The ACC, PAC-12, and Big Ten Voted “No” to a College Football Playoff Expansion; Their Justifications Illustrate the Sport’s Current Tension Points

The State of College Football Series

This article is part one of a multi-part series that will highlight the current state of college football.

  • Part II – The Significance of the SEC in College Football and What it Can Do under the New NCAA Constitution
  • Part III – What does the “Alliance” between the Big Ten, ACC, and PAC-12 say about the importance of being with like-minded institutions in the new decentralized landscape of college athletics?

No Expansion Until 2026

This past February, it was announced that the Division I College Football Playoffs (“CFP”) would not be expanding from four (4) teams to the proposed twelve (12) team playoff.[1] The current agreement, which includes the four-team format, runs through 2025 and requires a unanimous vote from the eleven (11) members in order to change. Id. The proposal for potential expansion resulted ultimately in an 8-3 vote and thus postponing  potential  expansion until at least 2026. Id. Further, Mississippi State University President, and CFP board chair, Mr. Mark Keenum, shared that the Big Ten, ACC, and PAC-12 were the three conferences that voted against expansion at this time.[2]  Several of the reasons that these three conferences have given for why they chose to vote no demonstrate some of the tension points in today’s college football landscape. 

The College Football Playoff

The College Football Playoff (“CFP”) is a postseason event to determine college football’s national champion.[3] University presidents and chancellors from all 10 FBS Conferences, and Notre Dame, serve as the board of managers and govern the administrative operations. Id. Commissioners of each conference, and Notre Dame’s athletic director, manage the event itself. Id. Under this system, 13 individuals, known as the selection committee, rank the top 25 teams in Division I college football throughout the season. At the end of the regular season, the committee selects the top four (4) teams to compete for a national championship in the college football playoff. Id. In addition, the committee also assigns teams to compete in one of the six bowl games held around New Year’s Day (“New Year’s Six Bowls”). This format began in 2014 and is scheduled to run through the 2025 season. Id. Overall, the primary concern with the current structure of the CFP is that the national championship playoffs are limited to only four teams. With ten conferences across major division one college football, this four-team playoff has the effect of diluting the final college football product. Thus, many seek to expand, however, it appears that expanding the playoff may not be that simple.

Under the current four-team playoff, the University of Georgia Bulldogs were the College Football Playoff National Champions this past season. Photo Credit.

The Proposal

On June 10, 2021, a sub-group of CFP’s management committee that included Greg Sankey (SEC Commissioner), Bob Bowlsby (Big 12 Commissioner), Craig Thompson (Mountain West Commissioner), and Notre Dame’s Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick presented a proposal to change the current four-team format to a 12-team event.[4] Specifically, the sub-group proposed:  

  • 12 teams—six highest-ranked conference champions (no minimum ranking requirement) plus six highest-ranked teams not included among the six highest-ranked conference champions.
  • The four highest-ranked conference champions would receive first-round byes.
  • The other eight teams would play in the first round on the campus of the higher seed (Seed #12 at #5, #11 at #6, #10 at #7, and #9 at #8).
  • The playoff bracket would follow the rankings, with no modifications made to avoid rematches of teams that may have played during the regular-season or are from the same conference. This bracket would remain in effect throughout the playoff (i.e., no re-seeding).[5]

The full proposal can be accessed here.[6]

The plan behind the proposal included an intention to use the summer of 2021 to solicit feedback from conferences, university presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and athletes.[7]  Further, many believed that this plan would ultimately lead to unanimous approval as early as September 2021. However, the Big Ten, ACC, and PAC-12 are pro-expansion; their justifications for still voting no illustrate several crucial points of tension across college football.

With arguably the best overall college football product, Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey hoped for an expansion sooner rather than later. Photo Credit.

Tension Points

Revenue Distribution

Both the Big Ten and PAC-12 voted no in part because both conferences were uncomfortable with the lack of clarity for revenue distribution under the new 12-team expansion. Id. The current exclusive media rights agreement between ESPN and the CFP is based on the four-team playoff format, and that contract runs through the 2025 season.[8]  Further, under the terms of the agreement, ESPN has the exclusive negotiating rights which means that the CFP cannot begin negotiating with other platforms until 2025, or if they wanted to expand earlier, could only expand with ESPN. Id.

With more games to air, an expanded playoff would generate much more money. Thus, the revenue distribution from this expansion becomes incredibly relevant. Without a television agreement that features the 12-team playoff, it is reasonable for conferences to wait and see the exact terms.

