IRVING, Texas — The sun was shining Wednesday afternoon at the sprawling Four Seasons resort as the 10 FBS commissioners and College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock gathered in person for the first time since their tense playoff expansion meetings at the national championship game in Indianapolis almost four months ago.
And yet, there was no change on where they left matters, as they avoided any substantive discussions this week about the future of their sport’s postseason.
“We’re not talking about it,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said bluntly during a break between the annual meetings, which instead focused on the usual mundane playoff recaps with bowl partners, ESPN television executives and athletic directors who participated in the 2022 CFP.
As far as the topic of expansion was concerned, Sankey compared it to the sitcom “Seinfeld”: a “show about nothing.”
This placid meet-up was a complete reversal from months of sometimes contentious conversations and stressful meetings that boiled over and played out publicly until they ultimately culminated in February with an 8-3 vote that will keep the four-team format in place for four more years. For now, the issue of college football’s championship format beyond the 2025 season is on pause — most likely for another year. No expansion meetings are currently scheduled, and no changes have been made to how the four best teams are determined.
“I don’t sense any momentum for conversations on the side at the moment,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told ESPN recently.
But they can avoid it for only so long.
“How can you spend as much time and capital and effort as we did on this and you come up empty?” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said Wednesday. “There’s a feeling that you just sort of go back to your corners and wait it out for a while, kind of regroup. I’m ready to talk about it again, because I think we missed a huge opportunity. I’ve been pretty frank about it.”
Hancock, the executive director, said there’s no need for urgency.
“I am happy to report the commissioners did not dive back into expansion this week,” Hancock said. “They will, but not yet. We have time. There’s plenty of time. But I expect the conversation will get back going sometime within the next year.”
Aresco predicted a similar timeline.
“I think we’ll have some side conversations, but I don’t think there’s going to be any intensity to them,” he said. “I also think the timetable could be six months to a year before we gather again, but we’re gonna have to, because we’re going to have to keep talking to the networks at some point, right? So we’re going to want to have a plan in place.”
The CFP still hasn’t announced the national championship sites for the final two years of the current deal, though multiple news outlets have reported Miami and Las Vegas are being considered. The 10 FBS commissioners, who comprise the CFP’s management committee along with Swarbrick, would have had to have been unanimous in their agreement to change the current format before the 12-year agreement expires after the 2025 season. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 voted against expansion at this time for various, separate reasons.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips stated publicly in mid-January that his conference was united in its stance that “this is not the right time for expansion.” He said the sport first needs to consider the impacts of name, image and likeness rules, the transfer portal and an NCAA governance structure that is undergoing a major overhaul. Earlier this week, the NCAA announced president Mark Emmert will step down by June 2023.
Phillips told ESPN on Thursday the spring meetings have been thoughtful, productive and collaborative.
“The approach and conversations have been positive as we collectively move ahead together in all things related to the future of college football and the College Football Playoff,” he said. “In the sense that it’s not time-consuming, it’s not pressing, it allows us to look at a lot of other issues related to college football, not just a model.”
In addition to the ACC’s concern about the generally tumultuous time in college athletics, other major obstacles to expansion included: an inability to accommodate the Pac-12’s relationship with the Rose Bowl, which wants to maintain its traditional day and time along with its media rights; disagreements about revenue distribution; and whether the Power 5 conference champions should receive automatic bids to an expanded playoff — a component staunchly supported by the Big Ten, but not a majority in the room.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff shared Sankey’s reluctance to engage in a discussion about it now.
“We’re not talking about [playoff] expansion until we collectively have something to announce,” he said.
In some ways, it gets easier to expand the playoff for the 2026 season and beyond, as the commissioners will be constructing a new contract instead of unraveling an existing one. Instead of needing a unanimous vote, they will need a majority of the group to agree to it, including a majority of the Power 5 commissioners.
“Whoever’s willing to participate in whatever the next format is will participate,” Hancock told ESPN recently.
That’s where it can get a little tricky, though.
“You can examine the weighted voting and say, ‘Gee, this can get adopted without the SEC’s support,'” Swarbrick said. “Of course you don’t have a playoff without the SEC. So that’s the reality of it.”
The original 12-team proposal, which was created by Swarbrick, Sankey, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, included the six highest-ranked conference champions, plus the next six highest-ranked teams. Sankey has said repeatedly his league has been content with the four-team system, though the SEC voted in favor of the original 12-team proposal.
Sankey said on Thursday that it’s not fair to assume his soon-to-be 16-team superconference would benefit from an expanded playoff with the pending additions of Oklahoma and Texas.
“I’ve said in July and August and September, we could stay at four,” Sankey said. “If people think that’s posturing, it’s not. We’re going to have a really, really incredible conference when we’re at 16 teams.”
The Big 12’s position on expansion will depend in large part upon who replaces Bowlsby, who turned 70 in January and announced his retirement earlier this month. He said his input will depend on the extent he’s asked for it.
“If there’s some role I can play, I’ll be glad to do it,” he said.
Bowlsby attended the CFP spring meetings looking tan and refreshed from a recent family vacation — a far cry from when he packed up his briefcase in Indianapolis and left an expansion meeting early in frustration.
“I found nothing at all that raised my blood pressure,” he said with a smile. “It was all good.”