An expanded College Football Playoff could save college sports, but not in this greedy, imbalanced era


In 1960, Northwestern athletic director Stu Holcomb got a wild idea: A playoff in college football!

The former Purdue football coach was a fan of the tournaments that were taking root in sports such as basketball and baseball, and he wanted something similar for the most popular college sport. He envisioned an eight-team venture including the champions of the AAWU (the future Pac-10), ACC, Big 8, Big Ten, SEC and SWC, plus two at-larges (possibly selected among the powerful independents of the time), and he suggested that some of the revenue such a tournament would generate could be diverted to the American Olympic Fund and other worthy causes such as medical research. “It would be a wonderful thing if such a tournament could come about,” Holcomb told The Associated Press.

Needless to say, the idea went nowhere. It earned a couple of rounds of newspaper headlines and plenty of positive and hilariously negative responses from newspaper columnists, but it vanished from the papers by the middle of the year. Talk of a college football playoff wouldn’t really resume until Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty picked up the mantel a few years later. Still, viewed from a present-day lens, it was a surprisingly noble proposal. Playing some extra football games to both determine a true national champion and raise money for good causes? As naive as the proposal might have been, what’s not to admire about that?

Granted, the current College Football Playoff, which came into existence more than 50 years after Holcomb’s proposal (and with half the teams), does end up sending a lot of money to Olympic sports in the form of funds for college teams. However, the newly expanded playoff — 12 teams in 2024-25, then, as recently rumored, likely 14 teams in the years that follow — offers a similarly noble opportunity: to ensure there are as many athletic departments as possible ready to fund the athlete compensation that is coming down the pike in one form or another.

Instead, that money is going to be used to make sure the SEC and Big Ten expand their financial advantages over everyone else.

In December, NCAA president Charlie Baker proposed rule changes that would, for the first time, allow Division I schools to pay their athletes. “[It] is time for us — the NCAA — to offer our own forward-looking framework,” he said. “This framework must sustain the best elements of the student-athlete experience for all student-athletes, build on the financial and organizational investments that have positively changed the trajectory of women’s sports, and enhance the athletic and academic experience for student-athletes who attend the highest resourced colleges and universities.” The proposal was loose with specifics, but the general idea was that schools in a newly created subdivision would pay at least $30,000 per athlete per year for at least half their athletes, and those payments would be split equally between male and female athletes.

Baker’s proposal was clearly an attempt to head off what the court system could be sending the NCAA’s way in the coming years. It faces athlete unionization efforts, antitrust lawsuits, fair labor lawsuits and state law changes, all of which are guiding (or shoving) it toward a player compensation model of some sort. For years, its only strategies were stalling at all costs or begging Congress for help. Baker’s maneuver might not end up being enough, but it was the first progressive step the NCAA has taken on this matter, well, ever.

Now, let’s do some back-of-the-napkin math. Depending on how many sports a Division I program offers (and whether it offers payments to all of its athletes or just the prescribed half), such a plan would theoretically cost athletic departments between $4 million and $12 million per year at minimum. Considering that the most recent figures from USA Today’s financial database (for public universities only) show 49 public D-I programs took in revenue of at least $100 million in 2022-23, this would not be a particularly high bar for many major athletic programs to clear, even if it takes a little bit of reconfiguring in terms of other salaries, building projects, et cetera. But considering nearly two-thirds of the programs at that level took in less than $40 million in revenue, this would be an impossibility for quite a few other universities, at least without cutting quite a few sports teams.

While we wait for official details from the forthcoming CFP television contract, considering a 12-team CFP was set to draw something around $1.3 billion annually, it’s fair to assume a 14-teamer, with two extra first-round games, could be worth something like $1.5 billion, about $900 million of which would be new and uncommitted funds. If divided equally among all 363 Division I programs, that would average out to $4.1 million per school, $3.4 million of which would be from uncommitted funds. If distributed to only the 261 D-I schools with football programs, that’s $5.7 million per school ($3.4 million uncommitted). FBS schools only? $11.1 million per school ($6.7 million uncommitted). Come up with a blend of the options there, and you could cover the vast majority, if not all, of the potential costs from a $30,000-per-athlete plan.

Put another way, this expanded playoff could pay for the future of college sports. And if the money doesn’t quite work, then let’s be honest: 14 teams is a really silly number for a tournament — proposed by the SEC and Big Ten to assure that there are two extra at-large bids for them to nab, plus only two byes (that their champions would frequently earn) — when 16 is right there. So let’s make it 16. That likely adds another $100 million to $200 million to the overall annual pool. Hell, make it an FCS-style 24 teams if you want. And go ahead and sign off on that NCAA basketball tournament expansion, too — we’ve got noble intentions here! (Or at least, whatever the “college sports making lots of money” version of “noble” is.)

Every current conversation about the future of college sports hints at some foreboding universe in which paying athletes forces universities to drop sports and maybe accidentally destroys college athletics altogether. Those conversations are almost certainly overwrought — and the way administrators continue to threaten the health of women’s sports in particular as a sort of “listen to us, or else!” threat in the compensation conversation continues to be particularly gross — but here’s a glorious, billion-dollar workaround. It could pave the way toward a bright future.

