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ESPN's Fowler and Herbstreit talk pros and cons of expanding College Football Playoff to 8 teams

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

On Monday, Clemson University and Louisiana State University will face off in the College Football Playoff Championship in New Orleans. Both teams had undefeated seasons, both are led by quarterbacks sure to play in the NFL, and both have a tiger mascot.

There is big money involved with the College Football Playoff, the NCAA Division I football postseason structure that is now in its sixth year. But for the schools, conferences, and coaches, most of the money has already been secured before the championship game even happens.

Graphic by David Foster/Yahoo Finance

How much the conferences get

Four teams make the Playoff, chosen by the CFP Selection Committee. The athletic conferences with a school in the Playoff this year get an automatic payout of $6 million for each school selected; conferences divide that money equally among all their schools. This year’s Playoff schools were Ohio State (Big Ten conference), LSU (SEC), Clemson (ACC), and Oklahoma (Big 12), so those four conferences got $6 million each. The conferences do not get any additional payout for advancing from the semifinal round to the championship game.

Every conference also gets $4 million for every team that plays in a non-CFP bowl game. There were 40 bowl games this season, including the two CFP semifinal games and the national championship.

Among the so-called “New Year’s Six” bowls (Cotton, Fiesta, Orange, Peach, Rose, or Sugar), two each year are the CFP semifinal games and one is the championship game, and the designations rotate. This year, the Allstate Sugar Bowl is the championship game. Conferences with a school in any of the New Year’s Six bowls also get $2.43 million from the NCAA to cover expenses, separate from the $6 million or $4 million payouts.

Thanks to just Clemson and LSU, that’s $8.43 million going to the ACC and SEC, respectively, regardless of the outcome of the championship game. And that doesn’t include additional payouts those two conferences will get from schools that played in non-CFP bowls.

How much the bowl games generate

Every single bowl game has a corporate sponsor, from the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, and most bowl games have a dedicated CEO or executive director whose full-time job is growing the business of that one event.

There was even a Bitcoin Bowl in 2014, but that branding only lasted one season. The sponsor, BitPay, had signed a three-year sponsorship deal but then backed out.

Gary Stokan, CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, told Yahoo Finance in December that the Peach Bowl would likely generate $40 million in revenue this year (between the Peach Bowl Kickoff Game over Labor Day Weekend, the Peach Bowl charity golf tournament in April, and the Peach Bowl itself on Dec. 28.) “We also have an economic impact of $100 million to Atlanta,” Stokan said, “and it probably translates to about $5 million in tax revenue into the city coffers from our game.”

Similarly, Allstate Sugar Bowl CEO Jeff Hundley told SportBusiness that he expects the Sugar Bowl to generate $300 million in economic impact for the host city of New Orleans this year. And indeed, tickets to this year’s championship are selling at high prices, and the game is practically a home game for LSU, since New Orleans is just a 90-minute drive from LSU’s campus in Baton Rouge. Many fans will flood New Orleans over the weekend and spend money at local hotels, restaurants, and bars.

But keep in mind that estimates of economic impact tend to be greatly inflated, just like the economic benefit claims made by the people behind new NFL stadiums.

How much the coaches make

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has won two titles in the past four years and is the highest-paid coach in NCAA college football, above even Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Swinney will get $9.3 million in base salary this year, according to USA Today, plus $600,000 in bonuses for winning the ACC championship and making it to the CFP championship. If Clemson wins it all, he’ll get another $250,000 bonus.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, on the other hand, ranks in the bottom half of coach pay in the SEC, with $4 million in base salary this year. But he stands to make a record total $1.7 million in incentive bonuses, according to USA Today: his contract guarantees him $625,000 thanks to LSU’s undefeated season; $200,000 for winning the SEC championship; $225,000 for making it to the CFP championship; and another $125,000 for playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. If LSU wins it all, he’ll get another $500,000.

Yes, those are huge figures. There’s good reason why the critics who have long argued that the student athletes should be compensated frequently cite coach salaries as one of the signs that the system is profiting off of student athletes unfairly.

The future of the CFP format: Eight teams?

This is the sixth year of the College Football Playoff format, which began in 2015 and replaced the previous BCS (Bowl Championship Series) format. In the BCS era, computer algorithms weighted every team’s win record and schedule difficulty to spit out rankings, which many critics hated. Under the CFP format, a selection committee of human beings chooses the rankings each week. (Clemson, last year’s champion, went undefeated this season and yet was never ranked No. 1, something coach Swinney has referenced with a grin in recent interviews.)

Even though the CFP format is generally seen as better than the BCS format, there are critics who argue the CFP should expand to eight teams, since there are always one or two schools right on the cusp that end up ranked No. 5 or No. 6 and miss the Playoff.

On a media call this week to discuss the championship game, longtime ESPN College GameDay co-hosts Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit both told Yahoo Finance they do expect the CFP to expand to eight games eventually—but that doing so will mean major changes to the existing schedule of non-Playoff bowl games.

L-R: ESPN College GameDay co-host Chris Fowler, coach Lee Corso wearing the Oregon Duck mascot head, and co-host Kirk Herbstreit on Oct. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

“If you want to include every conference champion in the Power Five, and add three at-large teams, that’s fine,” Fowler says. “Is that going to bring fresh blood to the podium to accept the trophy? I don’t think so. I don’t think an expansion to eight is going to produce a much different final four. You might have an upset, there’s a possibility of that... Less likely to happen in football than basketball. So I think you’re going to have the same teams. And you’d have to eliminate something, either a regular season game, or the conference championship games, if you’re going to have an additional round of the Playoff. I do think it’ll probably happen, but I think that the four has worked pretty well. And I think if you value the bowl system, expansion would kill it. The bowls, which I think are a precious part of the history of the sport, would be extremely devalued if you expanded the Playoff.”

Herbstreit mostly agrees and sounds even more convinced than Fowler that the CFP will expand to eight teams. But he also points out that whether it’s four or eight teams, either way the Playoff has created a general sense that the schools that don’t make the Playoff have failed. That’s a problem.

“When we had the BCS, I didn’t really feel that if you didn’t make it to the BCS, there was this feeling of dejection,” Herbstreit says. “It’s almost a disappointing year if your goal is to make it to the Playoff and you don’t make it, even if you still have a 10-win season. I’m a big college basketball fan—you watch March Madness, and there’s also the NIT tournament, and the NIT tournament is kind of an afterthought for a lot of fans. I almost feel like the [four-team Playoff] has gotten us to this point where four teams made it to the tournament and everyone else is in the NIT tournament. I think we’re raising a generation of fans that feel that way. And I don’t know what the answer is to fix that. Going to eight might make it even worse. You have over 100 teams playing college football, you have four teams that get into the Playoff, and everybody else is looked at as a failure. And that’s not realistic or right. I think it’s inevitable we eventually get to eight, but I think how you handle conference championships is the tricky part: Do you eliminate them, do you keep them and go back down to 11 regular season games? There are a lot of hurdles you need to overcome [to go to eight].”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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