College Football Playoff business is booming at halfway point, but expansion looms
The national championship game Monday night between Clemson and LSU marks the halfway point of one of the most valuable American sports media properties of the 21st century – the 12-year contract between ESPN and the College Football Playoff.
Six playoffs down, six to go. But then what? To assess what might be in store for the future, USA TODAY Sports took stock of the past six years and beyond, using financial documents and analysis from experts in television and sports media rights.
They show a financial enterprise that is operating so successfully that there seems to be just two logical paths forward – to leave well-enough alone or pursue additional growth through an expansion of the playoff from four to eight teams. Which will it be and what about the risks?
College Football Playoff by numbers
The Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Peach and Cotton bowls, plus the national championship game, paid out a combined $549 million to conferences and schools in 2018-19, according to NCAA documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
By comparison, the other 33 bowl games last season paid out a combined $99 million.
The New Year's Six bowl games are part of the playoff rotation that helps subsidize the bowl expenses of teams in lesser bowl games through revenue sharing with all 10 conferences and independents in major college football. For example, the combined bowl “profit” for all schools and conferences was $448 million in 2017-18 after subtracting combined bowl expenses, according to the most recently available expense forms.
“The CFP works, and the people in charge are happy with it,” playoff president Bill Hancock told USA TODAY Sports. “Having said that, my bosses are talking about the future and I expect they will continue to talk. It’s good and responsible management to address the future. But nothing is imminent.”
The playoff’s bottom line also dwarfs that of the previous system, known as the Bowl Championship Series. Under the BCS, the combined payout of those six games, plus the BCS championship, was $227 million during its last year of existence, in 2013-14. Most of that money, then and now, is due to ESPN, which is paying about $7.3 billion combined to televise those six bowl games, plus the championship, during the 12-year period.
NCAA past is sometimes prologue
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.
Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, told USA TODAY Sports he sees parallels. It’s because big sporting events are one of the few media properties that can bring together huge live audiences in an increasingly fragmented media world. That’s why ESPN pays what it does for the rights to televise them and why advertisers pay ESPN for the air time.
“Why are the rights fees going up? They’re going up because the properties have value,” Pilson said. “They have value because they match up their audience with their sponsors. The key word is efficiency. Sponsors wouldn’t buy the product, the games, if there was another better way to reach the audience that they want to sell to. They’d find the other way.”
Because of this, Pilson predicts a playoff expansion in the next contract, with new contract discussions to start about two or three years before the current deal expires after January 2026. Talks involving the current playoff contract started in 2011, about three years before the playoff started after the 2014 regular season, Hancock said.
“That may or may not be a guideline for the future,” Hancock said. “There’s just no timetable yet.”
More money for playoff expansion?
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.
That math pencils out in theory. But it still requires a media company, such as ESPN, to actually pony up that kind of money at a time when the traditional cable and TV industry is being disrupted by digital subscription powerhouses such as Netflix and Amazon. Before buying a more expensive playoff system, any television or media company will look at the risks of not being able to make that money back from advertisers and subscribers.
ESPN’s vice president for programming and acquisitions, Nick Dawson, said he can’t comment on what the future may hold after 2026 and declined to give financial details. But he described the first six years of the contract as “very successful” and said “I don’t see a lot of risks” for the remaining six years. He noted that the top four cable telecasts ever were CFP games, each with at least 28 million average viewers. The network, along with parent company Disney, have helped build interest through the Playoff's Selection Sunday and other programming. CFP games also represent eight of the top 11 most viewed cable telecasts of all time, ESPN said.
“The media landscape gets ever more challenging and complicated each year in terms of the number of choices fans have and what they want to consume,” Dawson said. “This event in particular has remained rock steady over now for over half a decade.”
Navigate Research, a firm that measures the impact of sponsorship deals in sports and entertainment, sees expansion as nearly a financial no-brainer. Expansion “will unquestionably yield more value, and the only real risk for media partners is miscalculating what that’s worth and paying too much for the incremental playoff games,” said Matt Balvanz, a senior vice president for Navigate. “Otherwise, we see no other real risks.”
Change still requires trade-offs
Other stakeholders in the current system might see downsides to tweaking the current four-team goose. For example, it could lengthen the season for some teams, up to 16 games, and could end up stretching the season well into a second semester, in January.
Then again, teams in the NCAA’s Championship Subdivision already do that with a 24-team tournament that started Nov. 30 and plays through Jan. 11. North Dakota State and James Madison play their 16th game that day for that subdivision’s national title.
From a larger business standpoint, playoff expansion at the major college level could further divide the 40-game postseason system into games that count vs. consolation games. Depending on how the revenue is shared, it also could further widen the gap between the rich and poor of college sports.
The current system is governed by the CFP Board of Managers, an 11-person panel with members from each of the 10 conferences in the Bowl Subdivision, plus Notre Dame. Five of those members represent leagues that have never played in the playoff. Another member represents a league, the Pac-12, that has only played in it twice in six years and none of the past three.
If inclusion is the objective, expansion would benefit that majority of six. It also would lower the volume on the inevitable annual controversies that arise over which teams were not included. The current system similarly answered demands to settle the national championship on the field instead of previous systems that used subjective voting and computer formulas with no tournament.
“The power conferences being left out, it hurts them, and it hurts their brand,” said Joel Lulla, a lecturer at the University of Texas and sports media expert who previously worked on legal and business matters for ABC Sports and IMG. “It hurts a lot of things to be left out of the Playoff. I think they’ll end up expanding after the current term but not before.”
The chairman of the CFP Board of Managers, Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State, declined comment through a spokesman.
The current contract runs through the 2025-2026 bowl season. ESPN also has been in talks to take over future regular-season TV rights to Southeastern Conference games at a price tag that could top $300 million a year, up from the $55 million annually the league gets from CBS, according to Sports Business Journal. Adding that and a bigger playoff would be an expensive investment. But if ESPN doesn’t buy into an expansion, it also risks missing out on more “must-see” games that could bring an even bigger return.
ESPN made a similar bet when it helped replace the old BCS with the current four-team bracket. Looking back at the viewership size of the first six playoffs, Dawson said, “Those are audiences that just don’t exist in many other places in terms of size and scale.”
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org