The College Football Playoff recently announced it would be expanding from four to 12 teams for the 2024 season. The additional game inventory is expected to generate $450 million in gross revenue over the final two years of the current television contract and billions more in the years ahead.
The playoff expansion is expected to benefit all parties involved, including the Power Five conferences and their member schools, who will likely receiving most of the additional opportunities, exposure and revenue; the New Year’s Six (NY6) bowls, which will now host an annual playoff game; the CFP’s future broadcast partners; and the players and schools within the other five bowl subdivision conferences.
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“Every student athlete that I’ve ever talked to [says] access and opportunity to championships matters to them,” ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips said.
The remainder of the bowl season slate should net out on top, too. “You’re going to see a lot of the non-playoff bowl games have a different meaning and a different value to the enterprise,” Nick Carparelli (executive director, Bowl Season) said.
The new postseason format is expected to increase the value of lead-in promotional programming for CFP games, and no content better suits that role than the other 30-plus bowl matchups.
If the expanded CFP results in a multiple-network broadcast model, the competition between them for non-playoff bowl games will drive the value of the rights up even further.
JWS’ Take: With the CFP expanding, the 10 bowl-subdivision conference commissioners will discuss what the rest of the bowl games will look like in 2024. Carparelli said there are a host of questions that still need answering, including: “How many bowl games do they want? What does bowl eligibility look like? When should bowl games start? When should they end? [And] how do you strategically program them around the playoff so that it can be used as an asset to promote those games?”
The current number of postseason bowl games resides at 41. If the four quarterfinal games in the new CFP structure are incorporated into the existing bowl agreements/partnerships, it will “likely shrink some of the bowl opportunities that are outside of the playoff right now,” Phillips said.
Some college football observers have suggested the expanded CFP will make the remainder of the bowl games less relevant. But Carparelli disagrees, thinking the networks will still find them valuable. The thinking is any TV network investing billions of dollars in a marquee sports property is going to want to have adequate buildup, and the non-NY6 bowl games are a strong platform to drive awareness for the CFP.
ESPN controls the broadcast rights to the expanded CFP in 2024 and ’25, the last two years of the current contract. Insiders believe Fox will get a portion of the games in the next broadcast cycle. “There are some very powerful conferences that have moved away from certain networks and in the direction of others,” Carparelli said, clearly referring to the Big Ten, ESPN and Fox respectively. “It is logical for those conferences to come together and say, ‘We would be best served if more than one network were involved.’”
The anticipated shift to a two-network model isn’t just about conference-network alliances though. “Just look at the NFL,” Carparelli said. “The multiple-network model and cross promotion that they get during broadcasts on those different networks really has created great value and elevated the value of the entire league.”
Having two networks share the rights to the expanded CFT should result in increased competition—and by proxy increased rights fees—for many of the remaining bowl games. “Fox has always wanted to have some bowl games. It has the Holiday Bowl now,” Carparelli said. “But there wasn’t a real reason to pry them away from ESPN without that pinnacle event at the end.”
ESPN will carry 40 bowls through the National Championship this season. Of the 40, ESPN owns and operates 17 of the games. One would assume those contests will remain on the cable network.
There is a competitive sponsor marketplace for playoff games. While it’s fair to wonder if an expanded CFP means there will be fewer available advertising dollars for the remainder of the bowl games, Carparelli does not anticipate that. Many businesses are eager to get into the sport and non-playoff games provide an affordable price point to do so. “You see a lot of challenger brands make a name for themselves during the month of December,” he said.
The sponsors for non-NY6 games also tend to be more local than the national brands that advertise during playoff games. “When these bowl games were created years ago, they were community-based events that were designed to stimulate tourism,” Carparelli said. “As a result, everyone who lives in and around a bowl tends to support the game. That includes local businesses.
But Larry Mann (partner, rEvolution) wasn’t sure how long that would continue. Expanded CFP aside, “There’s also a fair amount of uncertainty impacting these [secondary bowl] games as well, around coaches leaving, transfer portals, opt-outs, etc.,” he said.
Non-playoff matchups should not be negatively influenced by an expanded playoff. Twelve teams currently participate in NY6 games. While the stakes associated with some of those games will change, the number of teams participating in them won’t. “So, all the bowl games after the New Year’s Six really aren’t looking at much of a difference in terms of the type of team they are getting,” Carparelli said.
In recent seasons, top players have increasingly opted out of non-playoff bowl games. However, Carparelli is “very optimistic” NIL will help to encourage participation in the years ahead. “We think some of these events, like bowl games, that are partners with conferences and institutions but separate entities, may have the ability to put money in the pockets of student athletes to a different level than the institutions and conferences can themselves.” The best players playing would, in theory, make the games more valuable to all of their stakeholders.
Bowl season intends to tread lightly on the subject as it awaits further direction from the conference commissioners and member institutions.