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EXPAND THE COLLEGE PLAYOFF TO 8 — AND START THE NIL PAYMENTS
When a proposed 12-team football scrum ends up producing $2 billion a year, the athletes will remain woefully undercompensated — but the larger field will help a sport that needs a shakeup
Somewhere between a Waffle House and a Chick-fil-A drive-thru, college football lost its way. What should have been a crescendo of raw vitality and youthful cheer, every January, became the same old visuals of a Deep South religious experience — Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, an SEC interloper — mixed in with Ohio State or some other impending victim. The sport devolved into a drawling regional monopoly, best suited for a pasture between Tuscaloosa and Clemson, which best describes Atlanta.
So, yes, it’s time to expand the College Football Playoff from the current four teams and restore worthy pizzazz to a sleeping giant. There’s no reason postseason ratings should be stagnant, a byproduct of the same participants — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — hogging all but eight of the 28 berths over the first seven years. The sport is a victim of its own dynasties, and much as Nick vs. Dabo defined the essence of maximized programs in the 21st century, vast expanses of America began to yawn. The formula is long overdue: New blood plus fresh story lines equals bigger interest, spread over weeks instead of one day of semifinals and one night deciding the title, with the added March Madness charm of a Coastal Carolina crashing the fray after years of Power 5 lockouts.
‘‘The practical effect of this,’’ said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, “will be that with four or five weeks to go in the season, there will be 25 or 30 teams that have a legitimate claim and opportunity to participate.’’
My only criticism: What took so long?
Yet before the proposal is approved and rolled out for the 2023 season — and I would prefer eight teams, not the working figure of 12 — allow me to make an urgent demand of the almighty university presidents and conference commissioners. Before they grow the annual revenue pot to a TV-infused $2 billion-plus, up from the current $600 million, they first should throw their muscle behind the still-bubbling political drama of how and when athletes will be compensated for their names, images and likenesses. To be clear, CFP expansion is yet another money grab, the same agenda driving all corners of big-time sports in post-pandemic America. And even when the NIL payments are launched, players will remain woefully undercompensated. Still, money is money. And the college power brokers cannot dismiss what is happening in Congress as a parallel universe.
By now, a federal law that grants NIL rights to athletes should have been passed. But a Senate Commerce Committee, like the rest of us, doesn’t trust the NCAA and president Mark Emmert. At a Capitol Hill hearing last week, Emmert pointed out the competitive imbalance taking shape July 1, when NIL laws kick in and allow ``student-athletes’’ in five states — including football hotbeds Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi — to be paid for their fame and celebrity in the form of commercials, appearances, etc. This creates an un-level playing field in which athletes, for now, will gravitate to programs in those states. He is begging Congress to pass a federal law that will pre-empt state laws, but the decision likely isn’t coming soon, with lawmakers looking at Emmert sideways.
‘‘This is why the states have taken it upon themselves to do what the NCAA has proven incapable of doing,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), upbraiding Emmert about his slow-play on the NIL issue. ‘‘Don’t you think it is time to call your leadership of the organization into question?”
Others in the room wanted Emmert to address critical issues for athletes, such as long-term health care, safety provisions and education opportunities. ‘‘To race to just an NIL bill and not address these injustices is tragic,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who played football at Stanford.
So, college football waits to see if this season’s top projected players — Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler, USC’s Kedon Slovis, Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei and Iowa State’s Breece Hall among them — will be eligible for compensation. The question won’t be decided anytime soon, yet playoff expansion likely will be approved as soon as June 22, when the CFP’s exultant board of managers — 11 presidents and chancellors — meet in Dallas. Does anyone think these so-called titans of academia, who’ve enabled the outrageous riches in the sport, will reject a chance to share an additional $1.5 billion a year with schools and conferences once the ESPN contract expires (after the 2025 season) and the negotiating door is opened to all broadcast networks and streamers?
It continues to be a high crime, of course, that players aren’t receiving a larger piece of the revenue pie in football and basketball. Only those most marketable will be compensated, meaning 99 percent won’t be. ‘‘We need to listen to the athletes,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn). ‘‘They are the ones who are all too frequently outnumbered in this conversation.” They also weren’t invited to Capitol Hill, not even one, disturbingly enough.
The 12-team playoff will march on anyway, ignoring the athletes as usual. It’s a smokescreen of sorts when the assigned subcommittee — Bowlsby, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson — says the larger field gives more playoff opportunities for players and programs. A similar variety could be achieved with eight teams, which would allow the sport to ease into playoff expansion and not exploit the athletes. But whether the opportunity involves legal gambling or expansion, sports executives no longer are cautionary in 2021, preferring to spluge like so many house-hunters and car-buyers.
In truth, their way locks in three or four SEC teams, not punishing them for critical regular-season defeats and providing more coaching job security — just make the playoff, and fans are happy with 10-2 and not ziggying you like Gus Malzahn at Auburn. By including the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next highest-ranked six teams, as determined by the CFP selection committee, it’s still top-heavy for Saban, Kirby Smart, Ed Orgeron, Jimbo Fisher and the rest. Admitted Sankey, the most powerful of the power-brokers: ‘‘Going to eight and allocating a certain number of (automatic berths), thereby reducing effectively the at-large numbers, is not something that really resonated from my perspective.’’ Last season, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M would have made a 12-team playoff, along with perennial powers Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
‘‘Hey, if they expand, then good. It gives us a chance to get in,’’ said LSU’s Orgeron, who missed the playoff last year after winning the 2019 national title.
‘‘And losses won't kill you when you start talking about top 12,’’ said Smart, who didn’t qualify the last three seasons at Georgia after losing to Alabama and Saban in the 2017 national title game.
But know who else would have qualified? Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Indiana and Iowa State. And as we’ve seen adoringly in the NCAA basketball tournament, nothing excites America quite like a non-traditional darling.
‘‘You've got an invitation to the dance now. You actually have an opportunity," Coastal Carolina coach Jamey Chadwell told ESPN Radio. ‘‘I think that's what everybody's talking about is: No matter what type of season you had, it was very slim that you ever had an opportunity. Slim to none, and slim usually left the building. Now, you can see a pathway. We've got official visits going on this weekend, and I can look them in the face and say if we can handle business, we have an opportunity to play for a national championship. You've never had that opportunity to say that before, and you can do that now. And so that gives you hope, and as Andy Dufresne says in ‘Shawshank Redemption,' hope is maybe the best of things."
Hearing Jamey Chadwell quote movie lines, when we’ve never heard him before, should excite us about the expanded playoff. It doesn’t eliminate our concerns — more games means more injuries, more concussions, less study time and less down time. And why not schedule additional games in campus stadiums — the pulsating essence of the sport — beyond the first round rather than place the quarterfinals and semifinals at the same neutral sites? The title game ALWAYS should be in college football’s mecca, the Rose Bowl, but the minute I suggest it, I officials across Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium will be calling the CFP dudes, offering up the high-tech home of two NFL teams.
There’s also an obvious resemblance, in dollars and scope, to professional football. But we lost that fight years ago, when ESPN became a co-conspirator and turned millions into billions. How will Bristol feel about having to share the playoff with other networks — or pay out the ass for exclusivity, while popular on-air personalties such as Kenny Mayne must take pay cuts or leave? Said ESPN in a statement to the Associated Press: ‘‘We’re supportive of our partners at the College Football Playoff as they look toward expansion and seek even more opportunities to grow the passion and excitement for the sport and this signature championship event.’’
At least now, the most celebrated players will start to see some money for their services. Never mind, in a $2 billion production, that they’ll still be paid like toilet scrubbers.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns on Substack and a Wednesday media critique for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.