Opinion: Expanding College Football Playoff could be how programs find needed money

It wasn’t a surprise to see that an overwhelming majority of athletics directors would be in favor of expanding the College Football Playoff, according to an anonymous survey published this week by Stadium.

As good as the four-team playoff has been in expanding interest and generating revenue for the 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the system’s inherent flaws – leaving out at least one of the five power conference champions and further stratifying a small group of elite programs from everyone else – would eventually create an organic push to include more teams. The only question was how long it would take for conference commissioners and college presidents to get on board.

But now the conversation has a new wild card: The economic fallout for athletic departments that are going to be cutting expenses and looking for ways to expand revenue once the coronavirus pandemic is over. 

One of the most obvious ways to make more money? Expand the playoff, something 85 of the 112 respondents said they already favored. 

Eighty-five of 112 athletics directors surveyed this week by Stadium said they would be in favor of expanding the College Football Playoff.

Does that mean a decision of that magnitude is going to happen this summer or even within the next year? Unlikely. As you might have heard, college presidents are dealing with a few other more pressing issues at the moment. 

But just think about it logically.

Even in the best-case scenario, the economics of college athletics are going to change significantly as a result of what’s happened over the past month. For athletic departments with big-time football programs, the loss of a few million dollars from having to cancel the NCAA basketball tournament and other spring sports is not a major issue. Some of them even have reserve funds built up that can cover shortfalls during the current fiscal year. 

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The bigger concern, however, can be seen over the horizon as college athletics officials contemplate a world in which COVID-19 is largely gone but its impact on the larger economy presents a cascading series of problems. 

Some percentage of regular ticket-buying fans, either because they have less discretionary income or lingering concerns about going into big crowds, won’t be back. Some local businesses that have supported athletic programs through sponsorship agreements over the years could very well be lost. While officials are hopeful that a football season will be played, the impact of any decision to shorten it or play without fans or limit attendance due to social distancing would cost millions.

In a call with reporters Friday, Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith speculated that the financial fallout would be more significant than the 2009 recession. As Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione said one day earlier: “At minimum, it’s going to impact us in a noticeable way.” 

Different programs are going to have different remedies to deal with that. Iowa State was the first to announce 10% pay cuts and forgiveness of bonus money for the next year, a measure Louisville subsequently implemented for coaches and senior staff. The Big 12 announced pay cuts this week, and Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott announced a 20% reduction in his own salary. Wisconsin announced that it would not pay for the approximately 35 current seniors in spring sports who would be eligible under a temporary NCAA waiver to come back next year. 

Anecdotally, all kinds of cost-saving measures are being bandied about in athletic departments across the country. From finding more regional games for non-revenue sports to basketball coaches having to cut back on the guarantee money they pay for non-conference games, everything will be on the table.

As Kansas State athletics director Gene Taylor said recently: “What are we going to learn that we can do without?”

At some point, though, schools are going to want to make some of that money back. And if you assume they won’t make it via ticket sales, donors, student fees or institutional support — all of which are likely to be squeezed for the foreseeable future — the last big pot of gold out there to tap into is the playoff. 

It’s hard to know, of course, what kind of financial impact an expanded playoff would actually have. The CFP is halfway through a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal with ESPN, and while it’s widely assumed that expanding the playoff would produce a windfall for the conferences in a contract renegotiation, others familiar with the television landscape have questioned the notion that ESPN is going to automatically shovel billions more dollars at college football for four quarterfinal games. Remember, an economic downturn could impact rights fees, too. 

There are also well-chronicled challenges of expanding the playoff. College presidents have often cited the difficulty of lining up the academic calendar with an expanded playoff as semester finals fall during that December window before bowl games. And assuming quarterfinal games would be held on campuses, securing all the hotel rooms and catering services and meeting space visiting teams would need on short notice in small college towns like Clemson, S.C., or Eugene, Ore., isn’t necessarily that easy. 

These aren’t insurmountable issues, but they are issues and it’ll take some work to figure that out. Plus, expanding the playoff would give NCAA critics more ammunition about whether they’re sacrificing the health and welfare of unpaid amateurs to line the pockets of coaches and administrators. 

But without a lot of other options to address budget problems that are going to crop up over the next year, it’s much easier to envision playoff expansion happening before the end of the current contract. As the survey showed, only a small handful of athletics directors need to be converted. Once presidents see the numbers their cash cow programs are no longer able to generate in a post-coronavirus world, they probably won’t be far behind.  

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