The College Football Playoff is built to expand.
While only three games determine a champion, the current format is seven games: Two semifinals, a title game and four marquee bowls. To convert a four-team playoff into a 12-team version requires four more games and about three more weeks.
The four-team model is already scheduled for 2024 and ’25 seasons, but conference commissioners who manage the CFP are working to flip the format for those years.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of pieces,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said earlier this month after a meeting of the management committee in Dallas.
True, but the framework is there.
Expanding for the 2024 and ’25 seasons — and accessing an additional $450 million in revenue over those two years —- largely hinges upon whether the semifinals and championship games can be pushed back from their existing dates, with venue availability, big-event accommodations and television windows all lined up.
“It’s the calendar,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said. “It’s when are we going to play these games?”
The NFL schedule will play a huge role in determining when games will be played in a 12-team format for both 2024 and ’25 and beyond.
A warning to college football fans: Be prepared playoff games on weeknights.
The four new first-round games to be played on campus will be played at least 12 days after the conference championship games, currently played the first weekend of December. This gives teams that play for their conference titles extra rest and keeps Army-Navy as the only major college football game on tap the second weekend of December.
The NFL steers clear of the first two Saturdays in December in deference to college football, but that’s it. Starting the third weekend of December, the CFP can expect the NFL to play multiple Saturday games through mid-January and the first two weekends of its playoffs.
The CFP will either relinquish scheduling games on Saturday or risk going head-to-head with the NFL. There are Thursday night NFL games streaming on Amazon to consider, too, and the NFL is basically unrivaled in drawing American viewers.
“It’s just such a ratings behemoth,” said Bob Thompson, former president of Fox Sports Network.
There have been 18 college football playoff semifinals. Five have drawn television audiences of more than 20 million viewers. The rest ranged from 15.7 million to 19.5 million.
Last year, ESPN’s NFL regular-season Monday Night Football games averaged 14.2 million viewers and NBC’s Sunday Night Football averaged 18.5 million.
Maybe the CFP can place a first-round game or two onto the third Saturday in December when NFL games would likely be carried by the NFL Network.
“I think if I’m a network, I’m saying, ‘If you’re going to mandate that we go up against an NFL game, I know that my rating is going to be down so I’m not going to bid as much,’” Thompson said.
But that’s a reality to be dealt with no matter when the CFP expands, not a reason to avoid early expansion.
For the 2024 and ’25 seasons, the CFP quarterfinals in a 12-team format would be played in the non-playoff New Year’s Six bowls already scheduled on and around Jan. 1.
This should be a relatively easy switch.
In fact, the existing bowl lineup for those two years provides some help toward the expansion effort. Neither the Rose nor Sugar bowls would have to be moved off their contractually bound Jan. 1 time slots. The other two games might need their dates changed, but only by a few days.
Here’s where things get potentially complicated. For example, in the 2024-25 season:
— The semifinals are scheduled to be played at the Cotton and Orange bowls on Saturday, Dec. 28. To remain semifinals in a 12-team format, those games would likely need to be played no earlier than Wednesday, Jan. 8.
The NFL schedule again squeezes what’s available to the CFP. The NFL’s wild card weekend would be Jan. 11-12, 2025. Ideally, the CFP would play its semifinals that weekend or Monday, Jan. 13 — but the NFL’s expanded wild-card round now has six games, including one Monday night.
— That would leave Thursday, Jan. 9, and Friday, Jan. 10, as the best dates for the CFP semifinals to be played in North Texas and South Florida, both in stadiums used by NFL teams.
— The championship game for that season was recently awarded to Atlanta and scheduled for Monday, Jan. 6. That would likely need to be bumped back two weeks, to Monday, Jan. 20.
Hosting the CFP championship also requires more than an available football stadium.
Hotel space is needed for teams, media and thousands of fans from out of town. Plus, the CFP schedules events in and around the host city leading up to the championship, trying to give it a Super Bowl feel.
“So you need to look at the convention center for Playoff Fan Central. Local parks for potential concert venues. What could media day look like? It’s a variety of different checks related to availability that would really determine the feasibility of it,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission in Florida. Tampa hosted the 2017 CFP final.
Higgins said ideally major events such as a CFP championship are scheduled three to seven years out.
“However, a more compressed timeline could still be possible if hotels and facilities can be made available by the host,” he said.
The CFP management committee meets again next week near Chicago. On Wednesday, the 2024 semifinals will be exactly two years and three months away.