Push to Expand College Football Playoff Stumbles

INDIANAPOLIS — The College Football Playoff’s ambitions for expansion stalled on Monday, when the sport’s leading power brokers proved unable to agree on a plan almost seven months after some of them publicly proposed a 12-team format.

The playoff, which currently features four teams each season, could still grow in the coming years and inject hundreds of millions of dollars a year more into the richest conferences in college sports. But the addition of games as soon as the 2024 season is increasingly unlikely after months of turmoil, with the negotiations complicated at different moments by disputes over potential compositions of the playoff field, fears of protracted seasons and mistrust that flowed from a surprise round of conference membership shuffles.

Three days of meetings in Indianapolis, where the playoff’s 11-person management committee convened ahead of Monday night’s national championship game between top-ranked Alabama and No. 3 Georgia, ended hours before the game without the unanimity required to make significant changes to the playoff.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Groundhog Day’?” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said after the meetings wrapped up on Monday.

Most commissioners and college leaders left through alternative exits or brushed past reporters, directing them to speak with Bill Hancock, the playoff’s executive director, and Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, the chairman of the playoff’s board of managers — the panel of university presidents and chancellors who oversee the management committee.

Bowlsby, though, could not contain his exasperation.

Although he did not slam the door on a resolution that would increase the size of the playoff before the current agreement’s expiration at the end of the 2025 season, Bowlsby suggested that the chances for a speedy agreement were vanishing. He signaled that at least some opponents to the 12-team proposal appeared intractable so far.

“Let me just say there’s more parochiality than there needs to be,” said Bowlsby, the longest-tenured commissioner of a Power 5 conference. “Everybody is more concerned about their own silo than everybody else’s,” he added, noting that former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, who died in 2018, put aside their leagues’ concerns nearly a decade ago and supported a playoff. “That hasn’t happened this time.”

There are three recently appointed conference commissioners: the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, who replaced Delany two years ago, as well as the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff and the Atlantic Coast’s Jim Phillips, who took their positions last year.

They were among those taken aback when a plan developed by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, Bowlsby, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick was sprung last June on other committee members (and the public) as something of a fait accompli.

The objections centered around several subjects. One was the size of the playoff field; Phillips, for example, said recently he would only support an expansion to eight teams, and he was not in favor of any changes until any changes in the N.C.A.A. constitution are confirmed, which could happen next week. Other worries were related to how many berths would be guaranteed and what would happen to existing bowls.

Sankey, who spoke with reporters more than an hour after Monday’s final meeting broke up, said he found it perturbing that conferences who beat the drum to expand three years ago were now objecting to a proposal to do just that.

“I genuinely never assumed this would just be a rubber stamp, but I also know that when issues are identified, there has to be a resolve to work to solutions and there have to be solutions identified,” said Sankey, who would not identify which commissioners he was speaking about.

He also said that if the negotiations went back to the start, there would be no guarantee that the SEC, the dominant league in college football, would be willing to make whatever concessions it was willing to make now.

Any optimism for change was built around the enormous financial windfall that a larger tournament would deliver to the leagues. There are also substantial frustrations with the current system, which debuted with the 2014 season and replaced the Bowl Championship Series.

Thirteen universities have made playoff appearances in the four-team format, and some of them, like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, have repeatedly been contenders. (The 2017 season ended with an Alabama-Georgia title game as well.)

Also, entire conferences — indeed, most of the ones that run the playoff — have always or regularly been excluded. This season was the first time that a Group of Five league had a team earn a playoff berth, when Cincinnati was ranked fourth. Central Florida was excluded in 2017 and 2018 despite undefeated regular seasons, just like Cincinnati was in 2020.

“Having only four teams in the C.F.P. is a broken system,” Kliavkoff, the Pac-12 commissioner, complained in an interview last year, when his league still had a shot of reaching the playoff for the first time since 2016.

“Just the way it’s set up, it’s designed — and I don’t think it was on purpose or malignant — but it was designed for the rich to get richer,” he added. “If you got invited to the C.F.P. in one of the first few years, it makes it easier to recruit, which makes it easier to get back to the C.F.P., which makes it easier to recruit, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

But Kliavkoff was among the figures who voiced misgivings about a 12-team system’s development by just four college football leaders.

In addition to concerns around the games and competition formats, some administrators were concerned that the leagues would sacrifice millions of dollars if the playoff expanded before its television deal could hit the open market. Deepening tensions, a new wave of private maneuvering and open sniping consumed college sports after Oklahoma and Texas announced plans to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. The Big 12 soon lured Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston from the American Athletic Conference, as well as Brigham Young.

If and when the playoff expands, a new rights deal could make it the most lucrative event in all of college sports, surpassing even the N.C.A.A.’s Division I men’s basketball tournament.

The playoff and its three games each season are currently included in a 12-year deal with ESPN worth more than $5.6 billion. Consultants estimate that an expanded tournament of 11 games a season would attract more than $1 billion a year in television rights alone; by comparison, the rights for last year’s N.C.A.A.’s men’s basketball tournament, a 67-game showcase, pulled in more than $850 million.

Television rights are just part of what an expanded playoff could fetch. Combined with sponsorships and ticketing, the 12-team format could offer more than $2 billion in annual income, according to a projection by Navigate, a sports business consultancy.

Asked what it said about the process that an agreement on something as simple as a playoff format could not be reached, Keenum, the Mississippi State president, said it was not simple.

“For the average lay person, if you will, the sports fan, yeah, why not?” Keenum said. “Twelve teams. 16 teams. 32 teams. Whatever teams. How big a deal is that?”

But, he noted, there were complex matters to be resolved. “It’s not just one school or one conference,” he said. “You’ve got schools across the country that have a stake in this.”

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