Column: Why won’t the College Football Playoff expand beyond four teams? Money

By Blair Kerkhoff - The Kansas City Star

ATLANTA (McClatchey) — A College Football Playoff bracket larger than the current four-team setup would be a more fair determination of the national champion and more fun. Ohio State, Central Florida and others deserved a spot at the table.

But today’s financial realities make it difficult for this to happen any time soon.

The four-team playoff, which concluded Monday night, is here to stay, likely through the end of the original 12-year contract with ESPN that runs through 2025.

This is a business decision, on several fronts, starting with ESPN.

The sports cable behemoth paid $7.3 billion for the playoff and is squeezing every drop from this game. There are 20 ways to take in Bama-Dawgs on ESPN, its sister networks and the ESPN app. Last year’s Clemson-Alabama championship game was ESPN’s highest-rated program in 2017. This is the network’s biggest night.

But ESPN isn’t about to make the cash infusion it would take to grow the bracket by games and weeks. In this way, the CFP is like the Big 12 two years ago when it contemplated expansion.

By contract, current Big 12 members weren’t going to receive a smaller cut if new schools were added to the conference. Expansion would have meant broadcast partners would have had to deep digger in their pockets. With cable numbers shrinking and ESPN and Fox laying off staff, TV rights, especially for property that’s already popular, isn’t exactly a growth industry.

Lack of funding plays another roll, this one with the participants.

Not the schools, conferences, coaches or staff. They’re all well-compensated for success. Alabama’sNick Saban is an $11 million coach. The SEC figures to clear $70 million from the CFP to distribute to its teams, the Big 12 at $60 million. The Big Ten, which didn’t have a team selected to the semifinals, will make $89.5 million from postseason payouts.

Not making any more from playing additional games are the players.

College athletes won a huge victory in 2015 when the wealthiest conferences voted to strengthen the value of a scholarship. Full cost of attendance added hundreds of dollars each month to players’ bank accounts.

But asking football players to complete in additional games, pushing a season total to perhaps as many as 16 games — an NFL regular season — without additional compensation would likely be met with resistance.

And the added risk of torn ACLs, concussions and other injuries serves as a distinctive for NFL hopefuls in the playoffs who begin preparing for the draft immediately after the season.

Add a weekend or two to the football schedule and the regular-season probably has to drop by a game, or conference championship games — a cash cow — would have to be eliminated. That’s not likely to happen.

These financial arguments stack on top of ones we’ve heard for years. An expanded playoff, whether it incorporated bowls or home field, would become a burden to fans. The game already has a crowded December with award ceremonies, exams and the holiday season. Would the bowls, available to many more teams than a playoff, be harmed?

Despite the obstacles, a larger playoff bracket should become college football’s long-term goal. Conference champions should be included. Central Florida’s situation has resonated in college football. The team that beat the team — Auburn — that defeated both of Monday night’s participants deserves a playoff shot.

All of this speaks to fairness, which college football had never been about. The NFL strives for equality with its salary cap, draft and scheduling.

College football is just the opposite. Spend what you desire on facilities, salaries and recruiting, and schedule to win. No league takes more advantage of these conditions than the SEC. Alabama and Georgia fly the same conference flag but you wouldn’t know it from their regular-season matchups. Monday marked their seventh meeting in 27 years.

More participants would make college football more equal opportunity and produce a truer champion. Four teams, a good transition from the Bowl Championship Series era, aren’t enough. But it’s all the sport can afford at the moment.


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By Blair Kerkhoff

The Kansas City Star