Ohio State AD Gene Smith says 'pause button should be hit' on CFP expansion. Others fret over ESPN's grip on football

The chances of the College Football Playoff growing to 12 teams in 2023, the first year officials have stated it could expand, appear to be diminishing.

The combination of uncertainty in the environment and a building skepticism over the power being collected by ESPN and the SEC after recent realignment moves have prompted a more cautious approach to expansion. The exploration of growing from a four-team model to 12-team model was announced in early June and is being deliberated on, with a decision expected in the fall.

“I think the pause button should be hit,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Yahoo Sports. “We need to evaluate the landscape and what it’s going to look like. We still need to evaluate the 12-team playoff. We don’t need to rush into that when there’s legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.”

ESPN's broadcast dominance of college football

Smith is perhaps the most powerful athletic director in the country and a former member of the CFP committee. Smith’s point is tied, in part, to potential changes in the fundamental structure of conferences and overall college athletics. Essentially, it's difficult to determine access when there’s little certainty as to what leagues will look like. There’s also NCAA governance issues, as it’s uncertain what the collegiate leadership model will look like in two years.

Other leaders around the country have expressed a skepticism toward the financial value of allowing ESPN to continue to be the sole owner of the most powerful rights in college football. The College Football Playoff is, essentially, a television contract with ESPN that runs through the 2025 season. ESPN owns all of it now, which includes three playoff games and other New Year’s six bowls.

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 28: An ESPN camera during the 2019 PlayStation Fiesta Bowl college football playoff semifinal game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Clemson Tigers on December 28, 2019 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, AZ. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ESPN is in a verbal dustup with the Big 12 over the conference defections of Oklahoma and Texas. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Right now, ESPN has exclusive negotiating rights because it owns the contract. The idea of bringing those rights to open market has only increased around the sport now that ESPN rode shotgun on the bold and expensive move of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC. (The Big 12 was mad enough in the wake of losing its two alpha members that it sent ESPN a “cease and desist” letter and alleging in an interview that ESPN “provided incentives” for another league to “destabilize” the Big 12. ESPN denied this.)

The acquisitions of OU and Texas fortifies SEC as the dominant brand in the sport, as it owns the SEC Network and all of the SEC’s relevant television rights starting in the summer of 2024. (ESPN also runs the ACC Network and owns the conference's rights through 2036, but that deal is widely viewed as so lopsided toward ESPN that it’s an impediment for the league’s future.)

The notion among many leaders around the sport: Why allow ESPN access to the most valuable set of rights around the sport without other bidders to drive up the price?

How ESPN's domination of CFP could cost conferences in long run

It’s not uncommon among major professional sports, like the NFL and NBA, to have multiple networks broadcast their postseason. Also, that would take perhaps an additional half billion of ESPN’s dollars a year off the table that could theoretically be directed toward upcoming rights to leagues like the upcoming deals of the Big Ten (2023) and Pac-12 (2024).

“It’s behooves everyone not named the SEC and ACC [for the CFP rights to go to market],” said a Power 5 athletic director outside the Big Ten. “It’s in all of our best interest [of other leagues] to let the contract through and go to open market. Why would a streaming service want to bid on a league like the Big Ten or Pac-12 to carry the regular season if they are going to just hand it over to ESPN for the playoffs?”

The discomfort around the country with ESPN owning the entire playoff sets up the stakes for an undercurrent that will define the next iteration of conference realignment and the next generation of college sports — the ESPN and the SEC vs. Fox and everyone else. The biggest unknown in the TV market is if another traditional suitor (CBS, NBC) or streaming service will join Fox in the fray.

In January 2019, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was among the leaders who was tasked with exploring new playoff models. In the end, Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson clandestinely met to come up with the plan that was revealed in June.

In a phone interview Friday, Sankey said he understood the perspective of others on having pause moving toward the expanded playoff. “I respect that others can look at recent breaking news and say, ‘Let’s take a step back.’ I didn’t expect a rubber stamp.”

Sankey added: “I was never walking into this with an assumption that something would happen quickly. It has nothing to do with recent news. ... If others want to continue to deliberate, that’s not a surprise. I could have foreseen that with no breaking news.”

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