The College Football Playoff, already a financial gusher for the country’s most powerful conferences, will triple in size to 12 teams no later than the 2026 season, a move intended to capitalize on the nation’s vast appetite for the sport, according to two people familiar with the arrangement.
The expanded system could be in place as soon as 2024, but executives must still negotiate the logistics and nuances that come with a larger field and a sudden surge of games with national-title implications. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because the arrangement and its details had not been publicly announced.
Whether or not the redesigned format starts that soon, Friday’s decision set the playoff on a clearer course toward the biggest television contract in college sports history, one that analysts have said could fetch close to $2 billion a year.
The agreement on Friday represented a significant turnabout from the skid that expansion ambitions had entered, including an announcement in February that the tournament would “continue the current four-team playoff for the next four years.” By then, dreams for expansion, which some college sports executives had judged last summer as a fait accompli, had sputtered as leagues jostled over members, mistrust boomed and concerns over ESPN’s role as the playoff’s lone television partner bubbled.
Many of those questions and issues remain. But Friday’s vote by 11 university presidents and chancellors reflected the broadly held view inside the richest reaches of the college sports industry that the playoff should grow sooner rather than later.
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If the playoff expands for the 2024 season, its television rights will swell to about $695 million, from roughly $470 million a year, for each of the existing contract’s last two seasons.
Far larger paydays beckon once the current deal with ESPN expires at the end of the 2025 season. With an expanded playoff now planned for no later than 2026, some executives and consultants believe that the next deal, which might include an array of broadcast partners, could yield nearly $2 billion in annual television revenue.
If those forecasts prove accurate, the playoff would have the largest annual television rights deal in college sports. The N.C.A.A.’s Division I men’s basketball tournament, a 67-game showcase that underpins the bonanza known as March Madness, is expected to average $1.1 billion in television money a year starting later this decade.
The football expansion effort is unfolding at a time of sustained tumult in college sports, especially for the industry powers — the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, as well as Notre Dame — that jointly run the playoff and distribute shares of its income to universities across the country. As television money is increasingly raining down on leagues such as the Big Ten Conference, which last month announced a record-setting suite of media contracts that will pay it at least $1 billion a year, and the Southeastern Conference, other leagues fear being left behind, in perception or reality.
Beyond business rivalries, the leagues and the industry that dominate in the public imagination have faced legal and political setbacks, particularly around the rules that restricted unpaid college athletes for generations. Still, for many fans, antitrust law matters far less than how to crown a football champion.
The playoff is the successor to the Bowl Championship Series, which used a complex formula to help determine matchups for elite games, including the title contest, for 16 seasons. The four-team playoff system debuted with the 2014 season and offered football devotees a new way to become baffled and infuriated by rankings.
There would be ritualized gripes about the conclusions of the committee charged with ranking teams, of course, but the tournament’s small size also left it vulnerable to complaints about the limited number of teams able to compete. (Although the N.C.A.A. manages the postseason for Football Championship Subdivision universities, which often have loyal local followings but little national renown, it has no control over the playoff that draws powerhouse brands such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma.)
Alabama has won three national championships in the playoff era, and Clemson has won two. Georgia, Louisiana State and Ohio State have one playoff title apiece. Deepening the sense of exclusion, just 13 of the 131 F.B.S. schools have made appearances in semifinal games, and at least one Power 5 league is currently guaranteed to be left out in any given season.
The Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences all missed the playoff last season, with the Pac-12 enduring its fifth straight year of not receiving an invitation.
Alabama, Cincinnati, Georgia and Michigan reached the playoff in 2021; Alabama and Georgia advanced to the title game for an all-SEC matchup, which Georgia won.