Opinion: College Football Playoff expansion seems well on its way to happening
Because this is college football, where nothing important happens in a straightforward or efficient manner, one of the more important announcements of the offseason was buried deep in a Friday news release.
In fact, taking the words at face value, it wouldn’t be news at all that the College Football Playoff acknowledged that a working group briefed the 11 university presidents who sit on its management committee about 63 different possibilities for a new playoff format, including 6-, 8-, 10-, 12- and 16-team options.
“First and foremost, the working group conveyed to the management committee that it continues to support and believe in the four-team playoff as it is currently constituted,” the release stated in a nugget that mentioned after plans for stadium capacity for this year’s playoff and the progress being made by the national championship host committee in Indianapolis.
Of course, to anyone steeped in the history of this organization, soft-pedaling any statement on playoff expansion is complete hogwash. The fact it’s even being formally mentioned is all by CFP executive director Bill Hancock is all but an admission the battle is over. All that’s left is figuring out the details of how and when it’s going to happen.
Alabama won the 2021 College Football Playoff. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Hancock, if you’ll remember, insisted the BCS was here to stay and a four-team playoff wasn’t the answer for college football — right up until the moment the presidents who employ him decided they needed to do a playoff. When Hancock acknowledged a few years ago the CFP may look at moving the dates of the semifinals in years when they fell on New Year’s Eve, guess what? The dates changed shortly thereafter. And from the beginning of the CFP in 2014, Hancock has batted away any speculation about expansion – until now.
You do the math.
While the CFP hasn’t explicitly committed to expanding – putting expansion talk at the end of a very long press release was a semi-clever bit of chicanery – it certainly feels like a consensus has been reached within the industry over the last couple years that the format needs to change.
The reasons aren’t difficult to figure out.
Television ratings for the Playoff have declined since its debut, with this year’s title game down 27 percent from the 2019 season despite having a pair of television powerhouses in Alabama and Ohio State. Another factor in eroding interest is the semifinals generally not being competitive games, which looks even worse because it’s the same handful of teams getting nearly all of those playoff bids.
Meanwhile, the Playoff has become so dominant in building the narrative of the season that teams who don’t quite make it to the semifinals have seen less interest from fans in traveling for big bowl games and from top players to compete in them.
Something has to change, and everyone knows that. But figuring out the best path forward is complicated.
That’s what the CFP’s Friday release could have said if they wanted to be completely transparent about what’s happening. Beyond settling on the number for the bracket, they’ll have to figure out how many are automatic bids, whether the Group of Five teams will get a representative and who will do the seeding and selecting of wildcard teams.
Then you’ve got to determine how playoff expansion would fit into the current season structure from a timing standpoint and whether adjustments would need to be made, including a discussion about cutting a regular season game in order to address concerns about player safety.
There are also plenty of other logistics that would involve schools hosting the early rounds of these playoff games on campus and academic issues with semester final exams in December.
Oh, and ESPN would have to have a seat at that table, too, since they’d be the ones ostensibly having to come up with more money and broadcast more games.
In other words, there’s a lot to work out before the CFP officially says it is expanding. But it dropped enough of a hint in its release Friday to suggest it’s well on the way to happening.
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