The change could take effect as soon as the 2024 season. It is expected no later than 2026.
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The College Football Playoff, already a financial gusher for the country’s most powerful conferences, will triple in size to 12 teams no later than the 2026 season as organizers seek to capitalize on the nation’s vast appetite for the sport.
The plan, which could quiet arguments that the race for national glory is too exclusive, calls for a playoff field of the six highest-ranked conference champions and the six highest-ranked teams that did not win league titles. The playoff will still rely on its own selection committee to set its rankings, and there will still be no guaranteed bids or caps on invitations for any conferences.
The expanded system announced on Friday could be in place as soon as 2024, but executives must still negotiate the logistics and nuances that come with a larger field and a new surge of games with national-title implications. Whether or not the redesigned format starts that soon, Friday’s decision set the playoff on a clearer course toward the biggest television contract in college sports history, one that analysts have said could fetch close to $2 billion a year.
The agreement on Friday represented a significant turnabout from the skid that expansion ambitions had entered, including an announcement in February that the tournament would “continue the current four-team playoff for the next four years.” By then, dreams for expansion, which some college sports executives had judged last summer as a fait accompli, had sputtered as leagues jostled over members, mistrust boomed and concerns over ESPN’s role as the playoff’s lone television partner bubbled.
Many of those questions and issues remain. But Friday’s unanimous vote by 11 university presidents and chancellors reflected the broadly held view inside the richest reaches of the college sports industry that the playoff should grow sooner rather than later.
Mark Keenum, the president of Mississippi State University and the chairman of the playoff’s Board of Managers, said the university leaders had concluded they needed to give athletic administrators, such as conference commissioners, “direction.”
“We felt like we needed to give them a definitive, ‘This is where we are, this is where we think college football needs to be headed,’ as far as the playoff is concerned,” Keenum said.
If the playoff expands for the 2024 season, its television rights could swell to about $695 million, from roughly $470 million a year, for each of the existing contract’s last two seasons.
Far larger paydays beckon once the current deal with ESPN expires at the end of the 2025 season. With an expanded playoff now planned for 2026 at the latest, some executives and consultants believe that the next deal, which might include an array of broadcast partners, could yield nearly $2 billion in annual television revenue.
If those forecasts prove accurate, the playoff would have the largest annual television rights deal in college sports. The N.C.A.A.’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, a 67-game showcase that underpins the bonanza known as March Madness, is expected to average $1.1 billion in television money a year starting later this decade.
But Keenum insisted Friday that the allure of more money “hasn’t been the driving force behind” expansion.
“We’re not naïve to understand there is added value,” he said, adding: “But I can tell you from being a part of these discussions from the very beginning, what motivated the presidents — and me as well — was that we need to have some opportunity for more participation of teams in our nation’s national championship tournament.”
He said that having four teams was “not fair to our student-athletes from a participation standpoint.”
The football expansion effort is unfolding at a time of sustained tumult in college sports, especially for the industry powers — the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, as well as Notre Dame — that jointly run the playoff and distribute shares of its income to universities across the country. As television money is increasingly raining down on leagues such as the Big Ten Conference, which last month announced a record-setting suite of media contracts that will pay it at least $1 billion a year, and the Southeastern Conference, other leagues fear being left behind, in perception or reality.
Beyond business rivalries, the leagues and the industry that dominate in the public imagination have faced legal and political setbacks, particularly around the rules that restricted unpaid college athletes for generations. Still, for many fans, antitrust law matters far less than how to crown a football champion.
The playoff is the successor to the Bowl Championship Series, which used a complex formula to help determine matchups for elite games, including the title contest, for 16 seasons. The four-team playoff system debuted with the 2014 season and offered football devotees a new way to become baffled and infuriated by rankings.
There would be ritualized gripes about the conclusions of the committee charged with ranking teams, of course, but the tournament’s small size also left it vulnerable to complaints about the limited number of teams able to compete. (Although the N.C.A.A. manages the postseason for Football Championship Subdivision universities, which often have loyal local followings but little national renown, it has no control over the playoff that draws powerhouse brands such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.)
Alabama has won three national championships in the playoff era, and Clemson has won two. Georgia, Louisiana State and Ohio State have one playoff title apiece. Deepening the sense of exclusion, just 13 of the 131 F.B.S. schools have made appearances in semifinal games, and at least one Power 5 league is currently guaranteed to be left out in any given season.
The Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences all missed the playoff last season, with the Pac-12 enduring its fifth straight year of not receiving an invitation.
Alabama, Cincinnati, Georgia and Michigan reached the playoff in 2021; Alabama and Georgia advanced to the title game for an all-SEC matchup, which Georgia won.
Had the model approved on Friday been in place last year, the field would have included all of those teams, as well as Baylor, Michigan State, Mississippi, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Utah. No. 12 Pittsburgh, the A.C.C. champion, would have been the lowest-ranked team.
But the system would not have been enough to draw in past playoff participants like Clemson, Oregon and Oklahoma.
Under the expanded format, the four conference title winners with the highest rankings will receive first-round byes. The rest of the participants will play their opening games on campuses or at “other sites” chosen by the teams with higher seeds.
Even as executives pronounced themselves pleased with the 12-team approach, Keenum acknowledged that playoff officials could someday choose to expand again.
After all, he noted with a laugh, his own university’s football coach, Mike Leach, has floated the idea of a 64-team format.
College Football Playoff Will Expand to 12 Teams – The New York Times