April 19, 2024

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The College Football Playoff and ESPN agree to deal through 2031-32

The College Football Playoff and ESPN agree to deal through 2031-32

The College Football Playoff and ESPN have agreed to a new six-year, $7.8 billion contract that ensures the network will remain the sole media rights holder for the event through the 2031-32 season, they jointly announced Tuesday.

ESPN, which has held exclusive broadcast rights since the CFP began in 2015, will expand its package for the final two years of the current 12-year contract, which runs through the 2025-26 season. CFP unveils 12-team format for 2024-25 season, and ESPN will add all four new first-round games each year to the network's existing coverage of the New Year's Six bowls (now the quarterfinals and semifinals) and the CFP National Championship Game.

ESPN also secured a new six-year agreement costing $1.3 billion annually beginning in the 2026-27 season that includes exclusive rights to all expanded playoff rounds along with continued exclusive rights to all CFP-associated programming, such as the CFP. Show selections, top 25 weekly shows and more.

“ESPN has worked very closely with the College Football Playoff over the past decade to build one of the premier events in American sports,” ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement. “We look forward to strengthening our valuable relationship over the next two years, and then continuing that for another six years as we embark on a new and expanded qualifying era.

“This agreement also strengthens ESPN as the home of college football, as well as the destination for the vast majority of major college leagues over the next eight years.”

The hefty price reflects the increase in games, as the current deal was originally set up for seven games (including the New Year's Six bowls and the national championship) — and only three were actually playoff games (the semifinal and the national title game). The new contract is structured as 11 or 13 games – all playoffs – in a field of 12 or 14 teams.

“We feel really good about the value of what we get for the money we get paid,” said Nick Dawson, ESPN senior vice president of college sports programming and acquisitions. “We strongly believe the event will be even better, starting this fall with 12 teams, just in terms of how much it appeals to the country.”

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Beginning in the 2026-2027 season, the CFP National Championship game will be broadcast on ABC in addition to ESPN's MegaCast presentation. The new agreement includes expanded rights to simulcast or MegaCast CFP games across all Walt Disney Company platforms, including TWDC direct-to-consumer offerings.

Dawson said he doesn't expect much change in how audiences watch these games in the near future and that ABC and ESPN will be “the primary vehicles moving forward with the deal.”

“There is a right and flexibility to do early games on direct-to-consumer streaming services, but to date, no decision has been made on our part to even activate that right,” Dawson said. “A lot of this is future-proofing where the world is basically going through eight years, and we feel really good about the flexibility that we have, but in the near term, I don't think fans can expect to see a huge difference in terms of how games are distributed at scale.” via traditional linear television.”

The CFP format for this season and next will be five automatic qualifiers from the five top-ranked conference champions and seven at-large bids. Last week, the nine FBS commissioners and Notre Dame agreed that the playoffs would include at least 12 teams in 2026 and beyond. The CFP has full authority to determine the format.

While multiple sources have told ESPN that the CFP is leaning toward 14 teams, the number of teams and how they will qualify for the CFP after the next two seasons has not been determined. There are protections in place for the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 conference champions, Notre Dame and the top-5 ranked conference champions in the new decade.

The new TV deal specifically addresses 12- and 14-team models, but also includes “a coping mechanism if they expand beyond 14 teams,” Dawson said.

“I think at some point it will start to really impact the regular season and conference championship games,” Dawson said. “I feel like they've done a great job so far in designing the 12-team model, and maybe even the 14-team model, although we still need to understand exactly what it looks like. … I'm concerned and as you go beyond that, I think it becomes… “It's almost impossible to avoid some damage there.”

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The CFP granted ESPN the right to license a specified number of games in both the amended two-year agreement and the new six-year extension.

“As we sit here today, no decision has been made on our part as to whether or not we will continue with this,” Dawson said. “It's simply right in the deal as of now.”

Before approving the media rights deal with ESPN, the nine FBS commissioners and Notre Dame's leadership had to first agree to sign a memorandum of understanding last week outlining in broad terms what the next contract would look like. They agreed to move forward with a new revenue distribution plan that would codify the additional financial separation between the expanded Big Ten and the SEC from everyone else in college athletics.

The financial breakdown for the projected 14-team playoff would look radically different. On an annual basis, for example, Big Ten and SEC schools would each make more than $21 million — a significant increase from the roughly $5.5 million that schools in the Power 5 conferences currently pay.

In the ACC, the schools will receive more than $13 million annually, and the Big 12 schools will receive more than $12 million each. Notre Dame is expected to receive more than $12 million as well, and sources told ESPN there will be a financial incentive for any independent team that makes it to the CFP.

There will no longer be a CFP participation bonus for any of the other leagues – a detail that has been frustrating for some leaders in the G5. Annual payments to Group of Five schools will increase to just under $1.8 million from the current $1.5 million.

Currently, the CFP treats Oregon State and Washington State as independent schools in 2026 and beyond. Given the conference's uncertain status with 10 schools leaving next season, new Pac-12 Commissioner Teresa Gould did not sign the memorandum of understanding last week or the new six-year deal with ESPN, but she did agree to a revised contract with the network for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.

Now that the revenue and media rights deal has been agreed upon, the most pressing question remaining is what it will look like in 2026 and beyond. It is not known whether CFP leaders will allow one version of the 12-team field to be played or decide on the format in the coming months. CFP and ESPN leaders expect the 12-team field this fall to generate more interest among fans than in the past.

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“We firmly believe that this fall will be an exciting time for college football fans,” Dawson said. “I think the right balance between reaching out and continuing to capture the best teams in the country has been struck here, and we're excited to roll it out this fall.”

The CFP contributed the most-watched days in ESPN's nearly 45-year history, led by the CFP's first semifinal in 2015, which boosted ESPN to an average of 11.6 million viewers on New Year's Day. The CFP semifinals in 2018, 2022 and 2024 anchored ESPN in rounding out the top four full-day audiences in the network's history. College Football on ESPN represents the top 15 and more than 50 of the top 100 most-watched cable programs of all time (since 1987), with eight of the top 10 directly from the CFP semifinals or national title games.

In 2023-24, ESPN's expanded coverage of the CFP had a record year. The three-game CFP posted its most-watched matchup in six years (since Year 4) and the third-best in the CFP era with 23.6 million viewers and 15% year-over-year audience growth across the three-game series. The CFP National Championship and New Year's Six averaged 15.1 million viewers, the best audience in five years and the fifth-highest in the CFP's past decade.

The agreement with the CFP marks the second significant extension of ESPN's college sports media rights in 2024, following an eight-year deal with the NCAA in January that includes exclusive rights to 40 NCAA Tournament events. ESPN now boasts exclusive domestic rights to every major college tournament outside of men's basketball, and international rights to all major college tournaments.

“This new agreement strengthens the future of College Football Playoff broadcasting for many years to come,” said Mississippi State President Mark Keenum, CFP Chairman of the Board of Directors. “ESPN has been a key part of the overwhelming success of the playoffs over its first 10 years. Adding ABC to this expanded relationship is just the next step in the continued growth of one of the year's best sporting events.”