As conference commissioners gathered in Dallas last week to discuss the four-team college football playoff that begins this season, CBSSports.com released a poll that made them seem so yesterday.
Of 27 athletic directors from Football Bowl Subdivision schools who responded to an informal poll — 35 were asked, some didn’t reply — 15 indicated that they think the playoffs will expand to eight teams in the next 10 years.
This is probably a good place to hit pause. The question wasn’t whether this would occur within 100 years, 50 years or even 20. Fifteen athletic directors indicated they think it will happen in 10 years, which means it could happen even sooner. That doesn’t mean it will happen. It does mean opinions seem to be changing.
For most of the 16 years that the Bowl Championship Series crowned the sport’s champion by choosing two teams to meet in a title game, most college officials steadfastly defended it as the best system for college football. The idea of having four teams make the playoffs was made to seem too radical: players can’t miss more classes, schools can’t afford to undermine a bowl system that has been good to them, logistics are too difficult, the sky is blue, etc.
The rare college administrator who dared to discuss eight-team playoffs either had to be a radical or from a mid-major that couldn’t make the top two with a team that could beat the Green Bay Packers.
Now that the expanded playoff cat finally has wriggled its way out of the bag, there’s no way to get that snarling, scratching feline back in. Change is coming at college administrators from every direction — more power to the five biggest FBS leagues, more money from television, a louder outcry over the bazillion dollars in profits not being shared with the players, a union for athletes — and it’s hard to know exactly where it all will lead.
It’s not hard to imagine that college football is probably going to look a lot different in 10 years than it does now. Money is a driving force. ESPN’s 12-year, $5.6 billion deal for broadcast rights to the playoffs pays out about $290 million more annually than schools got under the BCS system, and it doesn’t take a math major to know that seven playoff games are worth more than three.
Schools are already getting increasing amounts of revenue from their leagues. The Lafayette (Ind.) Journal and Courier reported this week that 11 Big Ten schools (excluding relative newcomer Nebraska) will receive around $27 million each from television agreements, NCAA distributions, bowls and the league’s football championship game and the men’s basketball tournament this year. The amount is projected to be $35.5 million by the 2016-17 school year.
Spending it won’t be a problem. Player stipends and health benefits are on the horizon, and potential NCAA lawsuit losses in amateurism cases will likely create the need for money, and expanded playoffs are a quick and easy solution.
Wisconsin athletic director and playoff selection committee member Barry Alvarez is one who told CBS that he can’t see the playoffs expanding beyond four teams. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was one of two athletic directors in the poll who said that he didn’t know, which, because of all of the uncertainly, is probably the smart answer.
Smith said that for that to happen, “a lot has to change to the bowl system, and television partner relationships to protect the value of the regular season.” And then again, we’re already seeing changes that coaches and administrators wouldn’t have thought possible 10 years ago.
Four college football teams will make the playoffs at the end of the season.
If we had believed all denials before, this could never happen.
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.