College Football Playoff’s Size Could Triple in Coming Years

Year after year, college sports leaders have come under pressure to modify the playoff system, which, in its current form, has guaranteed that at least one Power 5 conference would not be represented by a team each season. The system’s design has also led to sustained friction because it routinely shut out strong teams from less influential leagues like the American Athletic and Sun Belt Conferences.

Also, the playoff has not spurred interest in the game. Even before the pandemic, attendance across the country had declined for six consecutive years. TV ratings have also declined. And New Year’s Day, which had for decades had been a fixture of the college football season had become less relevant, anchored often by less meaningful bowl games.

The proposal “gives college football way to reassert New Years Day in a powerful way,” said Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 Commissioner.

It is not clear when the new strategy, if approved, would take effect, though changes are not expected for the next two seasons. Had the proposed system been in place for the 2020 season, the playoff would have included Alabama, Cincinnati, Clemson, Coastal Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Instead, the playoff featured only Alabama — the eventual champion — Clemson, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Just in April, the playoff said that members of the working group continued “to support and believe in the four-team playoff as it is currently constituted,” but that they were studying at least 63 models for the future. Those possibilities included fields of six, eight, 10, 12 and 16 teams.

The N.C.A.A., which governs the lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament, does not control the playoff. Instead, commissioners of the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences and Notre Dame’s athletic director largely run the competition, with ultimate power vested in a group of 11 university presidents and chancellors.

If the commissioners advance the proposal next week, the presidents and chancellors could decide as soon as this month to approve “feasibility assessments” and other planning steps toward an expanded playoff. They would likely review the results during a meeting planned for September.

The existing television rights agreement with ESPN, valued at more than $5.6 billion over its 12-year term, does not expire until the end of the 2025 season.

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