College Football Playoff Jan 1, 2024; New Orleans, LA, USA; A general view of the College Football Playoff logo on a case on the Washington Huskies sideline before the 2024 Sugar Bowl college football playoff semifinal game between the Texas Longhorns and the Washington Huskies at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

After a year-plus of discussion that the College Football Playoff would likely be split amongst multiple broadcast partners in a new 2026-and-beyond deal, that story changed significantly this year. January saw reports that ESPN was likely to keep the CFP themselves. And this week saw a report from Andrew Marchand, Nicole Auerbach, Stewart Mandel and Chris Vannini at The Athletic that a deal was struck there.

That deal reportedly would see ESPN pay $7.8 billion for a six-year extension through 2031, an average of $1.3 billion per year, with the ability to sublicense games. But the Athletic report indicated the contract “will not be ratified until the commissioners and presidents vote on the structure and financials.” And there are lingering issues there, especially with the Pac-2 schools refusing to go away quietly. And now, John Ourand of Puck News reported that the commitment on ESPN’s end may not be permanent if the CFP can’t figure out its own plans:

ESPN has agreed to pay $7.8 billion to broadcast the College Football Playoff over six years, as my friend and former work wife Andrew Marchand scooped on Tuesday. But the deal is not signed, and there’s a chance that ESPN could pull its offer in the next few months if the CFP organizational body doesn’t get its act together.

Of course, the always-maligned CFP committee has yet to finalize the new 12-team playoff structure. This process has only gotten more complicated as the PAC-12 has essentially become the PAC-2, with only poor Washington State and Oregon State left behind, and the Big Ten and SEC continually levitating above the NCAA to become their own veritable semiprofessional leagues.

The playoff committee needs to figure out how to placate the conferences, ensure that the larger format is more inclusive, and allow everyone (the conferences, the schools, and their broadcast partner, chief among them) to make enough money so that they play nice—at least for now.

Nothing happens quickly in college athletics, but the committee better not assume that ESPN will wait around. I’m hearing that the network will not only be spending a lot more on NBA rights, but also that its executives have prioritized maintaining UFC rights, too. (Those negotiations kick off in the fall.) Jimmy Pitaro is also looking at MLB rights. All in all, that’s a lot of cash outlay, and the CFP would be wise to accept the deal quickly while it has a bird in hand. Indeed, they need look no further than the Pac-12’s too-cute rejection of an early ESPN bid to recall just how quickly it can all fall apart.

That could be a problem for the CFP. Yes, there was a lot of talk about another broadcast partner (with a lot of them mentioned) coming in at one point, to say nothing of talk of streaming services and so on. And there was even discussion of a “massive bid” from Fox early this year. But none of that seemed to really materialize, leading to the later-January report this looked like it would return to ESPN, and then this week’s report that it would indeed stay there. So it seems unlikely right now that the CFP can pull in a better deal in terms of combined dollars and distribution than what’s been agreed to here, especially with this deal struck outside ESPN’s exclusive negotiating window.

Of course, the most likely outcome here seems to be that the CFP finalizes its structure in some way and ESPN does indeed go ahead with this deal. So this may not amount to much. But it is notable that someone as connected as Ourand is reporting “there’s a chance ESPN could pull its offer.” That’s just smoke for now, but it might lead to some fire. And if it does, it will be very interesting to see where the CFP lands, and what that looks like in terms of revenues and distribution access.

[Puck News]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.