Burke Magnus

There’s been lots of discussion about the possibility of expanding the College Football Playoff to eight teams, and given how well the playoff games have drawn for ESPN (especially now that they’ve been moved off New Year’s Eve), many have figured the network would be on board with that.

However, ESPN executive vice president of programming and scheduling Burke Magnus told Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand this week that while the network has “nothing to do with” any decision on changing the playoff format, they’re not lobbying for playoff expansion and think it could actually create some problems for their regular-season schedules.

Here’s the podcast where Magnus talks to Ourand:

And the key part of his comments, as transcribed by Ourand:

Speaking on this week’s SBJ/SBD Media Podcast, ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus said ESPN is “not at all” advocating for the current four-team format to expand, worried that any expansion could weaken college football’s regular season.

Because so much of its fall schedule is dominated by college football, ESPN finds it especially important to keep the regular season relevant. Magnus pointed out that ESPN has invested more in college football than “any other category that we do,” given all of the rights deals the network has with various conferences.

“I would worry a little bit that conceivably any change might bring with it some unintended consequences relative to the regular season,” Magnus said. “I also look at the totality of college football and making sure that they don’t unintentionally water down the competition during the regular season such that playoff bids are determined in advance or that we go back to the automatic qualifying business of the BCS, which was not the sport at its best.”

Magnus also argued even that the exclusion of a deserving team can be seen as a good thing from the network side, as the ongoing debate about who should be in the playoff helps create more interest around the games.

“Part of the beauty of the College Football Playoff is that four teams is going to, quite arguably, exclude somebody who might have a very good case,” Magnus said. “Whether that’s Ohio State or UCF or whoever it might be — USC was the champion of the Pac-12 and they were out this year, too. By design, there’s going to be people on the outside looking in.”

There are some valid points there, as ESPN certainly does want a strong regular season slate and debate about who’s in the playoff (for their regular-season games, their playoff ranking shows and their other studio content). But it feels like there would still be decent regular season interest even with an expanded playoff, and that the ratings for extra playoff games might be worth any regular-season tradeoff.

However, the status quo is certainly working for ESPN too. Their general bowl audience is up 12 per cent year over year, and their regular season ratings have been good. And while it may be “conference commissioners, university presidents and CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock” who make the decision on playoff expansion, ESPN’s desires are presumably an important part of what those people base their eventual decision on given the importance of TV revenue (and ESPN-provided TV revenue) to college football.

So it’s definitely interesting that Magnus says they’re “not at all” advocating for expansion. That doesn’t mean we won’t get an expanded playoff, or that it won’t work out well for ESPN if and when it does happen. But it’s notable that the network isn’t pushing for it, at least publicly. And the ratings downsides Magnus raises are certainly worth at least considering. We’ll see where the expanded playoff conversation goes from here, but ESPN at least appears to be lining up on the “keep the status quo” side for now.

[Sports Business Journal; photo from HolyCross.edu]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.

  • Prerich

    Regular season doesn’t mean anything now. Ask Wisconsin and UCF (both undefeated in the regular season). Bama lost the last game of their regular season, didn’t win their division, let alone their conference, and they’re in with a bye (all other teams participated in their Conference Championship games). The regular season is a farce, as Saban himself has stated – it’s a subjective mess. It’s based on the eye test – which basically states – which team looks “so shiny” a la Moana!

    • Walt_Gekko

      Which is why I would go to 32 teams. Could you imagine a UCF (that would have this year been a #2 seed in my format) getting to host first and second round games with the chance to win it all? It would have shut up UCF and others in this format since every conference champion would be guaranteed at least one game at home.

      • noonan18

        It wouldn’t happen because those picking the brackets would put them in the most difficult bracket. But at least they would have a shot at doing it on the field and not a room with a bunch of suits deciding their fate

        • Walt_Gekko

          In this case, UCF would have been the lowest #2 seed and likely facing Clemson in the Orange Bowl is both won their first-and-second round games at home.

  • GomarNahasapeemapetilon

    Come on folks, absolutely he wants an expanded playoff…what programmer wouldn’t want more relevant games? Problem is he can’t afford expansion.

    • That’s the point: there would be fewer relevant games during the regular season if more teams still qualify for the playoffs.

  • CreightonRabs

    Of course ESPN wants to maintain the status quo. Look at all the bowl games they own. Expanding the playoffs likely means fewer meaningless bowl games for ESPN, hence less revenue. So, of course they want to keep their little fiefdom at the expense of the integrity of college football.

