How Much Expansion is Too Much for the College Football Playoff?

In the six seasons that the College Football Playoff (CFP) has existed, there has been a lot of money made (by the schools, not the players of course). There has also been a great deal of ink spilled, increasingly so over the last few years, about how the system is not an improvement over its predecessor the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).

Most of the complaints about the setup are very legitimate. The true national-championship postseason has only expanded from the two teams that were highest ranked in the computer ranking amalgamation known as the BCS Poll to a whopping four teams.

The powers that be managed to double the number of teams who entered bowl season within spitting distance of a national championship while still ensuring that 97% of the teams at the FBS level would not be involved in that conversation.

The CFP rankings were supposed to be completely different and unaffected by the traditional polls, but year after year the CFP rankings are never drastically different than the AP or Coaches polls, and the week-to-week changes in the rankings, once they are released, tend to be quite predictable.

So if expanding the post-season from two teams to four (predictably) didn’t fix anyone’s issues with the BCS, what comes next? Playoff expansion.

College football has established a precedent in six seasons of the CFP. If you are in a Power 5 conference, you can lose one game and still be in the running, but if you’re not highly ranked going into the season you’d better not lose again, and you’ll likely need to win your conference as well.

If you live in the other half, the Group of Five, the bar is completely different. UCF had to win 23 games in a row just to get themselves inside the top ten of the rankings, let alone the top four itself, and they were in the 97th percentile of G5 teams over that span.

Logic would dictate that if a Group of Five team coming off an undefeated season went undefeated a second time and still couldn’t make it into the four-team playoff bracket, then no G5 team ever will.

The only real way to address this situation is to expand the playoff.

Why Expand?

Generally speaking, fans of Power Five conferences think the current system is just fine. This makes sense because the only Power Five teams who have no real shot at the playoff are teams like Kansas and Vanderbilt who frequently aren’t good enough to make the playoff no matter how big it is.

For the fans of the 50% of teams who fall into the Group of Five, and whose season starts with a 0.0% chance at a national title unless they’ve gone two straight years without a loss, the perspective is different. A change is needed.

The benefit of allowing a greater percentage of teams to start their season with a real belief that they could achieve post-season glory is certainly a positive for both the teams as well as all of their fans.

There would be a lot more to discuss year-round if we could grow the conversation beyond “here are the 10 teams that have a shot at a title” and expand that to 15 or 20 just because of the post-season structure.

More importantly, though, is the revenue it could generate. One estimate states that simply expanding from four to eight teams could generate an additional $420 million in the amount that media companies (most likely ESPN) would pay to the NCAA for the right to broadcast the additional games.

While there’s an unpredictable amount of change to be had in the next six years about how football viewership habits affect media distribution and what the associated rights are worth, Navigate (who created that estimate) still reached the same conclusion.

Expansion “will unquestionably yield more value, and the only real risk for media partners is miscalculating what that’s worth and paying too much for the incremental playoff games,” said Matt Balvanz, a senior vice president for Navigate. “Otherwise, we see no other real risks.”

The primary goal of expansion is to include more teams in the postseason and its related conversations and revenue streams, but there is plenty of money being made already, and no reason to believe that there isn’t even more out there.

The fact that there is liable to be an increase in revenue that will outpace the increased number of participants – and thus an increase in revenue per conference – is just a good counterpoint for those programs that see no benefit to the expansion.

How Much Change is Too Much?

There is general agreement at this point that creating a playoff was nice, but a future expansion of the same playoff will be a good thing all around. There is, however, significant disagreement as to exactly how much the playoff should expand, and what criteria should be added alongside the increased number of participants.

There are two main arguments from those who are either wholly anti-expansion or those who want nothing bigger than eight teams. One is that an expanded playoff will water down the regular season and make those games mean less.

The other is that it won’t achieve much other than comparatively poor teams losing more, and really good teams having to win more just to win the same national championship they’re already regularly competing for.

Let me start by discussing the watering down argument, and begin debunking by showing you a list:

  • MLS: 58.3%
  • NBA: 53.3%
  • NHL: 51.6%
  • NFL: 37.5%*
  • MLB: 33.3%*
  • CBB: 19.4%
  • CFB: 3.1%

That’s a list of all major professional sports, plus college basketball and football, and the percentage of teams in the league who participate in the postseason.

Major League Soccer just expanded their postseason from 12 to 14 teams this past season, and may well expand a bit further as the league continues to grow in the coming years.

The National Football League is considering adding two more teams to their postseason, while Major League Baseball is also considering adding four more teams to their postseason, in what would be the second expansion of their playoff in a decade.

It’s an interesting comparison, and perhaps rather telling of the actual goal, that every major professional sport has expanded the number of teams that participate in their postseason tournament at least once in the past decade despite already allowing more than a third of teams to do so, while college football’s only expansion still left 97% of their teams out of the loop.

Most professional sports fans will agree that a six-month-long regular season with 3-5 games a week (82 games in the NBA and NHL, 162 in MLB) is far more detrimental to the value, intrigue, and meaning of regular-season games than the exact size and format of the post-season. It’s a minor miracle just to get through that many games.

We decided that we would help out the cause and take a look at one rather extreme version of College Football Playoff expansion – a 24-team bracket identical to what is currently used at the FCS level.

Most would agree that anything larger than a 24-team bracket is delving into increasing size for no discernable reason, and there’s certainly a point of diminishing returns that we think happens right after a 24-team bracket.

Our project over the coming weeks is a simple one. We recreate each of the past six seasons as though the College Football Playoff was a 24-team bracket rather than a four-team bracket, and take a look at whether that really “waters down” the product a meaningful amount.

Our rules for the newly expanded playoff bracket are as follows:

  • If you win your conference, you are in
  • If you’re a Power Five team, winning your conference also means a first-round bye
  • Highest-ranked G5 team gets a first-round home game
  • Without a conference title, you don’t get into the top 25 without at least nine wins

We used these rules to alter the CFP ranking from each year going into bowl season, then set up the bracket. Each matchup was simulated 10 times using WhatIf Sports and their delightfully easy simulator, with an 11th sim if there was a tie.

Do we expect numerous blowouts? Sure. Do we not have a #1 seed play a #16 seed in the NCAA tournament because we assume a cakewalk? Of course not. We gladly trade the insanity of UMBC defeating Virginia for the other 132 times that a 1/16 matchup was barely watchable.

We wanted to take a look at just how competitive a tournament this large might be, and how many opportunities it could create in terms of meaningful moments and revenue for the currently excluded programs, as a guideline for where playoff expansion should stop.

Come back on Monday and we’ll get this bracket party started!

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