CHICAGO – No issues in the collegiate sports landscape trigger more fear, excitement or emotion than conference realignment, College Football Playoff expansion and player compensation. All of those issues will be woven together in the next few years, as revenue costs rise, cable television paradigms continue to change and the din for players to get a slice of the pie becomes louder.
Here’s a look at why those three topics will inevitably shape the next generation of college football.
When will the College Football Playoff expand?
It would be a stretch to call an expansion of the College Football Playoff inevitable, as there’s so much to change, unwind and restructure to move the playoff from four teams to eight, which is the most likely next iteration. There are player safety issues, scheduling issues and enough bowl contract reworking that the CFP may have to bring in Will Hunting as a consultant.
All that said, there’s momentum behind the scenes that something will happen, and there’s a chance it happens before the end of the 12-year contract. (We’re entering Year 6 of ESPN’s 12-year, $7.2 billion deal.) As one source said this week: “I think there’s more unified dialogue than people are led to believe publicly.”
Conversations with multiple sources around the sport indicated that it would be impossible logistically for the playoff to be expanded in the next two years. The sources indicated the earliest that significant change could occur in terms of adding teams to the playoff would be for the 2021 season.
“I’d put the emphasis on the complicated more than the momentum,” said a high ranking collegiate official. “Even if someone starts this in earnest, the complications are real.”
How much money would it be worth? The notion of the TV package doubling the revenue for the CFP is Pollyanna-ish, as the vast value of the CFP package will always lie in the semifinals and championship. (The conference title games becoming de-facto play-in games won’t help the playoff contract significantly, as those are league-specific deals.)
Adding four new playoff games would also inevitably devalue the financial power of some current high-end bowl relationships and further complicate the relationship with the six bowls tied to the College Football Playoff. That notion underscores the complicated unwinding, as four quarterfinal games would also mean further devaluing of the best bowl games that are outside of the CFP rotation. (Some would prefer home venues for the higher seeds in the quarterfinals, which the bowls wouldn’t like.)
One theory is that ESPN renegotiates the new CFP contract at some point in the next few years, rips up the final years and helps navigate the complicated landscape surrounding the bowls. It wouldn’t be shocking if the current contract gets played through at four teams, but money is the most powerful gravity shaper in college sports. Plus, leagues like the Pac-12 and Big Ten have been more open to the notion. Not coincidentally, each have been shut out the past two seasons. (Let’s not forget, the Alabama-LSU BCS title game after the 2011 season was the ultimate trigger to go to a four-team playoff.)
Another thorny issue here is the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl’s domination of New Year’s Day television windows, a shameless power grab that shoves a middle finger in the face of fans who expect the best games on New Year’s Day. It also, generally, defies common sense. Can ESPN unwind that monopoly that arose from the SEC being wary of the Big Ten outflanking them for a prime television slot? Will the best interest of college football win out over leagues clinging to their slice of the cookie? Don’t hold your breath, as commissioners have consistently shown they care more about lining their pockets than the preferences of fans.
There are plenty of other issues, with player safety being the most prominent. Does the regular season have to shorten to make the bigger postseason possible? “If it ever gets to that point, the calendar is going to be a big part of the challenge,” said a high-ranking collegiate official.
As the conversation continues, the devil remains in the details. “We need to get the playoff expanded,” UCF athletic director Danny White told Yahoo Sports. “I’m glad that conversation is alive and well.”
When will we see the next realignment wave?
Those crickets you hear are indicative of the realignment talk across the college sports landscape right now. One of the lessons learned from the last wave of realignment is that more isn’t always better.
One small window into that is the American Athletic Conference’s recent decision to sit tight after the departure of UConn. It’s instructive to how institutions are thinking, as adding schools and delivering more inventory won’t necessarily ignite television contracts as in the past rounds of realignment. (The theory of people watching Maryland playing Indiana on a far-flung television channel sounded great in a boardroom. But then someone actually had to watch it.) “The cable TV model drove the last round of realignment.” said another prominent athletic official. “That model is shifting in front of our face.”
In an era of cord cutters and subscription models and big-tech companies looming as the next potential bidders, the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers for cable boxes looks antiquated. And the wave of blowout losses and negative headlines those schools have generated in football since joining the league doesn’t make the decision look any wiser.
The Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC don’t appear likely to add schools anytime soon, perhaps because there aren’t many options that would move the needle. Good options like UCF and Houston face resistance from geographic neighbors who don’t want to empower them. “In a flattening revenue model, bringing another mouth to the table has to add value,” said a collegiate official.
Just four years ago, the Big 12 was a model of dysfunction, and some leadership was open to expansion amid a clunky and embarrassing process. Much has changed in that time, as more stable leadership has arrived at the conference. As one Big 12 official said flatly on Monday: “There’s just no appetite for expansion right now.”
One official floated an interesting theory that’s not particularly realistic (but fun to think about). He said it’s more likely that most major conferences would consider eliminating schools before adding them. And before Vanderbilt, Oregon State and Rutgers fans start shuddering, there are likely way too many legal and political complications for that notion to be a common-sense point than a reality. But it underscores that the power still lies most in the biggest brands that command the most eyeballs. The era of scurrying for quantity appears to have passed.
What’s next in player compensation?
The compensation issue has long hovered over the sport, especially in the era of billion-dollar television contracts, $92 million head coaching contracts and facilities that would make the ancient Egyptians gawk at their opulence.
The NCAA announced in May that it’s studying allowing athletes to compensate off their name, image and likeness. The report on that is scheduled to arrive in October to the NCAA Board of Governors. Is this another committee formed to form an endless filibuster of committees? We’ll see.
For now, it will be interesting how new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren addresses the topic at Big Ten media days here this week. (Don’t forget about the brutal optics of former commissioner Jim Delany walking away with a reported bonus of $20 million.)
Warren has a son who plays college football at Mississippi State, comes from an extensive NFL background and couldn’t possibly be more antiquated than Delany on these types of issues.
Will a new voice help shape one of the next generation’s defining issues? As the dollar amounts rise around the sport, so will the volume over this issue.
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