  • Walt_Gekko

    As I would do it, a 32-team playoff with the first two rounds at home sites would make EVERY regular season game meaningful because you would have to win your conference to guarantee yourself a home game and in most cases in the Power 5 win your conference to get TWO home games as depending on Notre Dame there would be in most years only four or five at-large bids where a school gets a chance to play at home in at least the first round as otherwise, you would have to win two road games to get to the New Year’s Day bowl games that would be the regional finals (rotated between the “New Year’s Six” Bowl games where two such games are consolations for second round losers as first and second round losers would play a bowl game after their are ousted from the playoff). That to me would give every school with even a slither of hope to win it all a chance to do so.

    • Adam Domo

      32 teams!?!? lmao what. you must like the nba a lot huh

      • Phil Gunther

        lol what you think 32 teams is crazy? it’s about time this country stops rewarding the fat cat, top 1% of the college football teams with all the playoff games when they don’t pay their fair share. You think it’s Ok for Nick Saban to get to play for another championship, while teams like UTEP didn’t get a win all season!? Why should teams like UTEP have to sit at home and not get to play another game , while the winning rich teams play another game to win again? lmao

  • ABob1086

    Why would ESPN want to pay through the nose for quarterfinal games that wouldn’t rate much better than the current New Year’s 6? And on top of that the inevitable slide, however slight, for the regular-season ratings when games like the Iron Bowl, Ohio St/Michigan, et al. are big-picture meaningless because neither team needs to win them? Of course they don’t want expansion. Hopefully they continue not to. Hopefully CFB fans can be saved from themselves on this issue.

    • Phil Gunther

      I couldn’t disagree more. By that logic, UNC/Duke bball or Red Sox/Yanks games are “meaningless” or have no interest? OSU/Michigan last year decided the B1G East division and Iron Bowl winner this year went to SEC champ game. Bama lost the Iron Bowl and made the CFP anyways his year, so that logic means it’s “meaningless” right now. Why do people assume an 8 team playoff would ruin a product but we’re supposed to believe this 4 team system is great?

      • ABob1086

        Because to me it would, and it is. I thought 4 would be better than 2, and it has been – because we’ve gotten better regular season games. 8 would not produce better regular season games because automatic bids would render any non-conference game meaningless.

        I could give a rat’s ass about the postseason. I want a good regular season You want a long, drawn-out postseason with occasionally good games at the expense of any meaning to the regular season? You have literally every other sport in America for that. I want one freaking sport where the regular season is paramount. One.

        • Phil Gunther

          if you don’t care about the postseason at all, why do you care if there are 4 teams or 8? I’m seriously interested to hear from you exactly how a playoff makes the regular season meaningless. I don’t care for hypotheticals or assumptions that don’t mean anything. Alabama and Georgia both lost to Auburn in the regular season this year, UCF was undefeated and beat Auburn. Last year’s title game and the Georgia/Oklahoma Rose Bowl are in the conversation with the best games of the last 20 years. No one gave Ohio State a chance against Alabama years ago and the game played out quite differently. How many teams in the top 10 right now have actually played one another, yet you’re just implying adding 4 more teams would all be blowouts? I’m terribly sorry for offending you by presenting a different opinion. Many others besides myself are interested in seeing a real playoff system with a champion decided on the field instead of a committee picking 4 based on vague criteria that is inconsistent from year to year. I’d rather have a couple of blowouts in an 8 team playoff than picking a favorite out of several deserving teams, it’s up to you if you choose not to watch.

          • ABob1086

            It’s not hypothetical to say 8 would make non-conference games meaningless. It’s math. 75% of the berths would be assigned to conferences before the season even began (a G5 auto bid would, I assume, be part of this move). Those 6 champs would be in no matter what they did out of the conference. Only 2 bids could potentially be earned on the strength of the games that schools actually decided to play (versus put in front of them by a league). What incentive is there to play anyone outside your league at that point? There is almost none. Those awesome week 1 games we’ve been getting? I’d bet anything you’d see fewer of them. That’s what I care about. Not an arbitrary championship being determined by which team gets hot in January.

            This is the only season in sports where you have to be good all season. 4 is as far as we can go before that’s no longer the case. (It’s bad enough Alabama got in without beating a single top 15 foe and then won it all.)

            With 8, an Ohio State team that lost by 31 to Iowa would be in. A USC team that got dump trucked by Notre Dame AND lost to Washington State would be in. If a “real” playoff system means teams like that get in then I’ll take the fake one.

