Why an eight-team College Football Playoff could come to pass sooner than we expect
Competitive pressures and pure dollars may bring an eight-team CFP into existence sooner than later
The College Football Playoff will eventually expand to eight teams within the length of the current contract and be worth at least $10 billion, former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson predicted in a conversation with CBS Sports this week.
Pilson was reacting, in part, to the regionalized nature of Monday's CFP National Championship between No. 2 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama.
"I think, from a television point of view, any sports executive would tell you he would prefer a team from the different part of the country," said Pilson, now a longtime sports media consultant.
"The best would be a Big Ten team in terms of the size of market."
For the first time in the CFP's brief four-year history, a Big Ten team did not make the field. The Big Ten "footprint" -- its dominant area of interest in the Midwest and Northeast -- includes a quarter of the U.S population.
Also for the first time, two teams from one conference (SEC) are in the playoff. While that's a bonanza for the schools, the SEC, the South and the site of the game (Atlanta), one TV consultant said this could be the lowest-rated game in CFP history.
"There will be some people who probably won't watch it because it's all-SEC," said the consultant, who didn't want to be identified. "It has the potential [to be the lowest rated]."
Low ratings could be one of the stressors that leads the CFP to expand, Pilson said. Former Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas told CBS Sports this week that the Power Five commissioners met following the Jan. 10, 2012, BCS Championship Game rematch between LSU and Alabama.
The rating for that game, 14.0, was the lowest for a national title game since at least 2010.
"We met the day after the game and said, 'We need to look at a different system,'" Neinas related.
Out of that meeting emerged the beginnings of the CFP that debuted in 2014.
There has been growing consternation this season that the only undefeated FBS team (UCF) was left out now that it has defeated an Auburn team that beat both finalists by a combined 35 points. Nevertheless, CFP administration and Power Five commissioners have said repeatedly there is no momentum to expand the field.
However, Pilson firmly believes the bracket will double to eight when the current ESPN-CFP contract expires after the 2026 playoff.
He also said he expects the current 12-year, $7.2 billion contract between ESPN and the CFP to be reopened before that date. Conservatively, Pilson expects rights fees would increase 50 percent to at least $10 billion if the CFP field was doubled.
"I think, from a competitive point of view, ESPN is going to focus on major packages," Pilson said. "The most major of the ESPN packages is college football and the College Football Playoff. It would make sense for ESPN."
Senior officials at both ESPN and the CFP would not comment on Pilson's assertions. As a sports media consultant, it is believed Pilson doesn't have any influence over those contract negotiations.
However, he was once one of the most powerful figures in sports television serving two terms as CBS Sports president -- 1981-83 and 1986-95.
"If I were running ESPN -- and I'm glad I'm not -- I would be exploring the advantages of a larger playoff," Pilson said. "I'm sure they've looked at it.
Pilson does have a recollection of proposing an eight-team college football playoff as CBS Sports head in 1992.
"It was turned down," Pilson said. "But I've always believed that the eight-team format is better then the four. I think they'll get there."
Another consultant doubted whether going to eight would be that easy.
"There's too many factors in play, not just the current TV deal," the consultant said. "The biggest component is trying to go back and try to tear something down and start over. You have to go figure out the Rose Bowl again. That's not easy to figure out."
Both the BCS and CFP had to convince the Rose Bowl and its partners -- the Big Ten and Pac-12 -- to be part of the system. Especially with the BCS, that process wasn't easy. The Rose had to make the conscious decision to give up its annual matchup with the Big Ten and (formerly) Pac-10.
Expanding the CFP would bring a discussion about player safety. An eight-team bracket would mean the two finalists would be playing the length of an NFL regular season, 16 games.
Commissioners aren't likely to cut back on conference championship games or the 12-game regular season.
"These conferences keep 100 percent of conference championship money," one consultant said. "Let's say they get $140 million for another round of games, split five ways. It's a net loss for them [to cancel the conference championships]."
For example, the Big 12 was more than happy this season splitting more than $30 million alone after reinstituting its conference title game.
Short of individual star appeal, the Alabama brand name may be best ratings boost for the game. Television pays for brand names. The ACC rights are worth so much because of North Carolina-Duke. The same with the Big Ten and Michigan-Ohio State.
"Getting a team from the Northeast wouldn't make a difference," Pilson said. "Getting a team from the Pac-12 wouldn't make a difference, either. The matchup you'd like to have is a traditional Southern power like Alabama with Ohio State or Michigan.
"Having said that, the Oklahoma game was so exciting. … The most important factor will be the score. Just like Oklahoma-Georgia, you saw those ratings increase as the game went along. There are half a dozen schools in football and basketball that are the traditional power schools. Georgia doesn't have quite the name appeal as Alabama has. I've got to emphasize that game at the Rose Bowl made Georgia."
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