SBJ/Jan. 26-Feb. 1, 2015/Events and Attractions

ESPN, NFL lobby for changes in College Football Playoff calendar

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Editor’s note: This story was revised from the print edition.

The College Football Playoff is under pressure on two fronts to adjust future schedules for its semifinals and championship games, sources say, but the CFP is standing firm on its original dates.

On one of those fronts, top ESPN executives are lobbying CFP officials to move next season’s semifinals off of New Year’s Eve where it would compete with highly rated star-filled countdown shows on several networks.

Next season’s semifinals at the Capital One Orange Bowl and the Goodyear Cotton Bowl are scheduled for Dec. 31 but ESPN is pushing the CFP to move those games to Jan. 2, 2016, a Saturday with relatively little competition on TV. The NFL’s regular

SBJ Podcast:
Media writer John Ourand and Assistant Managing Editor Tom Stinson talk about the pressure on the CFP from ESPN and the NFL to adjust its future schedule, and what it could mean.

season concludes that Sunday, Jan. 3, and the league hasn’t had a Saturday game during the final week of its regular season since 2007.

Sources say that senior network executives as high up as ESPN President John Skipper are pushing for the change as a way to get better television ratings, but the CFP is unwilling to make such a move because it is committed to the original plan to hold tripleheader bowl games, including the semifinals, on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

“We’ve started a new tradition and we don’t want to back away from it now,” said Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director.

Meanwhile, the CFP is facing pressure on another front. The NFL is considering expanding its playoffs and moving one of the new games to Monday night when it would compete directly with the CFP championship.

Sources say NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initiated a series of high-level meetings with some of the CFP’s most influential commissioners, including the SEC’s Mike Slive. Goodell approached the commissioners to discuss the potential impact an NFL playoff expansion would have on the CFP championship game.

The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick make up the management council that oversees the College Football Playoff.

If the NFL ends up expanding the number of teams that make its postseason, the league would need two more TV windows to account for the new games. In separate meetings, Goodell told the college commissioners that any playoff expansion likely would put a wild-card game on Monday night, sources said.

The CFP’s 12-year contract with ESPN calls for the title game to be played on a Monday night, typically the second Monday in January. The last three BCS championship games also were played on those Monday nights in January, dating to 2011. Similarly, college basketball’s men’s championship game is played on a Monday night in April.

Hancock said his office has voiced its opposition to putting an NFL playoff game against the CFP championship on Monday night.

“We picked Monday night because it was open and it was the best night for our game. We announced that in June 2012,” Hancock said. “We established that our game was going to be on Monday night for 12 years.”

A Monday night wild-card playoff game would run up against the CFP championship game for at least another two years. Later this year, the CFP will finalize championship sites beyond 2017, and Hancock said they are committed to holding the championship games on Monday nights, as outlined in its contract with ESPN.

Just last week, Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II told The Associated Press that it does not appear likely the playoffs would expand next season. But league officials have been wanting to add at least two teams to the playoffs for several years, and sources say a plan still could be worked out.

In the middle of the dispute is broadcaster ESPN, which owns rights to both the CFP and the NFL’s regular-season “Monday Night Football” series.

ESPN’s CFP contract mandates that the games are carried on ESPN — not ESPN2 or ESPNU, sources say. Plus, cable sources say that some of ESPN’s affiliate deals contain language that would prohibit the network from putting either the CFP championship or an NFL playoff game on ABC.

The NFL almost certainly would not allow one of its playoff games to move to ESPN2.

Still, the NFL could sell a Monday night playoff game to another network. A media industry source suggested that the NFL could look into packaging the new wild-card playoff games with its “Thursday Night Football” package beginning with the 2016 season. CBS last week signed a deal to keep that package for 2015.

“If it comes down to this, the fans would be the losers if they had to choose,” Hancock said. “That would be a shame.”

Whether the NFL expands its postseason and puts a playoff game opposite the CFP championship remains to be seen, but the CFP is holding its ground against the idea of moving its semifinals to Jan. 2 next season.

The move to Jan. 2 is attractive to ESPN because that Saturday is relatively free of big events, limiting the amount of competition the college games would face. Sources said ESPN is lobbying for the CFP to make the move only for the coming season.

“The timing works out for us next year,” said one source with direct knowledge of the talks.

The CFP semifinals on New Year’s Day already proved their ability to attract viewers. The semifinals — played at the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual — each drew more than 28 million viewers. At the time, they were the two most-viewed programs in cable TV history.

The CFP championship game on Jan. 12 averaged 33.4 million viewers, becoming the first show in cable TV history to top 30 million viewers. Privately, ESPN insiders say they are prepared for double-digit drops in viewership if the semifinals remain on New Year’s Eve.

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