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The Case for Why College Football Doesn't Have to Worry About Bracket Creep

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There is one question I left off of my Q&A post from earlier because the answer was just too long:

What are the chances this thing stays at four teams indefinitely?

It's hard to say right now. Certainly there is always pressure for playoff systems to grow; I've yet to see one shrink in size. Just over 20 years ago, there was enough pressure for a more structured postseason that we got the Bowl Coalition. That then turned into the Bowl Alliance and finally the BCS. In recent years, there was enough pressure to expand the postseason that we now have a four-team playoff. There will always be pressure to make it bigger. The Mountain West stumped for a 16-team system this time around, and the I-AA playoffs (for instance) have 20 teams.

That said, the sport's leadership essentially laid out their plans to combat bracket creep during yesterday's press conference.

Jim Delany said the conference commissioners explored playoff formats similar to pro sports and NCAA men's basketball. He concluded the point by saying, "We think the more robust the postseason is, the more negative effects it has on the regular season. And right now, the regular season is the best in sports, and we intend to keep it that way."

A reporter asked Mike Slive if the length of the 12-year contract will keep the system from expanding. He replied, "I think that will contribute to it." He then explained that the conference commissioners looked at a 16-team playoff and an eight-team playoff and they all concluded that those systems "could not conform to the academic calendar." He then essentially repeated Delany's point about wanting to have a postseason format that enhances rather than detracts from the regular season.

As long as the leadership is serious about preserving the strength of the college football regular season, the playoff will not grow. Any major conference commissioner is likely to be serious about that for financial, and not just sentimental, reasons.

The up to $500 million a year for the four-team playoff sounds great, but that will get split among the major conferences, the mid-major conferences, independents, and even lower divisions. The ACC contract, the one so underwhelming that some people think that a few ACC member schools are beating on the door of the Big 12 now to get a raise, pays that league $240 million annually. The vast majority of that is for football.

Keeping the regular season strong means keeping regular season contracts that conferences get to keep the entirety of strong. Expanding the playoffs too far will cause the value of those regular season deals to fall. Maybe the expanded postseason money could make up for it, but again, that's a pie that gets split in many ways. It's better for the power leagues to focus on what they individually control completely, that being the regular season deals. Postseason money is icing on the cake, but make no mistake, the regular season football money is the cake.

The academic calendar argument is kind of a canard and kind of not. They don't truly care about athletes being out of class given how much time players in other sports miss, particularly basketball players during the tournaments. The lower divisions of football all hold playoffs larger than four teams. A larger playoff is doable without being more disruptive to academics than other sports' postseasons already are.

There is a calendar that they're concerned about, and it's that of the NFL playoffs.

The commissioners all want New Year's Day to be special in college football, which is why they're going to play the semifinal games on or right before it. It makes perfect sense because it's always been a big day for the sport and nearly everyone in the country has the day off of work. In order for it to truly be a big day, New Year's has to be either the beginning or the end of the playoffs. There's nothing special about a middle round. We know that they aren't going to end the playoff on January 1, because years of experience have shown that they have no interest in cutting off the season on that date.

However, they can't have a lot of rounds that begin on New Year's Day because then you're running into the NFL playoffs. The presidents and commissioners have enjoyed talking about how college football is the country's second-favorite sport in recent weeks, but No. 1 is the NFL. They can get away with staging the title game during the NFL wild card rounds because it's the title game, but going any later is really pushing it. College football has a long history of trying to avoid conflicts with the NFL. In years like this one when January 1 is a Sunday, no bowls are played against the slate of NFL games. Even the stuffy old Rose Bowl, which considers New Year's Day its property by birthright, pushes its game back to January 2.

Overall, I think the money argument is the stronger one than the scheduling argument. In fact, something the commissioners didn't talk about is perhaps the biggest reason why the regular season must stay strong: the advent of conference television networks.

The Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Networks, and the upcoming SEC Network will never broadcast playoff games. They will, however, broadcast a lot of regular season football games. The value in those networks is largely wrapped up in those games, as the non-marquee basketball regular season games they show have little value and the audiences for non-revenue sports are minuscule. If those networks are going to be worth having, they have to have valuable programming in the form of meaningful regular season football.

Notice that not one consideration I talked about here involves what fans want. They'll give fans what they want to an extent; the BCS is giving way to a playoff in large part because fans hate the BCS so much. However, they know that fans will ultimately go along with whatever they give them. The sport's popularity has only risen in spite of the BCS hatred, after all.

The bottom line is this: the guys that run the show have very large revenue streams from CBS, ESPN, Fox, and in some cases their own TV networks that they don't have to share with anyone else. Enlarging the playoff too much would mean they have to trade significant parts of those cash flows for a centralized money spigot (one that is likely to be smaller than the aggregate value of today's regular season deals) that gets divided up among many parties.

Now, tell me again why bracket creep is an issue?