I know some of you think playoff expansion is motivated by making the postseason more encompassing of the goal to determine college football’s best team. I think you know my belief is that the primary motivation for bracket creep is the chase for the almighty dollar.
No disrespect intended, but if I’m right, what ESPN wants matters a whole lot more than what Joe Fan wants — which makes this of interest.
ESPN expense: Three years ago, ratings for weeknight New Year’s Eve semifinal games dropped 36 percent. The CFP quickly found out The Worldwide Leader isn’t in the business of losing money. That was the end of weeknight semifinals; they were moved to weekends. So far, no one has asked ESPN how it would feel about essentially doubling its investment in the playoff if it goes from four teams to eight. (A high-ranking ESPN official would not comment.) Any expansion would have to be worthwhile to ESPN.
Early on, according to one source, school presidents said “not only said no, but hell no” to quarterfinal games on campus in an eight-team format. A TV consultant told CBS Sports all those quarterfinal games wouldn’t necessarily be a ratings winner. UCF as a No. 8 seed playing at No. 1 Alabama might be sexy this year, but what happens when that Group of Five team is a 10-2 Marshall or an 8-4 Central Michigan?
The expense for any entity that bids on the CFP will be significant. Another round of conference realignment may be on the horizon. Plenty of other sports properties will be up for bid as well (NASCAR, NFL and ‘Monday Night Football,’ MLB all by 2024 at the latest). Any streaming/broadcast/cable company must choose wisely on how to spend its money.
CBS Sports reported in 2016 that the Big 12 could earn an extra $1 billion by expanding by as many as four teams. The Big 12 eventually decided there were no desirable teams for expansion. It also decided it didn’t want to antagonize its TV partner.
For all the breathless analysis of why the playoffs should expand to an eight-team format, there’s an essential truth that generally gets brushed over. There are almost never any seasons where eight teams deserve to be in a legitimate conversation about national titles. Hell, most years there aren’t even five.
So, Dodd’s point about a mediocre mid-major grabbing a guaranteed spot is a legitimate one. But ESPN’s concern probably goes farther than that. What happens when, say, a four-loss Northwestern team pulls the upset in a conference championship game and makes the playoff field?
This is the problem you have with determining participants through a hybrid of subjective/objective criteria coupled with P5 conference championship games. The inevitable result is there will be teams left out that are clearly better than some of those admitted, with the attendant grumbling about the unfairness of the system.
Sort of what some like to pretend exists now. The thing is, the ones complaining aren’t paying for the privilege of doing so. (Not to mention currently there is no risk of a mediocre team crashing the semis.)
So, back to Dodd’s point. What if ESPN isn’t convinced bigger is better/more valuable? Sure, maybe the commissioners can talk another broadcast source into bellying up to the bar, but now you’re answering to another master and who knows what new considerations will go into that partnership? Further, if you’re Greg Sankey and you’re being asked to toss aside your conference’s lucrative championship game for the greater good, how do you know that the math will work out?
This is not to make predictions. But if money talks in the way I believe it does and Mickey is reluctant, what do you honestly think happens with expansion? Remember, there are always limits, as occurred when the last round of proposed expansion for the men’s basketball tourney turned to dust as nobody would step up to pay the NCAA for it.