College Football Playoff has expanded. It’s time to spread the wealth
The additional games will allow more tickets to be sold, more television networks to get involved in negotiations and ultimately generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue beginning in 2024.
Sure, it’s great for the sport that more teams and conferences and areas of the country will be involved. At its most basic level, though, this is a cash grab — and one the sport stupidly chose not to act on a couple decades ago.
But unlike all the other cash grabs in college sports that have enriched bowl executives, administrators and coaches, a piece of this one needs to go to the players who are putting their bodies and NFL futures on the line for an extra game or two.
And thanks to name, image and likeness, there’s a feasible way to do it.
Some media experts have predicted that the new-look playoff could be worth as much as $2 billion annually. If you just took 10 percent of that total — $200 million — and distributed it across the 12 playoff teams and divided it equally among the players on the active rosters you’d come out with around $135,000 per player.
Though pay-for-play isn’t expressly allowed by the NCAA, there is no prohibition on marketing deals. And the College Football Playoff is nothing if not an independent marketing arm of college football that just so happens to host the sport’s biggest postseason games.
So why couldn’t the playoff simply sign every player on every team in the field to a standard NIL deal that cuts them a check for posting “Watch us play the quarterfinals on Jan. 1 at 7 p.m.” on Twitter and Instagram?
It’s really the least — the very least — they could do.
And it’s not even a new concept.
Last fall, the organizers of a college basketball holiday tournament in Las Vegas launched a version of this and paid five players among the four participating teams to market the event and tweet out discount codes for ticket sales.
Since then, schools have become only more blatant about encouraging the use of NIL to pay players.
Last month, Clemson athletics director Graham Neff put out a short video flatly encouraging fans to donate money to collectives that sign players to NIL deals, saying “the health of these supplemental organizations is critical to how our student-athletes are supported in this new world.” On Thursday, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin tweeted a link to an announcement that star freshman running back Quinshon Judkins had re-signed with “The Grove Collective” for the 2023-24 season with his trademark “#ComeToTheSip” tag line.
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To be clear, it would be a much better system if colleges and the NCAA came to a collective bargaining agreement and devised a legitimate revenue sharing plan rather than using third-party NIL as a stand-in.
But that’s the system we have now, so why not use it to do what’s right and reward players for their role in the ever-expanding media rights revenue attached to college football’s postseason?
They deserve it, especially because the gradual lengthening of the season has exposed players to more and more health risks for no significant change in their compensation. The college football season used to be 11 games plus a bowl. Then it went to 12, plus a conference championship, plus a bowl.
Since the beginning of the playoff, another game has been added on for the two teams in the national championship. And beginning in 2024, it’s possible a team will have to play 16 or even 17 games to win the title.
That’s a huge ask for players. Coaches who have been through the grind of the four-team CFP have talked about how difficult it is physically to get through two highly intense games against other elite teams. Now you’re adding even more onto that, and mostly because it will generate a whole lot of money.
The CFP has done some good things for players, including getting the NCAA to approve reimbursement of travel expenses for players’ families. It was such a good idea, the NCAA even adopted it for the men’s and women’s basketball Final Four.
But that’s not enough anymore. As head coaching salaries balloon to $8 million, $9 million for the elite teams, it’s hard to reconcile yet another major cash infusion into college football without players getting a piece.
This would be a relatively clean and easy way to do it, while also addressing fears about NFL-bound players opting out of first-round games as they are now doing with non-playoff bowls. Though current NIL rules prohibit appearance fees in games, it should be easy enough for the NCAA to tweak language or create a carve-out to ensure that players can only collect the money if they are still an active part of the team as it goes through the playoff.
You could also imagine how a potential six-figure payday would also create some fairly intense competition down the stretch of the regular season for teams fighting to get into one of those 12 spots.
Playoff expansion is undoubtedly going to make college football look a little more like the NFL, which has its pluses and minuses. Players are not going to be traveling to these bowl cities and doing a bunch of banquets and beach parties; instead, they’re going to come in a night or two before the game and leave as soon as possible. It will be less charming, but in many ways more interesting.
And it will make college football look like what it is already: A professional sport.
Every time schools engage in such naked cash grabs, public opinion tilts more and more toward paying players. Even the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that NCAA-style amateurism is a sham.
Something’s got to give, especially when you start changing the very nature of the season and asking more and more of the players while collecting more and more for the schools and conferences. That’s pure greed.
NIL has provided an obvious pathway to give football players what they deserve from playoff expansion while also allowing schools to increase their budgets. In the big picture, it would be a small price to pay for doing the right thing.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken