, except for the biggest stars, NIL deals are not typically massive payouts, and the wealth is not evenly shared among players or across teams. Players who do not receive lucrative NIL deals are typically not the most sought-for athletes, which means they likely will not be strong draws for the NFL. Therefore, many players, will never receive compensation for additional labor.
The NCAA and many schools have maintained that it is impossible to pay athletes and for college football to remain financially solvent. There is truth to this, as most other collegiate sports operate at a loss, and are subsidized by college football. Furthermore, smaller athletic programs already operate on razor thin margins or at a loss. However, in a league where a majority of players are non-white, and many come from low-income backgrounds, it is difficult to justify additional hours of work with no guarantees of payment.
Nevertheless, there is still great optimism among fans, players, and the media alike. More teams and players will receive a more equitable shot at achieving a national title, and colleges, media, and locales stand to make large sums of money from the expansion. Despite potential obstacles, an expanded playoff is expected to receive a warm welcome.