The College Football Playoff board of managers recently authorized the CFP management committee to begin the “summer review phase” of playoff expansion exploration. Under the proposed format, the four highest-ranked conference champions would receive a first-round bye (schools seeded five through eight will host those seeded nine through 12 for a spot in the quarterfinals). While the seeding format sounds logical enough, many have pointed out that it leaves Notre Dame—an independent program—at a competitive disadvantage. Paul Finebaum said during a recent appearance on ESPN’s Get Up that the notion the Irish “can be undefeated, having beaten two of the top four teams in the country, and they still have to play [a first-round game],” is ridiculous (ND plays both Clemson and Ohio State in 2022 and ’23). The notorious SEC homer went so far as to suggest Notre Dame should join a conference to ensure themselves a path to a top four seed. Of course, the idea of the Fighting Irish joining a conference is not new. It has been one of the most hotly debated topics in college football over the last 20 years.
But Notre Dame A.D. Jack Swarbrick—who was among the four-member working group that constructed the proposal—says the expanded playoff format actually makes it less likely the school would join the ACC (or any other conference). “It sort of works exactly the opposite,” he said. “Our potential issue relative to independence was always having sufficient access to the College Football Playoff. We fared well in the four-team format, but [we] effectively had to go undefeated. With six at-large [spots], we will [only] have to finish in the top 10, top 11 annually to have a reasonable certainty of getting in. I think that’s a good position for us to be in.”
Our Take: Swarbrick indicated an easier path to the playoffs would be a boon to athletic department revenues. Notre Dame qualified for the College Football Playoff twice in the last seven years (2019, 2021). It is possible (if not likely) the Irish would have made it six times had the 12-team format been in place over that same span (with the 4-8 team in 2016 the exception). While the management committee “hasn’t spent a moment yet on the financial ramifications of [playoff expansion], whether you look at it in terms of direct payment (i.e. CFP payout) or the indirect value created (think: future ticket sales, commercial interest, media rights), we’re clearly better off if we’re in [the playoffs] more often,” he said.
Under the CFP’s current revenue distribution structure, the conferences of semifinalists receive $6 million on top of their base distribution, while teams participating in non-playoff CFP bowls earn an additional $4 million for their leagues. It is not clear how those payouts—or the conference allotments—will be impacted with more teams participating in CFP games. Swarbrick said the committee has yet to discuss revenue distribution. For informational purposes, Notre Dame currently receives a lower CFP base payout than Power 5 schools (ex: in 2019-2020 ND received $3.19 million, while each of the Power 5 conferences split $66 million among their respective members).
Swarbrick was in the room when the 12-team proposal was constructed. So, it’s fair to wonder why he agreed to go along with a model that would seemingly make it more difficult for the Irish to win their first national title since 1988 (see: between 1990-2020 only 12 NFL teams who participated in the wild-card round made the Super Bowl). The Notre Dame AD explained a desire exists to eliminate “the notion that our failure to play in a conference championship game [has] created some sort of advantage for us. This was a way to remove that as an issue. While it’s true we [still] won’t play in a conference championship game, our version of that will be played a week or so after as the first round of the playoffs when we are in that position.” The Irish played in the 2020 ACC championship game after playing a full conference slate during the pandemic-ravaged season, a one-year arrangement.
Hosting a playoff game on campus should certainly be advantageous from a competition standpoint. But it’s unlikely to provide any direct financial benefits for the home team. “Again, we haven’t discussed it yet, but my expectation would be [first-round playoff game] revenue is CFP revenue and goes into the pot [for distribution],” Swarbrick said. “You wouldn’t want to put the four teams that get a first-round bye at a financial disadvantage by having their first game at a neutral site and giving teams seeded below them home-ticket revenue.” The management committee member did say first-round hosts are likely to be “reimbursed for any direct expenses [incurred],” so those schools are not expected to be penalized financially, either.
While schools hosting first-round games are unlikely to keep ticketing revenues, Swarbrick expects there to be some indirect financial benefits to having a playoff game on campus. There is “value in the ability to leverage [access to a playoff game] for season-ticket sales,” he explained.
Of course, Notre Dame may find slightly less value in leveraging playoff access than most. As Swarbrick explained, the school “keeps more than half [its] house available for single-game [ticket] sales because so many people want to make an annual trip to Notre Dame. So [the school’s business model] is a little different. But [having the ability to tie postseason access to season tickets] is obviously still helpful.”