Almost one month ago, leaders of the College Football Playoff gathered in Houston ahead of the national championship game expecting to adopt a change in format to the expanded 12-team playoff.
However, they left the meeting without a decision, as one conference delayed a vote — another hurdle in what’s been multiple years of similar challenges to find consensus in the CFP governance room.
The latest delay casts more doubt on the future of the playoff beyond 2025, the final year that the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame are contractually bonded together through the CFP’s television deal with media partner ESPN. Though the CFP is in the midst of negotiations with ESPN to extend the deal, there is currently no contractually bound playoff starting in 2026.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports earlier this week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti, for the first time publicly, expressed doubts in their commitment to the future of the CFP if leaders can’t “get right” a litany of issues. It comes on the heels of an announcement Friday that the leagues were forming a joint advisory board to study the future of college athletics.
Asked if he was committed to the CFP beyond 2025, Sankey said, “Yep, but we’ve got a lot to get right. The commitment is we want to see this get right.”
The CFP Management Committee, made up of commissioners from the 10 FBS leagues and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick, meets on Monday and Tuesday in Dallas for what is expected to be two days of work toward key decisions over the playoff’s long-term future. Sankey and Petitti stopped short of threats or ultimatums related to their inclusion in the CFP, but they each expressed frustration over challenges and delays on the 12-team format as well as the unsettled revenue-distribution model after 2025.
“We have the reality of meeting to deal with CFP governance with the 2026 season and beyond. That’s a highly important issue,” Sankey said.
“I’m new to [CFP] meetings,” said Petitti, who took over as Big Ten commissioner last spring. “How these things develop, there have been some surprises. The focus on what this is going to look like beyond 2026 is highly important and deserves a lot of time and discussion.”
The Pac-12’s proposal (soon to be Pac-2)
At their meeting ahead of the national championship game in Houston, the CFP Board of Managers, encompassing a university president from each of the 10 FBS conferences and Notre Dame, was poised to move the 12-team expanded playoff from what’s known as a 6+6 format to a 5+7 model — a decision corresponding with the Pac-12’s realignment shakeup by decreasing by one the number of automatic qualifiers and adding one at-large spot.
However, the vote was delayed by the Pac-12’s representative on the board, Washington State president Kirk Schulz, whose vote in a format change is necessary. The decision must be unanimous to change the format for the final two years of the current contract in 2024 and 2025.
According to those with knowledge of the situation, Schulz introduced to CFP leadership a proposal that seeks a guarantee of voting rights and revenue distribution to the Pac-12 (soon to be the Pac-2, with only Washington State and Oregon State) beyond the 2025 season. The proposal, presumably tied to his vote in a format change, was met with pushback.
Schulz declined to comment through a spokesperson earlier this week. The status of his proposal is unclear, but the topic is expected to be addressed during CFP meetings Monday and Tuesday. In interviews recently, the four major conference commissioners declined to get into specifics about the format situation.
That said, the CFP format is at the center of ongoing debate — both the number of overall participants as well as the number of automatic berths. The CFP Board of Managers approved an expansion format in 2022 that grants automatic spots to the six highest-ranked conference champions and at-large spots to the next six highest-ranked teams.
Given the latest realignment wave — the four power leagues swelled to 16-18 members each — the format is back under the microscope for further examination. Petitti has discussed with commissioners expansion models that include 14 and 16 teams with multiple automatic qualifiers to major conferences, sources told Yahoo Sports.
Sankey and his corresponding representative on the CFP Board, Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, have suggested in the past that the model incorporate only at-large selections.
The debate rolls on.
SMU’s impending move to the ACC has introduced more drama to the CFP room.
In a story published last month, Yahoo Sports examined the situation with SMU, which accepted an invitation to the ACC expecting to get the full $6 million in annual CFP distribution that every other Power Five team receives. However, during a November meeting, commissioners did not support granting SMU Power Five distribution for 2024 and 2025. Such a concept needs unanimity.
ACC commissioner Jim Phillips expressed his disappointment in the situation to Yahoo Sports last month and recently introduced a compromise proposal that is expected to be further examined this coming week. At least two leagues, the SEC and Big Ten, do not support granting any more Power Five distribution to those teams elevating from Group of Five to the soon-to-be Power Four — a decision, they said, that was made months ago.
In an interview last month, Sankey pointed to the CFP’s longstanding rules around modifications to revenue policies. “You have to have a unanimous vote to alter revenue distribution and diminish somebody else’s revenue,” Sankey said. “That’s it.”
The situation with SMU is a window into what is poised to be the most hotly contested debate for any new CFP contract starting in 2026: the revenue distribution model.
A future revenue-distribution model
The CFP currently divides about $460 million annually into subdivisions. The Power Five splits about 80% of the cash, followed by the Group of Five’s 20% and then a small fraction is distributed to independents and the FCS. A per-school Power Five cut is about $5-6 million.
In addition to the primary distribution, those teams qualifying for the playoff will receive $4 million. Those advancing to the quarterfinals get another $4 million, and teams in the semifinals and national championship game get $6 million for their league for each round.
How revenue is distributed will be at the heart of discussions for the future of the CFP. The new-look SEC and Big Ten will encompass most of college football’s powerhouse programs.
Most are expecting the two leagues to want more in revenue distribution as well as more weighted voting rights on key issues. They may get it, too. Starting in 2026, format and revenue matters do not need unanimous consent among the 11 commissioners and their corresponding 11 presidents.
There will be plenty of new revenues to distribute given the impending extension of the ESPN deal. The CFP and ESPN are in the final stages of agreeing to a six-year extension that would run through the 2031 season and pay $1.3 billion annually, according to a story published last month by its own network. Any format alterations to the 12-team model could be baked into the new contract.
But for now, there is nothing binding the 10 FBS leagues together beyond 2025 — a note that the CFP’s most powerful leaders are well aware of.
“We don’t know as a group what the CFP structure looks like from 2026 and beyond,” Sankey said. “That’s on our mind.”