Opinion: Here's why the College Football Playoff should envy the NCAA Tournament

Nearly five million people tuned into CBS on Sunday evening to watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament bracket being revealed, an enduringly impressive number for a show that broadcasts information available everywhere within seconds.

The College Football Playoff selection show has generally gotten audiences about one-fifth that size on ESPN.

There are some pretty obvious reasons for that disparity, even though the college basketball is far less popular than college football. The NCAA Tournament includes more teams, more mystery and is broadcast on network television as opposed to cable, so it makes sense that it draws more viewers. Showing the 68-team bracket for the first time is a visual stimulation; revealing college football’s four-team playoff usually just tells us what we already know.

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But there’s another element of America’s love affair with the NCAA Tournament that seems more pertinent than ever this year as the leaders of college sports bicker over CFP expansion to the point of stalemate.

College basketball may be mostly irrelevant during the regular season, but its postseason outdoes college football.
College basketball may be mostly irrelevant during the regular season, but its postseason outdoes college football.

The four No. 1 seeds this year hail from the states of Washington, Texas, Arizona and Kansas.

The four No. 2 seeds represent North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Alabama.

The four No. 3 seeds come from Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin and Texas.

Every corner of the country represented, both coasts accounted for, all time zones with a rooting interest. All told, 34 of the 50 states have a team in March Madness.


Meanwhile, college football’s postseason is increasingly irrelevant in all but a handful of states, most of them concentrated in the Southeast. And even those who benefit most from the current monopoly realize it’s a long-term problem for the sport.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure college football is strong across the nation,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told the Paul Finebaum Show in January. “Even though a four team playoff works for us, creating opportunities is a compelling reason to give a little bit.”

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Sankey said that when it still seemed like the 10 conference commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick were motivated to come to an agreement on playoff expansion in the next few years. Instead, after a series of unproductive meetings, expansion has pretty much been tabled.

It’s going to be four teams until at least the end of the 2025 season, and who knows if expansion will even get done after that.

“As far as I'm concerned, the time to publicly talk about the CFP is now over,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said last week at the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament. “I think the next piece of work that needs to be done is we need to get in the room and figure out what the expanded playoffs look like and unless I’m forced to publicly talk about it, the next time I talk about the CFP will be to announce what our new format looks like.”


No matter who you think is to blame for the first try at expansion falling apart after it seemed like a done deal last summer, the current juxtaposition between the Pac-12’s recent surge in basketball and it’s utter inconsequentiality in football is the most immediate example of why a bigger playoff is so necessary.

The Pac-12 has gone through some lean times in basketball, reaching a nadir in 2012 with just two tournament bids and no teams advancing to the Sweet 16. In 2018 and 2019, it got just three teams each year – and five of those teams were seeded ninth or worse.

But the narrative has completely shifted. Last season, the Pac-12 got five teams into the tournament with four advancing to the Sweet 16 and three to the Elite Eight. This year, the Pac-12 doesn’t have the same quantity of teams with just three bids, but the quality is strong: Arizona earned a No. 1 seed, while No. 4 seed UCLA is a contender to reach is second straight Final Four and potentially win the title.

“That was kind of a watershed moment for us to have 13 wins in the NCAA Tournament (in 2021) and was really born from the significant commitment from our schools to invest in men's basketball, to see it as an opportunity in the future,” Pac 12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said.


But what made that investment possible? The opportunity for an equal shot in the postseason, which is what built the NCAA Tournament into arguably America’s second-most popular annual sporting event.

Obviously, the barrier to entry is higher in football. It takes more players and more resources to compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is why it has 130 schools vs. 358 basketball-playing members of Division I. Even within that 130, only a couple dozen realistically have the infrastructure to compete for a national title.

It’s unrealistic to expect college football’s postseason to ever mimic the geographic balance of the NCAA Tournament, but what we do know after eight years of the Playoff is that the current format is narrowing, not widening interest in the sport.

Just 13 schools representing 10 states have made the Playoff. Among those, four are in the Southeastern footprint (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana) and four are in the Midwest (Oklahoma, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio). The Pac-12 hasn’t had a school in the Playoff since Washington in 2016.


Fans of the super powers like Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State might argue that the fault lies with those schools who aren't good enough to get into the playoff, not the system itself.

But the college football postseason, isn’t just about determining a champion, it’s a product that needs a wider spectrum of participants to maximize what the sport can sell. It’s difficult to engage an entire country when so few fan bases west of Texas feel like they’re part of the action.

Whether the CFP eventually lands at eight, 12 or 16, there’s no real downside for the sport to include more teams and conferences. One of the things that has been proven over and over in basketball is that opportunity – and even a small taste of success – is itself the motivation to improve and invest.

That’s how you end up with Gonzaga as a No. 1 seed for the fourth time in its past five tournament appearances, Baylor as the defending national champion and a football-centric school like Auburn with a mediocre basketball history reaching heights it never knew were possible.


When the tournament’s first round begins on Thursday, it’s almost as if America will stop whatever it was doing for a few days and lose itself in a sport that often gets ignored during the regular season. The diversity of geography, school size and conference affiliation involved in this event ensures there’s something for everyone.

College football can never have a postseason that big or inclusive, but trying to copy some of the magic from the basketball tournament is such an obvious move that it’s bizarre how reticent schools are to embrace it.

None of the issues that derailed this expansion push should be too difficult to overcome. Most of the disagreements, in the end, are on the margins – amplified by hurt egos that resulted from Oklahoma and Texas announcing they would leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

If college commissioners can’t put that aside to do what’s best for their sport, they’re not only failing the fans, they’re limiting the appeal of their own product.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA Tournament has something College Football Playoff should want