College Football Playoff expansion may put early rounds in competition with NFL for viewership

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The College Football Playoff may be forced to go head-to-head against the NFL on television for the first time once the expanded 12-team field is put into place. That possibility became apparent as FBS commissioners continued to wrestle with the logistics of expansion at meetings this week in Chicago.

The CFP would need “at least” two days, according to CFP executive director Bill Hancock, to complete the four first-round games as well as quarterfinals. In each round, two games would be played per day unless more days are needed due to scheduling conflicts.

The first round cannot start until at least 12 days after the conference championship games are completed. Depending on the calendar, that would be the second or third week of December. In 2024 — the first year the bracket could be expanded to 12 teams — the earliest those first-round games could be played is Thursday, Dec. 19.

In addition to playing every Sunday, the NFL offers “Thursday Night Football” until the end of December and “Monday Night Football” through the Wild Card round of its playoffs. Starting the third week of December, the NFL also plays on Saturdays until its conference championship games are held.

That leaves little room for the CFP to have a stage to itself for the first two rounds of an expanded bracket. Neither a BCS Championship Game nor College Football Playoff contest has gone head-to-head with the NFL since the BCS started in 1998.

“That wouldn’t be our preference,” Hancock said of possibly going up against the NFL, “and we certainly know the NFL.” [has] games on that Thursday night and Saturday, but we need to have these first-round games, and we need to find dates for them.”

Once the first round is completed, quarterfinal games would be played at least seven days later, likely centered around New Year’s Day. The semifinals and CFP National Championship would be played later in January.

The NFL is in the first of an 11-year agreement with streaming giant Amazon, the new home of “Thursday Night Football.” One source suggests the CFP feels more comfortable going head-to-head with a streamer rather than a linear cable or broadcast competitor.

Regardless, it seems likely that the CFP will have to face one of TV’s biggest ratings behemoths to get its 11 games played in a sensible order.

“You could speculate that,” one official involved in the CFP process, “I can’t.”

The CFP’s past brushes with competition have led to mixed results. In 2015, the CFP insisted on playing its semifinal games on New Year’s Eve, a Thursday night. Ratings dropped 40% from the previous year. Ever since, the CFP has only played on New Year’s Eve when it fell on a Friday or Saturday.

The CFP Management Committee, consisting of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame’s president, remains engaged in trying to start the expanded playoff in 2024. If not that year, 2025 will be the focus. That is the final year of the CFP’s active 12-year contract with ESPN.

Beginning in 2026, the CFP will face another set of problems, perhaps the biggest being revenue distribution. The playoff that could triple in annual value from $600 million to perhaps $1.6 billion. By that time, who knows what the conference landscape will look like? The SEC and Big Ten have already established themselves as a “Power Two” because of their rosters of schools and monster media rights contracts.

For now, the commissioners are dealing with scheduling logistics. There is a possibility that the start of the season could be pushed back to Week 0 in order to accommodate an expanded playoff. However, one person inside the room Thursday termed such a start “problematic.”

If the dates do not line up in 2024 and 2025, the seasons would start on Labor Day weekend, as is tradition. That could cause the CFP National Championship to be played later in January if the field is expanded in either of those seasons.



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