There’s been a lot of discussion about potential expansion of the college football playoff this week, with Sports Illustrated‘s Ross Dellenger reporting that a Power 5 athletic director mentioned a specific eight-team model circling with autobids for each P5 conference champion and the highest-ranked Group of Five champion, plus two at-large teams. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott also said his conference would only be for expansion if it included conference champion autobids (a reasonable position given his job, as his conference has been left out of the current playoff more than any other P5 conference), and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said he could support an eight-team playoff “under the right circumstances.” And Dellenger added that “The playoff is bound to expand, everyone knows that. The main questions are (1) when and (2) what model.” It’s worth taking a look at just what this proposed eight-team model might mean in terms of money and viewers, as that’s a big part of why there’s momentum here.
Let’s start with the viewers. We of course don’t know exactly how many average viewers to expect for a quarterfinal round, as that hasn’t existed to date, but we can make some estimations based on past viewership data of both playoff games and other bowls. Using data from Sports Media Watch’s historical ratings pages, here’s what the playoff semifinals and the national championship game have drawn in viewership so far:
The numbers obviously have changed quite a bit from year to year based both on the matchups and on the date of the semifinals (turns out the plan to put the 2015-16 and 2016-17 semifinals on weekday New Year’s Eves wasn’t great!), but the averages of around 21 million for the semifinals are notable. The title game ratings on the whole aren’t that different from what the BCS title games used to draw, but adding the semifinals made a big difference relative to what the old BCS bowl games would draw. And while quarterfinals probably wouldn’t draw as much as the semifinals, the 21.3 million average of the past semifinals is probably a good high-end boundary for what they could do.
What about a low-end boundary? Well, it seems likely that national quarterfinals would do better than even the best conference championship games (although conference championship games themselves would probably still hold up under this system, with some even doing better thanks to an automatic bid being on the line). The best two conference title games in terms of ratings tend to be the SEC championship and the Big Ten championship. Paulsen’s Sports Media Watch SEC championship data shows that game ranging from 18.0 million to 10.1 million viewers in the last decade, while the Big Ten championship has ranged from 13.9 million to 5.1 million viewers in that span. But let’s keep this to the playoff era (so 2014-15 on). Here’s that data averaged:
That’s an average of 13.6 million viewers for the SEC title game and 10.1 million for the Big Ten championship, which would average to 11.8 million together. So a low-end boundary of around 12 million seems about right. It’s possible an individual playoff quarterfinal could draw less than that, especially if it’s one featuring a Group of Five champion that’s particularly overmatched, but this isn’t a bad place to start.
And four extra playoff games averaging somewhere between 11.8 and 21.3 million viewers (or an average of 16.6 if you average those low-end and high-end boundaries) would bring in a pretty significant amount of TV money. A piece from AJ Maestas and Matt Balvanz of Navigate Research in The (San Jose) Mercury News earlier this month estimated quarterfinals would draw around 15 million viewers, and stated that “Based on the average payout by ESPN on a per-TV-viewer basis, we estimate that an expansion to eight teams would bring in at least another $420 million per year.”
That’s certainly possible, but maybe a little high. ESPN currently pays $467 million annually (through 2024-25) for a wide-ranging CFP deal including rights to each year’s three playoff games, the four other bowls associated with the playoff, and the weekly rankings show and eventual final selection show, and it’s unclear if adding four quarterfinal games would be worth almost as much annually as the existing CFP package. But a lot would depend on when this was implemented (if it’s near the end of the current ESPN deal, they might be able to go to wider bidding and get more money). In any case, adding four games with averages of 15 million viewers or better would definitely be desirable TV inventory and would bring in a lot of revenue.
And really, that’s why an expanded playoff feels so likely to happen at some point. Making it so certain P5 conference champions don’t get left out is part of it, and that’s why there’s support for this particular proposal from the likes of Scott. And an eight-team playoff under this setup would lead to less selection controversies (but under this format, you’d still have interesting debates about who the two at-large teams should be and which G5 team should be picked, and the regular season would still be important both for getting to the conference championship game and solidifying your resume for a potential at-large bid in case you don’t win that game).
But the biggest thing is that this would create four more games that would be widely watched. And that would bring in a lot of further TV money for the conferences and schools. Like most sports at this point, college football decision-making is largely driven by TV and TV revenue, and this is a very obvious move along those lines.