Here’s a perfect solution to the playoff disaster coming this year
The first year of the College Football Playoff could not have gone off much better — sold-out crowds for both the semifinal games and the championship, record TV ratings and Ohio State’s captivating "Cinderella" storyline.
Year 2 is off to a rockier start, and the games are still more than 11 months away.
As reported Monday by SportsBusinessJournal, and confirmed by industry sources, ESPN has asked playoff organizers to shift next season’s planned Dec. 31 Orange and Cotton Bowl semifinals to Sat. Jan. 2, a move the overwhelming majority of fans would presumably embrace but which the commissioners have thus far resisted.
The semifinals are currently slated for Dec. 31 (or 30th, when the 31st falls on a Sunday) in eight of the 11 remaining seasons in the playoff’s contract. According to a source, ESPN is not asking to renegotiate the entire deal but rather take advantage of the lone instance in the entire 12 years when both the calendar and the semifinal bowl rotation align the way they will in 2015-16.
"We understand and appreciate their interest in this," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement regarding Dec. 31 games. "The fact is that we have started a new tradition of back-to-back tripleheaders on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. We’re not interested in changing for one year, then returning for the next 10. This event has been very well received and we are excited about the future and about enhancing the concept of a ‘holiday within a holiday’ on New Year’s Eve and New year’s Day."
Of course that tradition is only one year old. But there’s already been no shortage of criticism over the CFP’s plan to regularly play its most important games at a time many people are either working (the first game kicks off at 2 p.m. PT) or out celebrating New Year’s Eve (this year’s Sugar Bowl semifinal ended after midnight on the East Coast).
It just so happens there’s a logical alternative this season. Not only does Jan. 2 fall on a Saturday, but the NFL playoffs will not have started yet. The league is not currently expected to schedule Week 17 games that day.
"They could look like heroes" by moving the games, said an industry source. Not only that, it would assure a relatively clean schedule for the first four years of the playoff. In Year 3 (2016-17), the Peach and Fiesta semifinals are scheduled for Dec. 31, but that day at least falls on a Saturday. And then it’s back to Jan. 1 for the Rose and Sugar in Year 4 (2017-18).
To understand why playoff organizers would resist such a seemingly no-brainer change, it’s worth revisiting how Dec. 31 playoff games came to be in the first place.
Back in 2012, ESPN locked in its contract with the Big Ten and Pac-12 to keep the Rose Bowl for 12 more years before the commissioners even finalized the playoff structure. It paid a reported $80 million annually. And there was never any question the Pasadena game would maintain its traditional New Year’s Day time slot. It’s been played in the late afternoon, shortly after the Tournament of Roses parade, for decades.
Meanwhile, before they even knew which bowl would host it, the SEC and Big 12 made a power play and created their own New Year’s Day matchup and preemptively declared the game — referred to at the time as the "Champions Bowl" — would be played in primetime after the Rose Bowl. ESPN also paid $80 million to nail down what would eventually become the Sugar Bowl and locked in that time slot as well.
Only after the fact did the FBS commissioners finally formalize the four-team playoff format, then put it on the TV market, at which point they and eventual partner ESPN had to work around the aforementioned arrangements. The commissioners were adamant about keeping both semifinal games on the same day, so that neither team would get an extra day to prepare for the championship game.
Hence, Dec. 31 and the accompanying push to "change the paradigm of New Year’s Eve in this country," as Hancock has said many times since 2012.
Now, after seeing this year’s Jan. 1 semifinals exceed the most optimistic projections and both garner larger audiences (28 million-plus) than the last BCS championship game, ESPN would prefer the commissioners put off that paradigm shift. Industry experts believe Dec. 31 games would suffer at least a 10 percent ratings drop. It’s possible attendance and fan travel will suffer as well.
But the commissioners have been leery of repeating the same mistakes they did with the oft-maligned BCS. In its early years, they often gave off the appearance of making the thing up as they went along. They constantly tweaked the formula for choosing the teams, for one, in response to whatever controversy transpired the previous season, and later radically altered the calendar in moving the non-championship games as late as Jan. 5.
Therefore, their primary motivation to keep this year’s games where they are is to prevent confusion when the inevitable Dec. 31 conflict does arrive. There’s no comparable Jan. 2 fallback in future years, either because it’s a weekday or because of the NFL playoffs.
Yes, the BCS was confusing, but its bigger PR problem was that it wasn’t fan-friendly. Organizers like Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and former Big East commissioner-turned playoff selection committee member Mike Tranghese spent the bulk of the system’s existence telling a playoff-thirsty public, "No, you’re going to get a two-team championship and you’re going to like it."
Even CFP organizers would have a hard time denying that playoff games on a Saturday are more fan-friendly than playoff games on a Thursday afternoon. Or that asking your spouse to stay in and watch football on a Saturday night is far less problematic than on … New Year’s Eve. Same goes for traveling fans who would no longer have to take off multiple days of work to go to Dallas or Miami.
Moving semifinal games, just this once, to a date that makes more sense for nearly everyone involved, seems like a no-brainer. The playoff garnered widespread approval in Year 1. It’d be very BCS-esque to flush that away a year later.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.