After 14.5 months of haggling over details and questioning motivations, a plan to expand the College Football Playoff (CFP) to 12 teams was finally approved Friday, setting the stage for a multibillion-dollar tournament as soon as the 2024 season.
What still needs to be determined is just how quickly the current four-team model can be converted and implemented, but it will happen no later than 2026. When it does, major college football’s championship bracket will triple in size.
“This was a very historic day for college football,” said Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, chairman of the CFP’s Board of Managers that pressed ahead after a process that started in June 2021 with an ambitious plan was derailed for months by provincialism and mistrust.
In a unanimous vote that was necessary to pursue early expansion, the 11 university leaders who make up the board approved the original 12-team proposal. It calls for the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large picks—as determined by a selection committee—to make the playoff.
The top four seeds would be conference champions and receive byes into the second round. First-round games would be played on campuses and the rest at bowl sites.
A 12-team, 11-game postseason system to crown a champion could be worth as much as $2 billion in media rights to the conferences that play major college football, starting in 2026.
“So our plans are to begin the 12-team format for sure beginning in the 2026 football season,” Keenum said. “However, we have asked our [conference] commissioners on the management committee to explore the possibility of us beginning the 12-team playoff format before the 2026 seasons, in either 2024 or 2025. We as members of the board recognize there’s some pretty substantial issues that have to be resolved.”
If the new format can be implemented before the current 12-year contract with ESPN expires, the conferences could make an additional $450 million over the final two years. The current deal pays about $470 million per year.
CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said ESPN under its contract would get the first bid on any new playoff inventory added in 2024 and ’25.
Beyond 2025, there is no TV contract for a playoff. The plan is to take the new format to the open market and possibly involve multiple TV partners instead of just ESPN.
The conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director who comprise the CFP management committee are scheduled to meet Thursday in Dallas. Among the logistical hurdles that they need to clear are dates of games, host sites, available television windows and the impact on the regular-season schedule.
The committee also needs to determine how all that new revenue will be shared and then have that approved by the presidents.
Hancock announced in February that expanding for the 2024 and 2025 seasons was off the table and attention would be turned to what the playoff would look like for 2026 and beyond. Last month, the CFP locked in sites and dates for the championship games to be played after the 2024 and 2025 seasons. In a 12-team playoff, those dates would have to be pushed back.
But the presidents ultimately decide what happens with the playoff, and they took matters into their own hands to move expansion forward.
“It was time for us to make a decision,” Keenum said.
Even after the February announcement, there were signs early expansion was not dead. A June meeting of the commissioners in Utah renewed optimism differences could be settled.
“It actually wouldn’t surprise me once we agree on the format, if it happens before the end of the current term,” Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said in July.
Kliavkoff was one of three relatively new Power Five commissioners, along with Kevin Warren (Big Ten) and Jim Phillips (ACC), whose various objections to the 12-team proposal last year stalled negotiations.
That 12-team plan had been worked on for more than two years by a subgroup of the management committee that included Greg Sankey of the Southeastern Conference. Skepticism rose between the new commissioners, who had not been part of a process that started in 2019, and the rest after it was revealed the SEC would be adding Texas and Oklahoma to the powerhouse conference by no later than 2025.
Now everybody is on board with the plan.
“The Pac-12 is strongly in favor of CFP expansion and welcomes the decision of the CFP Board,” Kliavkoff said in a statement. “CFP expansion will provide increased access and excitement and is the right thing for our student-athletes and fans. We look forward to working with our fellow conferences to finalize the important elements of an expanded CFP in order to launch as soon as practicable.”
By Ralph D. Russo