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A New Chapter of College Football Begins in 2024

By Brent Shockley

Change has been consistent throughout the history of college football, but the sport as we know it will look very different in Fall 2024.  Four schools (Washington, Oregon, University of Southern California (USC), and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) are leaving the Pac-12 Conference to join the Big Ten Conference for the 2024-2025 school year.  Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado are departing for the Big 12 Conference.   Stanford and the University of California Berkley (Cal) are joining the Atlantic Coast Conference along with Southern Methodist University (SMU, located in Dallas).

The Universities of Oklahoma and Texas will depart the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC).  Many of the moves don’t make (common) sense and will result in collateral damage for others but they are driven by the billions from multi-year mega television deals.

Why is this happening?

The price of sports’ rights have been on an exponential rise since streaming and on-demand allowed consumers to bypass or completely ignore advertisers in watching dramas and/or sitcoms.  Sports are generally consumed in real-time, making it more valuable to advertisers in our streaming-happy society.  But as college sports media contracts continue to rise, the networks want a higher return on investment.  As a result, major brands in the sport are consolidating for more desirable TV matchups to attract more viewers. Conferences are dropping divisions to enhance scheduling flexibility. Many college football fans will initially struggle to adjust to the new reality of tougher schedules, more volatility in records, and, for those that wager, closer point spreads.

The future of college football will resemble the National Football League for (NFL) for good reason…. from the networks’ point of view.  NFL broadcasts represented 93 of the top 100 TV programs in 2023, up from 82 the prior year.  Three college football games made the top 100 list.  None from the National Basketball Association, college basketball, Major League Baseball, or the National Hockey League.

The CFP title game between Michigan and Washington drew 25 million viewers, second to the iconic Rose Bowl’s 27+ million viewers on New Year’s Day, which served a playoff semi-final between Alabama and Michigan.  The other playoff semi-final, the Sugar Bowl between Texas and Washington, drew nearly 19 million viewers in primetime.  Despite the frustration of fans regarding opt-outs of key players in the non-playoff bowl games to enter the transfer portal or preserve their health for the NFL draft, mid to lower tier bowls still rate higher than alternative programming (such as pro or college basketball) for networks like ESPN.

The 2024 college football postseason will look very different.

The College Football Playoff will expand from four teams to 12 teams next season.  The top four teams (with conference championships as part of the criteria) will get a first-round bye.  The other eight teams will compete in four games, the first on the evening of Friday, December 20th, and three games on Saturday, December 21st.  The initial round will be hosted on campus by the higher-ranked team.

The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played within the bowl system with the following schedule:

  • December 31, 2024 – Vrbo Fiesta Bowl (CFP Quarterfinal)
  • January 1, 2025 – Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, Rose Bowl, and Allstate Sugar Bowl (CFP Quarterfinals)
  • Thursday, January 9, 2025 – Capital One Orange Bowl (CFP Semifinal)
  • Friday, January 10, 2025 – Goodyear Cotton Bowl (CFP Semifinal)

The reason for the Thursday and Friday semifinal games is to avoid the NFL’s Wildcard weekend which involves six games from Saturday through Monday.  The CFP national championship game will remain on Monday night but moved back on the calendar to January 20th.

The original four team playoff contract was not set to expire for another two years, but leaders amended the playoff to appease fans and to get additional revenue.  ESPN has been the exclusive broadcast partner for the current playoff system at $470 million per year and is reportedly in negotiations to pay $1.3 billion annually for the new 12 team, 11 game format.  There is support among many leaders and partners in college athletics to create a multi-network syndicate for the playoff, similar to the NFL or the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  Although ESPN may control the rights to the next playoff (reportedly over the next eight seasons), there could be pressure to sublicense some of the earlier round games to other networks.  The pressure would likely come from the Big Ten Conference, which recently signed a 7-year, $8 billion deal with Fox, NBC and CBS and ended its 57-year broadcast partnership with the ABC/ESPN after the 2022 season.  CBS and the SEC concluded a long-time relationship that gave CBS priority for its mid-afternoon telecast and exclusive rights to the SEC Championship game.  ABC/ESPN will be the exclusive broadcast partner of SEC athletic broadcasts going forward as part of a new 10-year media deal that starts in 2024.