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Friday, July 12, 2024

Expanded CFP Could Set the Stage for Next Media Rights Battle

  • The first round of games for the 12-team College Football Playoff in 2024 and 2025 are on the market.
  • If ESPN doesn’t retain those rights, the entire package will go to just one other network.

Over the past few years, ESPN and Fox have solidified themselves as college football’s broadcast duopoly. Their next battleground could be in the College Football Playoff.

When the CFP expands to 12 teams in 2024, ESPN will own the quarterfinals, semifinals, and championship. But the first round, consisting of four games played on college campuses, will be up for grabs. 

Only one or two networks will have broadcast rights to the first two years of the expanded playoff, executive director Bill Hancock told reporters on Wednesday. ESPN will either gobble up the first-round games, or one other broadcaster will buy them as a package. 

As things stand, ESPN is interested in securing the rights to that inventory, FOS has confirmed — though the network will continue being “disciplined” with its bids.

The move would make sense, given ESPN’s clear intention of holding a majority of top-shelf football rights. The network purchased control of the entire SEC sports slate in 2020, boasts a long-term contract with the ACC, and even renewed with the Big 12. 

The network, which has relinquished Big Ten conference media rights, could have a bonus opportunity to put the conference’s teams on its channels.

But ESPN will probably have competition. If given the chance, Fox will be interested in those games, an industry source told FOS — though Fox “won’t break the bank” either.

Even a slice of the CFP could be a major boon for Fox, as holding postseason rights benefits regular-season ratings. (ESPN SVP Nick Dawson previously told FOS that it’s more difficult for ESPN to market regular-season Division I men’s basketball than it would be if the network owned men’s March Madness.)

Fox has paid billions for college football media rights in the last two years, between securing most of the Big Ten and bankrolling a portion of Big Ten and Big 12 realignment. It’s even invested in a pregame show, launching ‘Big Noon Kickoff’ in 2019 to compete with ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

A streamer like Apple, which almost bought the rights to the Pac-12, could swoop in. But as industry experts have previously noted, a streamer hasn’t successfully outbid a linear network for top-tier media rights. It’s unclear if NBC or CBS might be eyeing these games. 

The winner of the CFP’s early-round prize won’t be able to relax, however. 

In 2026, the rights to the entire package will go on the market. A previous estimate put the CFP’s future value at more than $2 billion, though a source recently said that number could be inflated in the current market.

Fox will likely be more aggressive in this round of negotiations than with just the first round in 2024 and 2025, especially if a championship game is involved, the industry source said. ESPN has also expressed its intention to come out swinging in the bidding war.

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