Last June, expansion of the College Football Playoff before the current TV contract with ESPN ends after the 2025-2026 season appeared almost a done deal, with the CFP working group recommending a 12-team model and not much stated opposition. The estimated $800 million or more extra a 12-team playoff could bring in annually was a big part of that, and it looked like expansion could happen as soon as 2024-25 (not earlier, contrary to a report from Dan Patrick). But now, it looks like expansion isn’t going to happen at least until the end of that contract, with ACC commissioner Jim Phillips’ comments Friday that his conference wouldn’t support expansion until after the NCAA constitution changes (which will take place after the current window for early expansion) really sealing that (as early expansion needed unanimous support):
As we've written, this is the primary reason the ACC is against playoff expansion. The league wants the NCAA transformation to be completed before expansion.
"Now is not the time," Phillips says. "Our CEOs and ADs support the position."
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) January 14, 2022
"We have much larger issues facing us than whether to expand the CFP" two years before the end of the initial contract, Jim Phillips says.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) January 14, 2022
Jim Phillips insists that all of the ACC coaches are unanimous in wanting to pause of CFP expansion: "Coach Narduzzi and all of our coaches are unanimous that this isn’t the right time (to expand)."
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) January 14, 2022
Jim Phillips effectively articulates that expansion is dead at least for the next four years. He wants to to wait to see what the @NCAA Transformation Committee re constitution does before moving on. That will take until at least Aug. 1. It's dead folks, until at least 2026.
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) January 14, 2022
How did this go from all-but-sure to dead in seven months? Well, the biggest factor appears to have been Texas and Oklahoma suddenly announcing in July that they’re leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. (The exact timing of that move is not yet settled.) That move is very beneficial to ESPN, which goes from having half the rights to those schools in a split with Fox to having the full rights to them, and that led to a lot of talk about ESPN’s potential influence there, including a cease-and-desist letter from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to ESPN exec Burke Magnus. (For what it’s worth, ESPN has denied any involvement in pushing Oklahoma and Texas to make that move, saying Bowlsby’s claims are “without merit.”)
Whether ESPN played a role in that move or not, they certainly benefited from it. And an early playoff expansion would likely have given ESPN more control of college football still, which caused some skepticism and a lot of comments like “I think the pause button should be hit” (from Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith). Interestingly enough, though, one comment in that article (written by Pete Thamel, who was then at Yahoo and is now moving to ESPN) suggested that it was the ACC and SEC (both already with long-term rights deals with ESPN, as well as conference networks with them) that had the most to gain and the least to lose from early expansion. Here’s that comment, from an anonymous Power Five athletic director:
“It behooves everyone not named the SEC and ACC [for the CFP rights to go to market]…It’s in all of our best interest [of other leagues] to let the contract through and go to open market. Why would a streaming service want to bid on a league like the Big Ten or Pac-12 to carry the regular season if they are going to just hand it over to ESPN for the playoffs?”
So it’s notable that it’s now the ACC commissioner specifically putting this on pause. However, the ACC is far from the only conference that’s expressed some hesitancy about expansion in the wake of the Texas and Oklahoma moves (and the subsequent Big 12 expansion to replace them), and this may not have gone through even if the ACC had been on board. But it’s notable that Phillips is the first one to outright say this is dead for now.
The decision to put expansion on pause until after the current TV contract will definitely make a number of upcoming TV negotiations interesting. Of the Power Five conferences, the SEC and ACC have long-term deals in place with ESPN, but the Big Ten, Pac-12, and Big 12 all have their deals coming up in the next few years. There are also a number of Group of Five conference deals coming up, and those deals may look different with the format staying at four, as there’s likely less playoff access for them without expansion; Cincinnati became the first-ever Group of Five team in the playoff this year, and needed almost a perfect storm to get that berth.
And, maybe most notably, the TV rights to the playoff itself are likely to be much more open without an early expansion. With expansion now targeted at after the current contract rather than during it, ESPN won’t have as much leverage. (They’re still extremely likely to wind up involved, but there’s now more of a debate on if they’ll get all the games or just a significant portion of the games.) So the next few years will have a lot of things to watch on the playoff expansion front, even if that expansion won’t be happening as quickly as thought.
[CFP logo at top from Pentagram Design]