The current terms of the CFP:

  • For the 2021-22 academic year:
    1. Each conference will receive $300,000 for each of its schools when the school’s football team meets the NCAA’s APR for participation in a postseason football game. Each independent institution will also receive $300,000 when its football team meets that standard.
    2. A conference will receive $6 million for each team that is selected for a Playoff Semifinal. There will be no additional distribution to conferences whose teams qualify for the national championship game. A conference will receive $4 million for each team that plays in a non-playoff bowl under the arrangement.
    3. Each conference whose team participates in a Playoff Semifinal, Cotton, Fiesta, or Peach bowls, or in the national championship game will receive $2.63 million to cover expenses for each game.
  • Based on calculations from the 2020-21 season, the following distributions were made in the spring of 2021 (Estimates for the 2021-22 season will be finalized following the 2022 CFP National Championship.):
    1. Each of the 10 conferences received a base amount. For conferences that have contracts for their champions to participate in the Orange, Rose, or Sugar bowls, the base combined with the full academic performance pool was approximately $57 million for each conference. The five conferences that do not have contracts for their champions to participate in the Orange, Rose or Sugar bowls received approximately $83 million in aggregate (full academic pool plus base). The conferences distribute these funds as they choose. Notre Dame received a payment of $2.5 million by meeting the APR standard; the other three independents shared $1.85 million.
    2. Certain conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision received approximately $2.85 million in aggregate.[9]

It appears that the Big Ten and PAC-12 were unwilling to take a chance on a playoff expansion without seeing updated revenue distribution terms.

Automatic Qualifiers

In addition, the Big Ten also expressed concern about the importance of automatic qualifiers.[10]  Specifically, it desired that the winner of each power five conference championship automatically qualify. Id. The proposed expansion stated that the six highest-ranked conference winners would automatically qualify. No automatic qualifiers per conference would leave room for the potential that there may be some years that some power five conferences may be left out of the playoff. Combine that uncertainty with the fact that a twelve-team playoff would feature more games and thus generate more money; it is reasonable for conferences to want a guaranteed invite to the party. Further, following the 2025 season, the CFP could take the product of a 12-team playoff structure to any television company in order to hear the best offers. Therefore, it appears reasonable for (1) conferences to want an automatic invite and (2) to wait for the exclusive television agreement with ESPN to run out in a few years to maximize its position in an open market further.

The Big Ten Conference voted against playoff expansion at this time in part because of no solidified plan for revenue distribution under a 12-team format, and no guaranteed automatic qualifiers. Photo Credit.

Unstable Landscape

The Atlantic Coastal Conference (“ACC”) Commissioner, Mr. Jim Phillips, indicated that now is not the right time to expand.[11] More specifically, Mr. Phillips identified an overall disruption in college athletics. The primary sources of this disruption are the NCAA New Constitution and the current state of Name, Image, and Likeness legislation. (“NIL”) Id.

Name, Image, and Likeness

June of 2021 proved to be one of the most monumental months ever for college football. In addition to the CFP first proposing the idea of expansion, the Supreme Court released its decision in NCAA v. Alston, and subsequently, the landscape of college sports, in general, began to shift. The NCAA revised its prior Bylaw 12 that prohibited student-athletes from earning athletic or academic affiliated compensation . In turn, states, institutions, and conferences looked around for guidance to regulate student-athlete compensation. Nevertheless, there still is not one universal set of regulations for this market.

The lack of uniform governance led to many, but not all, states passing their own and different forms of NIL legislation. In addition, institutions and universities began drafting policies that reflected their understanding of the market. Ultimately, this leads us to the reality that there is no consistency with student-athletes earning compensation for their NIL. This unstable foundation proved to be too much of a risk for the ACC. Ultimately, they decided to wait for the landscape to settle and define itself more clearly before they agreed to expand the current playoff system.

New NCAA Constitution

In addition to a lack of uniform governance for NIL, the ACC also mentioned that the New NCAA Constitution, which comes into effect on August 1, 2022, also adds uncertainty to college sports.[12] Specifically, the new constitution gives power to the divisions, conferences, and institutions to restructure and govern themselves. Id. Under this newly acquired freedom, college sports have the potential to be significantly redefined. Combine this reality with the NIL market, and we have two foundational elements for significant change in college sports. Ultimately, this foreseeable change appeared unsettling enough for the ACC to vote against college football expansion.  

The decentralized new-age environment of college football means that the conferences, and their institutions, have the power to mold their product however they desire. Photo Credit.

What’s Next for College Football?

The inability of the ten conferences and Notre Dame to unanimously agree on a CFP expansion demonstrates the uneasiness surrounding the college sports world. Previously, institutions looked to the NCAA for guidance and governance. Come August 1, 2022, institutions and conferences will look to one another to define their overall roles in college athletics. In doing so, institutions and conferences will reveal their views on several of the tension points surrounding the current state of college athletics. Ultimately, time will genuinely demonstrate what this will mean for college football. However, we can be sure that the new-age landscape of college football will be molded by institutions and conferences, not the NCAA.













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