Most TV rights contracts go up incrementally, but the rights for the soon-to-be expanded College Football Playoff are set to explode.
For starters, the current deal pays out between $500 and $600 million per year for seven games -- the New Year's Six (which includes the two semifinals) plus the title game. The 2018-19 postseason paid out $549 million, according to documents obtained by USA Today at the time. TV contracts tend to be backloaded, but let's just say each of those seven games is worth $80 million per game.
The 12-team Playoff will expand the event to 11 games -- a 4-round extravaganza lasting from mid-December to mid-January. We don't know exactly how much ESPN is playing for each game but, in theory, a first-round or semifinal game will be worth less than a semifinal game in the current iteration, but significantly more than a New Year's Six game. A Cincinnati-Georgia first-round Playoff game is a much more valuable television property than a Cincinnati-Georgia Peach Bowl with no title implications.
A simple back-of-the-napkin calculation would mean the 12-team CFP is worth $862 million, based on the 2018-19 figures.
But the people who actually know what they're talking about say the windfall could be even greater than that.
USA Today contacted media research firm Navigate, who said a 12-team CFP could be worth as much as $2 billion per year. The firm arrived at that figure by calculating how much money ESPN generates per viewer of the semifinal games and the championship, adding in the market-race increases that other sports leagues have secured in the years since the CFP contract was originally signed, then projecting that out over 11 games:
Using a projected future value of $10.40 per viewer and an expected total combined audience of 183 million for 11 games that would exist under the format recommended Thursday by a CFP subcommittee, that’s about $1.9 billion.
Factor in likely increases in other revenue streams, such as ticket sales, sponsorships and merchandising — which Navigate estimates as accounting for about 10% to 15% of the CFP’s revenue — and the total average annual value of the event moves above $2 billion.
Just how much is $2 billion, really?
That's about how much CBS and Fox pay to broadcast 18 weeks of Sunday afternoon NFL games, a handful of playoff games, and a Super Bowl every four years.
That's three-fourths of what the NBA earns over an entire season.
That's two-thirds of what ESPN will pay for every SEC football, basketball, etc., game for a full decade.
All for 11 football games.
The CFP paid out a baseline of $67 million to each of the Power 5 leagues plus $6 million for each Playoff participant in 2020 (the Group of 5 split $92 million). If the new TV deal grows the pie to more than three times its current size and, well, you can do your own math from there.
The fascinating thing moving forward will be how the CFP's management committee and ESPN move from here. The Playoff has announced it will not expand until 2024 at the earliest, but the current deal with ESPN doesn't expire until after the 2025-26 season.
If you're conferences running the CFP, do you play the first two years of the 12-team Playoff under the current contract so you can hit the open market after 2025 -- thereby allowing you to play ESPN and, say, Fox, off of each other, or perhaps split the TV rights between the two networks?
And if you're ESPN, how much do you pay now to keep all 11 games on your air? How far apart is that number from what the CFP would take to give up hitting free agency?
All of this remains to be seen, but big-time college football programs are about to get richer. The only question is how much.