There’s something about playoff expansion that brings out the bullshit artist in every conference commissioner. Here, for example, are the supposedly tortured stylings of Jim Delany’s successor as head of the Big Ten:
“We have to ask ourselves what’s in the best interest of the student-athletes for them to be able to get a world-class education and participate and to remain healthy — healthy mentally, and physically, and emotionally and spiritually,” Warren, the first African American Power 5 commissioner, said in an interview with ESPN.
“If we do that, and we get people in the room to say, ‘If they were my son, or that were my grandson, and I would be comfortable with whatever decision is made,’ then we’ll know when that is right. No matter what we do, we have to put the best interests of the student-athletes at the center. We have to remember they are not professional athletes and they should not be held to a standard to win a national championship by playing 20 games.”
Well, unless the money is good enough.
What happens when stakeholders and market forces demand more of the same product? Ask the NCAA postseason men’s basketball tournament, which started with eight teams in 1939 and now has 68.
In 1981, when the NCAA considered expanding the tournament from 48 to 64 teams, Stanford athletics director Andy Geiger explained why he supported expansion.
”We all need money and that new TV contract kind of helps,” Geiger said then in the New York Times. ”You can increase the field now, and teams will earn as much as or more than they earned this year.”
From 1982 to 1984, CBS paid $16 million a year to televise the tournament. That doubled to $32 million with the expansion to 64 teams in 1985, leading the NCAA to “study ways of distributing what some feared could become an embarrassment of riches,” according to The Associated Press in 1985. Thirty-one years later, the NCAA announced an $8.8 billion, eight-year contract extension from CBS and Turner Sports through 2032.
Funny how that works. And football playoff expansion will likely be just as lucrative.
One professional estimate predicts an eight-team playoff could fetch an additional $420 million a year from ESPN or whoever pays for it.
According to this estimate from Navigate Research, adding another four playoff games would add an additional 60 million viewers, which would be worth an additional $420 million at the rate of $7 per viewer. The Navigate estimate is based on the fact that playoff games in the current four-team format average around 65 million television viewers, which is roughly $7 per viewer for ESPN for those three games.
To use that tired chestnut, we know what you are, Mr. Warren. We’re just haggling over the fee.