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The College Football Playoff Won't Expand Soon

A lot of folks think it'll go from a four to eight-team playoff in the near future. They're wrong.

Tom Pennington

The four-team bracket in the College Football Playoff is coming next year. However since before the thing was even finalized, plenty of people have been speculating that it won't stay at four teams for too long and will expand to eight in a few years' time. This very week, the predictions of playoff expansion have appeared again due to the playoff chaos scenario hidden inside the final BCS rankings.

I think the fact that the CFP contract spans 12 years is the organizers' primary attempt to convince people that they really do mean to leave the thing at a four-team playoff for a while. After all, they didn't choose to break the BCS's contract when they decided to go to a playoff. Everyone knew a playoff was coming in 2012 after the Alabama-LSU national title game, but they took their time and eventually chose to make the change after the final BCS contract expired.

In any event, I think money is going to be the primary reason the CFP bracket stays at four.

Yes, expanding from the BCS to a playoff is netting quite the windfall. Right now, the power conferences get $23.6 million every year from the BCS and receive an extra $6.3 million for putting a second team into the system. Beginning next year, on average they'll get at least $91 million annually. Thanks to details in the Orange Bowl contract, the SEC and Big Ten are guaranteed to receive an extra $27.5 million at least three times apiece in the dozen years. Part of that is due to one less mouth to feed, as there will only be five power leagues instead of six, but the majority is simply because the CFP is a very lucrative enterprise.

So yes, the playoff is very valuable. It's an average of $470 million per year valuable, though thanks to escalators it starts off well below that figure and finishes up well above it in the end. However there is something far more valuable than the playoff: the regular season.

Going off of these figures from ESPN's website, the five major conferences collectively receive an average of $1.14 billion per year for all of their television rights. This figure includes the old SEC contract, by the way; no details have leaked yet for what it's going to get from ESPN in light of its negotiations that led to the SEC Network. Some amount of that total is for basketball, but it's not much. The Big Ten has some of its basketball rights (the valuable ones, basically) in a contract with CBS, and it's worth an average of $12 million annually. That's a drop in the overall $248.2 million average annual Big Ten bucket.

It's fairly safe to say, based on those Big Ten splits, that regular season college football is worth on average about $1 billion or more to the five major conferences annually. As big a windfall as the playoff is, it's worth less than half of that per year.

The best part about that regular season money is that it's guaranteed. Some amount of postseason money will always be owed to these leagues provided they structure the contracts that way, but some part of it is always going to be variable based on who participates. Some part of it, in other words, is out of conference commissioners' control. Mere loss aversion alone suggests that conference commissioners and university presidents will find it more palatable to lean more heavily on guaranteed regular season revenue than on variable postseason revenue.

After all, it's not all additive. At some point, if you expand the postseason enough then the regular season will go down in value. The extreme example of this is college basketball, where March Madness is worth an average of $771.4 million annually. Extrapolating from what we know of the Big Ten's annual basketball income, regular season basketball is worth nowhere near that.

I don't know where the inflection point is where adding to the postseason makes the regular season decline in value, but we already see a hint of pushback from the TV guys in CBS's new deal with the SEC. It takes two to tango, after all, and expecting an even larger windfall for an eight-team system requires assuming that the TV networks will shell out for it. The CFP deal ends a couple of years before almost everyone's regular season rights deals will end. I'll bet ESPN and Fox wouldn't pay significantly more for an expanded playoff until then, when they at least have the option of bargaining down the value of the regular season rights deals a couple of years later.

Plus, consider the matter of conference television networks. They broadcast regular season football. They will never broadcast postseason football. Guess where conference commissioners are going to want to keep the lion's share of the value?

What is in the conference commissioners' best interest is to use the playoff and selection committee to provide strong incentive for schools to beef up their non-conference schedules. As Matt Zemek of College Football News likes to say, doing so would basically be like having some playoff games during the regular season. I personally am skeptical that they can pull it off. It would require leaving out a worthy (by the conventional wisdom) team with a weak non-conference schedule for a less worthy (by the conventional wisdom) team with a strong non-confernce schedule. I think committee members value their non-valdalized houses and cars too much to actually do that, and besides, that very specific scenario won't come around every year.

In any event, I don't see that many powerful incentives to expand the playoff in the near term. What if we get a situation where someone is unhappy about being left out? So what? We saw that happen in the third year of the BCS, and that system lasted 13 more years. It's more likely that they'll tweak the parameters of the CFP rather than rush to make huge changes. The BCS formula changed almost annually until 2005, when we finally ended up with the present Coaches Poll-Harris Poll-computer poll average setup. Making small changes on the fly is more in the character of conference commissioners than making large changes on the fly.

Never is a long time, so I'm not going to rule out an eight team bracket before the end of time. However, it would be a very big surprise if the field expanded before the end of the CFP's current 12-year deal.