Wednesday October 4, 2023

With TCU in the CFP National Championship, Everyone Wins

  • TCU is yet again the underdog going into Monday night’s showdown at SoFi Stadium.
  • But the program's very presence is already a win for the school, the Big 12, and the CFP.
Joe Rondone/Arizona Republic
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When the 2022 college football season began, no one thought Texas Christian University would make it to the championship game in Los Angeles.

The program was coming off a 5-7 season in which their long-time head coach had departed in the middle of the season. The Horned Frogs did not appear in the season-opening AP Top 25 poll. They had a dismal 200-1 preseason chance to win the national title, according to The Action Network.

But led by first-year head coach Sonny Dykes and its Heisman-finalist quarterback Max Duggan, TCU stunned the college football world with a 13-1 record this season featuring multiple come-from-behind wins.

Six months after being ignored by many of the nation’s top college football analysts, the Horned Frogs touched down in LA to play in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Georgia — the defending champions.

The Horned Frogs are yet again the underdogs going into Monday night’s showdown at SoFi Stadium. 

But no matter who wins, TCU’s presence alone isn’t just good for the school — it’s a major financial and marketing win for the Big 12, which has never had a team in the national championship game in the four-team current format.

The interest the team has drummed up in its first CFP appearance also bodes well for the future 12-team playoff structure, which guarantees a host of underdogs.

How TCU Got Here

Last season, TCU couldn’t have been further from a CFP berth.

The team had such a dismal showing that head coach Gary Patterson stepped down in the middle of the season before he could be fired. The team hired Dykes from SMU.

“I think that if you had asked us before the season started, would we play for a national championship, most of us probably didn’t think that we would,” Dykes told reporters on Tuesday. “Thought that we were capable, certainly, but we just hadn’t done it together.”

The team’s incredible season has already impacted the school in a positive way — Cinderella seasons yielding increases in donations, ticket sales, and merchandise purchases are only the tip of the iceberg.

  • The school estimates it has earned $2.5 billion in media exposure, according to ESPN.
  • Incoming TCU president Daniel Pullin told local reporters applications are also up, as well as web traffic.
  • In the long run, the football team’s prowess could even help entice top-rated professors — a phenomenon other university presidents have confirmed.

“There is really not a corner of our university that isn’t benefiting right now,” Pullin said.


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The season has already jumpstarted investments to ensure the football program’s success this year is the beginning of a fortified dynasty rather than a fleeting memory.

In December, the school extended Dykes’ contract to 2028 and awarded him a raise. While TCU doesn’t disclose coaching salaries, Dykes will reportedly take home somewhere between $5 million-$8 million annually.

The school also announced a $40 million renovation to its athletic facilities that will be available to all sports. The entire project will be funded by private donors likely motivated by the football program’s success this year.

A Win for the Big 12

A little over a year ago, the Big 12’s very survival was in question — it was under threat of being picked apart after Texas and Oklahoma announced they would leave for the SEC.

But since then, the conference has signed four new members with the help of former commissioner Bob Bowlsby. It then enlisted new commissioner Brett Yormark, who brought in new staff, a $2.28 billion media rights deal, and a new vision.

Now, the conference has schools in both the men’s basketball and FBS football championship games in a period of just 12 months. 

TCU’s very appearance in the CFP has an immediate financial impact:

  • The Big 12 will receive $6 million for the school’s Fiesta Bowl appearance alone. 
  • It also suggests that the conference’s football relevance will continue even as it loses two of its biggest brands.

Last year, future Big 12 school Cincinnati made the playoff. And TCU will remain in the conference while Texas and Oklahoma, two teams that didn’t even make New Year’s Six appearances this year, bolt.

This bodes well for the conference’s ability to generate postseason revenue in the future and elevates its brand. And in a college football landscape where realignment is a perennial threat, a rich conference with consistent winners is not only stable, but also attractive to future members. 

That could matter to Yormark, who has previously said he wants to expand west — beyond just landing a current team in LA for the title game.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for TCU and the Big 12 Conference — we are thrilled to be a part of TCU’s historic season and welcome the opportunity to showcase the Conference to new markets,” said Yormark. “The Conference is making the most of its time out west, and we look forward to being a part of the biggest night college football has to offer.”

A Bright Future for the CFP

This is the second-to-last National Championship game after a four-team playoff. Starting in 2024, the CFP will launch a bracket with 12 teams — the six highest-ranked conference champions and six automatic qualifiers.

The new format guarantees a Group of 5 appearance every year, as well as multiple opportunities for “Cinderella stories” like TCU. After all, Big Ten and SEC schools have dominated half of the spots in the four-team era.

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“I think there’s definitely an opportunity not only to obviously see new faces, but for teams like TCU to potentially make a run to get into the big stage like this,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit told reporters this week.

While Dykes was able to break into a four-team playoff, he’s in favor of more schools getting opportunities in the future.

“I’ve always believed that the cream rises, and the more opportunities that schools outside of the traditional brands get, the more those schools can become traditional brands,” Dykes said. “I think if you exclude them, it’s hard to break in. And I think this will give a lot of schools like TCU an opportunity to get in the mix and show what they’re capable of.”

As it turns out, there are already early signs that a Cinderella story is a good business opportunity — beyond the proven phenomenon in men’s March Madness.

  • TCU sold out all of its allotted tickets to SoFi stadium — and 5,000 fans who wanted tickets couldn’t get them, athletic director Jeremiah Donati tweeted.
  • Demand is up overall for the game, according to StubHub, as sales have already outpaced the same period in 2022.
  • The Horned Frogs also drew major television viewership to the Fiesta Bowl, suggesting fans are interested in watching newcomers to the playoff. It was the third-most-watched afternoon semifinal in CFP era history.
  • The game was also rated one of the top 50 sporting events in 2022 by Nielsen, according to SportsMediaWatch.

Despite all the off-field wins, however, Dykes is still counting on pulling out yet another major upset. 

“I think the Cinderella label probably started to wear off a little bit after the three-game gauntlet where we had to play three or four on the road — West Virginia, Texas, and Baylor,” he said. “I think at that point our guys started to believe, OK, we’re a real football team, and we’re a battle-hardened team, and we’ve had to overcome some adversity.

“And you know what? We have a chance to make a run.”

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