This, of course, is not what’s going to happen. The commissioners of the expanded SEC and Big Ten, Greg Sankey and Tony Pettiti, are using this conversation as an occasion to extort concessions from the rest of FBS.

In the current CFP deal, each power conference gets 16% of the set CFP revenue distribution, while the five other conferences and independents split the remaining 20% between them. There is also a pool of money distributed directly to schools that qualify for the playoff. Even if every FBS program made the same share of the guaranteed distribution money moving forward, the SEC and Big Ten would be positioned to make far more annual revenue than the rest of the pack because of their lucrative media rights deals and the fact that, with their powerful lineups, they will claim a large percentage of CFP bids.

That’s not enough for them, however. They’re also demanding a much higher percentage of set revenue — recent reporting suggests the SEC and Big Ten will now combine for about 57% of the guaranteed purse, while the ACC and Big 12 (and Notre Dame) combine for about 34% and the Group of 5 teams and remaining independent will now split 9%. Basically, G5s will get a slight increase in overall revenue, while the Big Ten and SEC increase their take by about 280% when, again, they had a baked-in advantage to begin with.

A good business brain would tell you that the new Power 2 had massive leverage, the Big 12 and ACC had little, and the Group of 5 had none, so this was just how a proper negotiation should go. Zero-sum gains and all. But this is a brand-new revenue stream, one that everyone could benefit significantly from, and this doesn’t have to be zero-sum — why is anyone applying leverage at all? And how much money do you actually need, anyway? Even bad SEC and Big Ten teams will now make about $21 million annually from the CFP while good G5 teams will make $1.8 million. It probably goes without saying that an Ohio needs $21 million a lot more than an Ohio State, but hey, the Buckeyes have the “leverage.” Infuriating, isn’t it?

We talk a big game about how [insert topic of the day that we don’t like] is going to destroy college football. Conference realignment … a small playoff … a big playoff … head injuries … targeting penalties designed to cut down head injuries … players making money. If you don’t like some change, you declare it the death of the sport. These declarations have been right 0% of the time. Maybe I’m wrong this time, too. But to me, the biggest current threat to college football’s future is the richest programs starving the rest of the ecosystem and, in effect, relegating the rest of major college football by ensuring they don’t have the revenue to properly pay their athletes.

Want to actually do long-term damage to college football? Shrink the number of programs that aspire to big-time ball, force some others to maybe drop a subdivision (or drop football altogether) and shrink the number of overall scholarships available to play the sport (or any of the sports that might see teams dropped in droves). The SEC and Big Ten already have all the advantages. They already boast most of the programs capable of winning the national title, and if or when Florida State and Clemson (and maybe Miami) fight their way out of the ACC, they’ll pretty much have them all. But right now, there are 134 universities willing to shell out 85 scholarships per year, plus plenty of other benefits, and invest millions of dollars just to be part of the FBS club, make a little more money for their other programs, and hopefully go .500 and play in a minor bowl game.

Inequality has always ruled this sport, but there has always been room for anyone who wants to invest. Iowa State averaged more than 60,000 in home attendance last season. NC State, its fans having never witnessed a top-10 finish, averaged nearly 57,000. East Carolina averaged over 35,000 while going 2-10. UConn hasn’t had a winning season since 2010 and averaged nearly 25,000. New Mexico State has finished over .500 in just seven of its past 56 seasons in top-division college football and drew nearly 15,000 per game. None of these schools are long-term threats to LSU or Michigan. Maybe those attendance levels wouldn’t drop in a world where NMSU or UConn or ECU — or even NC State or Iowa State — are forced to play ball in a different subdivision because they can’t afford to pay what the SEC or Big Ten is paying (though it probably bears mentioning that over the past four seasons that weren’t impacted by COVID, when an English Premier League team was relegated, its attendance fell by 9% on average, according to TruMedia). But why the hell would we want to find out?

Is there anything that could stop this ongoing power grab? And do we care? Last year, a survey administered by Sportico and the Harris Poll found that 68% of respondents agreed conference realignment was “a problem in college sports,” but only 18% said realignment had actually diminished their enjoyment of it. Television ratings are going to be great for all the new conference pairings the Power 2 conferences will break out this fall — Georgia at Texas, Ohio State at Oregon, Alabama at Oklahoma, USC at Michigan, Oklahoma at LSU, Oregon at Michigan, Michigan at Washington, Washington at Penn State and, of course, Texas at Texas A&M. We don’t tend to turn “I don’t like this” into “I’m not going to watch this,” and we don’t exactly have German soccer fans’ flair for sticking up for themselves. (Those German protests worked, by the way.) Would protests and game interruptions at FBS schools outside the SEC and Big Ten have any effect? Would anyone even think to try to stick up for themselves?

In the ongoing debate about whether college football needs a commissioner figure — well, it’s not so much a debate as everyone seemingly agreeing that one is needed and nothing ever happening — Greg Sankey’s name almost inevitably comes up. But his and Tony Pettiti’s decision-making seems to be the biggest current threat to the college football ecosystem. (College basketball, too.) If such a position were to ever exist, I’d prefer someone who actually cares about all of college football and college sports.

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