          • Phil Gunther

            that’s a very fair point, Bob, I knew you had it in you! I agree with you on the example of Alabama (even though i never doubted they were a good team). I personally wouldn’t make anything guaranteed for conference champs (pac 12 was super weak, as USC and Washington proved they weren’t as strong as compared to other conferences). I can see your logic, but I don’t think it would eliminate those week 1 matchups. Right now, it’s far easier for SEC teams to schedule those games as they only play an 8 game schedule. Most teams have no conference games scheduled into 2026 (for real), and they can’t scrap those contracts without hurting themselves. You alluded to other sports before, and I wouldn’t say that the “best” teams always win championships in any sport, but it’s part of the game. glad to have this discussion as I don’t think there’s any perfect solution. I just feel much more comfortable at least knowing it would be decided on a field, as its impossible to schedule nonconference games that would be decisive for finding a champion. With over 100+ teams, I don’t really have a problem with 8. You mentioned Wiscy, Alabama, OSU… PSU certainly had an argument to get in last year over Washington or Ohio State, and the 2 games this year were a total of 4 pts (by 1 @ OSU, 3 @Mich St w a 3 hr weather delay). USC was a totally different team once Darnold played last year. I wouldn’t have any problem at all picking 8 teams a year that are very capable and deserving. Will we ever see Alabama play at Ohio State, or Clemson have to play a 3 week stretch against against Auburn, LSU, Mississippi St (in a strong year,)I think many people overlook how difficult situations like that are when you’re playing great teams in a row and you’re missing some key guys from injury. Give location preference to higher seeded teams for playoff and it could give some sort of advantage at least. I totally get your reasons, but hopefully you understand what I’m saying too. There wasn’t one team in the country that didn’t have a blip on their schedule (UCF being their weak schedule, but they proved they can beat an SEC team that champion Alabama couldn’t). With everyone having a flaw, it makes it much more reasonable to me to say “no one’s perfect, but these have been most worthy”. It’s a different sport, but I know there would be so much interest in seeing teams battle it out, it’d be like filling out march madness brackets. Also it’s important we remember we’re talking about tax exempt colleges playing amatuers that aren’t getting paid anyway now, so it’s ultimately about competition on the field. On certain years, maybe an undefeated team has a bad day against a team with worse regular season resume and lose in my 8 team example, but is that really the worst case scenario? Georgia won the SEC this year and had a solid lead in that title game, loosing in OT. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone claim that’s a disappointing season lol (they’re more angry about the refs ha). I will concede that the regular season would be LESS important as it is now (naturally, as now there is so much riding on it). But it’s a trade off because there aren’t enough games in a season to have enough H2H to fairly weigh teams with different schedules, road games etc. That’s my major point, we can’t go back to the BCS mess, and there’s definitely a problem with 4 teams now most years. Will 8 teams make everything perfect and no one will complain, of course not. college football is competitive enough to find 8 teams that are good enough to make a case (rarely much difference between 3rd or 4th teams compared to 7th and 8th), it’s the best case scenario IMO. regular season games will still matter as the SEC and B1G were only ones with multiple top 10 h2h match ups in their seasons. I think we agree there that is the goal, to see what the best teams do against other bests, like we get once in a blue moon in nonconference if we’re very lucky. Great convo and happy to hear your reply. Hopefully we can keep finding more common ground, but I respect your opinion. The biggest problem would be favoring any one conference a lot and completely ignoring one with a rightful claim. very few think UCF should get it handed to them just for their undefeated season (option A, no playoffs). for simplicity, I’ll label the 4 game we have now (option B), and an expanded playoff (8 seems like a balance to me but I’ll listen to anything, as option C). Seems to me that’s 3 chocies we have, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Just comes down to how we weigh them, right?

      • ABob1086

        As USA Today’s Dan Wolken so aptly pointed out on Twitter today, as lucky as we’ve been with these terrific championship games the past few years, less than half of the 12 playoff games in these 4 years has been very competitive. Many have been blowouts. That signals to me that adding 4 worse teams to this thing makes it exponentially more likely that we get more bad games. Count me out.

  • noonan18

    Its pretty sad that none of these clowns want to legitimize their sport by actually having the champion determined on the field of play.

    The sad thing is they would probably make more money by getting rid of some of these worthless Bowl games and replace them with playoff games without changing the schedule very much at all. Saying 8 teams would water down the regular season is a joke.

    If they can’t go to at least an 8 team player, the Non Power 5’s should break from everyone else and let them have their own championship instead of this farce we call the CFP.

    • Expanded playoffs delegitimize the regular season.

  • Adam Domo

    good. the system is great as is