The Big Ten has more reason than ever to want new television partners involved with the College Football Playoff when its current contract expires in 2026, but Gene Smith doesn’t think that precludes more playoff expansion before then.
One of the biggest reasons why the CFP announced in February that it would not expand beyond four teams until at least 2026 is because its contract with ESPN, which runs through the 2025 season, gives ESPN exclusive negotiating rights for CFP games through the end of its contracts. If the playoff was to expand before then, ESPN would have the opportunity to acquire the broadcast rights to all of the additional CFP games – which would be a total of eight additional games per year in the proposed 12-team format.
Even so, the possibility of expanding the playoff before 2026 appears to now be back on the table, as ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Wednesday that the College Football Playoff Board of Managers had a discussion this week about the possibility of expanding before the end of the current contract. Per Thamel, “the general feel among the presidents and chancellors on the call was that the college sports leaders have left too much money on the table by not implementing a new playoff before 2026, perhaps as much as a half-billion dollars.”
The Big Ten was one of three conferences, along with the ACC and Pac-12, that voted in February against expanding the playoff before 2026. After announcing a new media rights deal on Thursday that will include FOX, CBS and NBC but exclude ESPN, the Big Ten now has more reason than anyone to want to ensure that other networks will other have the opportunity to bid on CFP rights after the current contract expires.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said at last month’s Big Ten Media Days that he is “100 percent supportive of College Football Playoff expansion.” And Smith, who remains one of the Big Ten’s most influential leaders as Ohio State’s athletic director, said he thinks it is possible the CFP could expand sooner even with ESPN retaining the exclusive right to broadcast CFP games through the 2025 season.
“I think they could do that,” Smith said when asked by Eleven Warriors if he thinks playoff expansion before 2026 is feasible. “So ESPN would have (the broadcast rights) until a certain date, and then they put it out to bid, but I wouldn't have a problem with that.
“You honor the contract. If you change it and they benefit from it, I'm fine with that. And I don't see a problem with that.”
Smith said it remains a must for other media entities to have the opportunity to acquire rights to CFP games beginning in 2026. But he believes everyone will agree to that even if the playoff expands before then.
“Everyone's committed to that,” Smith said regarding CFP rights hitting the open market in 2026. “All the commissioners, presidents, everybody's committed to that. So that's done. That's a done deal. So it's all about your first question (whether the playoff could expand sooner). Will we do it faster?”
When asked whether he thought the Big Ten would have more influence on the next CFP TV contract now that it has partnered with three of the four major broadcast networks, Smith said “that’s a great question.” He hopes NBC, CBS and FOX will all bid on CFP games in 2026, though, and he thinks their new deal with the Big Ten will only increase the likelihood that they do so.
“I think that provides another, provides more avenues for those teams when it does go out to market to bid because they will have familiarity in this space,” Smith said.
Per Thamel’s report, the CFP Board of Managers also had a discussion this week about the possibility of creating a new governance structure for Football Bowl Subdivision football under the CFP umbrella that would be separate from the NCAA. Smith is among those who have advocated for that model, telling Eleven Warriors in May he thinks the NCAA has become too big to properly address issues that are unique to major college football.
Smith was noncommittal Thursday about whether a governing body headed by the College Football Playoff is the right structure for the future of college football, saying there have also been discussions about other models. But he is happy discussions are being had about changing the governance structure of college football, as his goal when he made the suggestion earlier this year was to promote conversation about the idea.
“My intent of throwing that out was just to make sure we started discussing our governance structure,” Smith said. “For us to sit here and think that the governance structure we have is working is naive; it's flawed, and you got your head in the sand. So I just wanted to create the conversation when I threw that out there.
“Although I do like that model (of a governing body under the CFP umbrella), there are some other models that others have presented that are viable. And I'm curious about those. So the discussion around a new governance structure has gotten traction. The one that I proposed under the CFP has gotten some traction as well as others. So that's what's most important. We’re talking about it now. Who knows what the answer will be. But we're talking finally, and that's good. I'm glad to hear that the presidents talked about it.”