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


The college football playoffs may be forced to face the NFL on television for the first time after an expanded 12-team field is formed. That opportunity became clear as FBS panelists continued to wrestle with the logistics of the expansion at this week’s meetings in Chicago.

According to CFP chief executive Bill Hancock, it will take “at least” two days for the CFP to complete four games of the first round, as well as the quarter-finals. Each round will play two games per day unless more days are needed due to scheduling conflicts.

The first round cannot begin until at least 12 days after the conclusion of the conference championship games. Depending on the calendar, this will be the second or third week of December. In 2024 – the first year that the bracket can be expanded to 12 teams – the earliest time these first round games can be played is Thursday, December 19th.

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

This leaves little room for the CFP to have a stage for the first two rounds of the extended bracket. Neither the BCS championship game nor the college football playoff competition has faced the NFL since the founding of the BCS in 1998.

“That wouldn’t be our preference,” Hancock said of a possible NFL showdown, “and we certainly know that the NFL [has] games that Thursday night and Saturday, but we need those first round games and we need to find dates for them.”

After the completion of the first round, the quarter-final games will be played no less than seven days later, probably around the New Year. The semi-finals and the CFP National Championship will be played later in January.

The NFL has struck the first of an 11-year deal with streaming giant Amazon, the new home of Thursday Night Football. One source suggests that CFP is more comfortable competing with a streamer than a line-cable or broadcast competitor.

Regardless, it seems likely that the CFP will have to face one of the biggest television ratings behemoths in order to play its 11 games in a reasonable order.

“You can assume I can’t,” said one official involved in the CFP process.

CFP’s past encounters with competition have produced mixed results. In 2015, the CFP insisted on holding their semi-final games on New Year’s Eve, Thursday nights. Ratings fell 40% from the previous year. Since then, CFP has only played on New Year’s Eve, when it falls on a Friday or Saturday.

The CFP Steering Committee, made up of 10 FBS Commissioners and the President of Notre Dame, is still trying to start an extended playoff in 2024. If not this year, then the focus will be 2025. This is the final year of CFP’s active 12-year contract with ESPN.

Starting in 2026, the CFP will face a different set of challenges, perhaps the biggest of which will be income distribution. A playoff that could triple its annual cost from $600 million to possibly $1.6 billion. By then, who knows what the conference landscape will look like? The SEC and the Big Ten have already established themselves as a “second force” with their school listings and monstrous media rights treaties.

At the moment, the commissioners are engaged in logistics planning. There is a possibility that the start of the season could be pushed back to week 0 to allow for an extended playoff. However, one of those present on Thursday called such a start “problematic.”

If the dates do not coincide in 2024 and 2025, the seasons will start on Labor Day weekend, as is customary. This could result in the CFP National Championship being played later in January if the field is expanded in any of those seasons.