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College Football Playoff Expansion is Sort of About Fan Interest — But Mostly, TV Dollars

Less than a decade after its inception, the College Football Playoff could be undergoing a significant expansion in the coming years. A proposal to increase the field from four teams to 12 is making quick progress this offseason, and if approved, changes could be in effect as soon as 2023, or as late as 2026.

From a sports fan point of view, the drive to increase the number of participants is pretty simple: Since the first Playoff following the 2014 regular season, over 71% of the spots have gone to four programs (Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma). Now, college football’s never been a sport that’s emphasized parity or access. But when you combine a stagnant group of teams with an annual coverage cycle all about them, it makes the sport seem a little stale, while marginalizing the other 126 teams at the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision level.

That’s exasperating for fans, who’ve watched a dynamic sport seemingly boiled down to just four teams. It also diminishes the importance of televised game inventory not related to the teams in contention for playoff bids down the stretch.

An expansion to 12 teams would fix the fan interest issue, for sure, as 20 or more teams could find themselves in contention late in the regular season, when they weren’t before. Better still, it would also increase the value of games across broadcast partners like ESPN, NBC, CBS and FOX, as playoff hype could be extended to a much wider collection of teams as they jockey for position from late October through early December conference championship games.

The extra attention likely means larger audiences for college football, after several years of diminished returns there. That attention obviously translates to more ad dollars, which is ultimately the largest reason why the powers-that-be are even entertaining this proposal.

Under the current TV deal with ESPN, the College Football Playoff makes $470 million per year for a total of seven games (four rotating access bowls, two semifinal games and the national championship). The proposed new structure would mean 11 games — but all would be in a bracketed playoff instead of just four, as is the case today. ESPN and FOX also have deals to televise conference championship games that now take on additional importance — and financial significance — since some of them virtually guarantee a trip to the playoffs.

USA Today recently published an estimate from Navigate that says the value of this expanded College Football Playoff could be worth as much as $2 billion annually. Brand advertisers would obviously be contributing a lot of that, but it the extra games of importance would also open up access for more brands to dive into that pool, too — or at least require larger investments from existing advertisers. According to data from iSpot.tv, some of the top brands (by estimated spend) during last year’s peak bowl season from Dec. 30, 2020-Jan. 11, 2021 included AT&T Wireless, Allstate, Taco Bell, Dr Pepper and Chick-fil-A.

We’re still several years out from any sort of change, and admittedly the proposal hasn’t even been approved yet. But college football’s going to look very different very soon — thanks in part to the amount of money that’s on the table for schools, conferences and network partners to enjoy the spoils of. While it took decades for college football decision-makers to come around to the idea of these increased revenues when the Playoff first arrived, it seems that no such delay will be taking place anymore.