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As the industry leader in evaluating and measuring marketing investments, Navigate has a wealth of knowledge in the sponsorship and marketing space. This blog shares our knowledge and insights on current events in the sports business, marketing and sponsorship worlds.

Maestas: Expanded playoff would generate millions annually for the schools, increase audience and solve controversies

Navigate Research - Friday, December 06, 2019
Expanded playoff would generate millions annually for the schools, increase audience and solve controversies
Push the championship game back into January to avoid conflicts with the NFL

*** AJ Maestas, founder and CEO of Navigate Research, a leading data and analytics firm, has agreed to write a regular column for the Hotline on the business and economics of college sports. His November article on declining attendance in college football can be found here.
Having worked in the sports industry for over 20 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see and experience some of the greatest sporting events across the globe. From witnessing the World Cup games in Russia and Brazil to watching the final stages of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in Alaska, I’ve become a fan of almost every sport.

However, nothing compares to watching my Washington Huskies play football every Saturday in the fall. There’s something about being an alumnus — being part of a community, creating new memories and remembering old memories — that will always solidify college football as my favorite sport.

As excited as I am about college football moving away from the two-team Bowl Championship Series system to the new four-team College Football Playoff, I can’t help but think about the benefits of expanding the CFP even more.

There are 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is the largest collection of teams or set of competitors in any league in the world by a multiple of four. With only four of those teams getting into the playoff (three percent), that’s an extremely large league with an extremely small playoff. 

As a result, some conferences know they don’t have the strength-of-schedule or level of competition to ever make the playoff. Group of Five administrations, players and fans can only dream about the possibility of winning a national championship.

While the benefits of inclusion would be tremendous, expansion still isn’t an easy decision. There are many factors to weigh and many stakeholders to consider before moving forward.

To dive into this topic with true expert knowledge, data and projections, I turned to Navigate’s Senior Vice President of Analytics, Matt Balvanz.

Balvanz has been leading our secondary research division for over 10 years, developing cutting-edge analysis methodologies and focusing on sponsorship valuation of naming rights deals, sponsorship category research, media-rights and apparel rights analysis, conference realignment and more.


Before jumping into the current CFP format, it’s important to compare the postseason structure against other popular U.S. and global sports leagues.

For example, in domestic professional leagues, 30-to-50 percent of teams make the playoffs, which keeps all stakeholders excited about the potential of winning a championship for a much greater part of the season than is the case in major college football.

International soccer leagues like the UEFA Champions League and Premier League offer 20-32 teams the opportunity to win championships using various point systems, group stage round-robin competitions and single-elimination tournaments.

The National Rugby League’s playoffs (Australia) include eight of its 16 teams.

Without question, the CFP is more exclusive than any other league in the world.

Whether under the BCS model or in the era of the CFP, several worthy teams have been excluded due to the limited berths available in the tournament.
Below is a quick sample of the most controversial selections:
  • 2004 – Auburn finished the year 12-0 but was not selected to be in the BCS national championship game, which instead featured USC (13-0) and Oklahoma (12-1).
  • 2011 – Alabama didn’t win the SEC but was selected to play LSU in the championship instead of an 11-1 Oklahoma State team that won the Big 12. In the end, the rematch between LSU and Alabama was not a competitive game (Alabama won 21-0), but many critics believe the result was the nail in the coffin for the BCS.
  • 2014 – Ohio State was selected for the CFP ahead of TCU and Baylor. All three were one-loss teams at the time; there was no clear-cut reason for selecting Ohio State given schedules and results.
  • 2016 – The Buckeyes were again selected for the CFP. They were not a conference champion and ended up losing in the semifinal to Clemson (31-0). This was the year Group of Five member Western Michigan finished the regular season 13-0 and was still excluded from the CFP.
  • 2017 – Alabama made the semifinals without winning the SEC, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions were not selected.

There are several routes college football could take to improve the current system.

One method wouldn’t require expansion: Create an algorithm-based selection process where the formula is transparent, and the path is clear to all vested parties — thereby eliminating the need for objective selection decisions.

Another potential fix is expanding the playoff to eight, 16 or 32 teams to have more automatic qualifiers and a few at-large teams.

More drastic options could include consolidating all major conferences and have four champions qualify. That would require cutting the FBS pool to 64 teams with true division champions making the CFP. A promotion and relegation system could be installed — the type seen so often in international sports leagues.

While there are many potential fixes, the best course of action, in our opinion, is creating an eight-team format.

It would include five automatic qualifiers — the champions of the Power Five conferences — plus one automatic qualifier from the Group of Five and two at-large teams.
This structure would solve many issues, such as:

*** Conferences could determine their own champions, eliminating the issues of unbalanced conference and non-conference schedules. One conference’s championship game would not impact another conference’s chances of securing a CFP berth.

*** The Group of Five would be given a participant each year, offering the potential for a Cinderella story that would appeal to both existing and potential mass audiences. Imagine what may have been possible had this structure been in place for Boise State and UCF over the past decade.

*** Almost all human bias and inequities would be removed with only two at-large teams selected.

*** And regarding the dates:

The conference championship games could serve as the first round/quarterfinals, negating the need to change the infrastructure. Or the major New Year’s bowls could become the quarterfinal round, with the semifinal moving back a week.

And we would recommend one more adjustment:
Play the championship game the week before the Super Bowl, when there are no NFL games — it’s a perfect opportunity and would likely break historical viewership records for the game.

Expanding the playoff can have enormous potential financial benefits for competing schools and conferences.

To illustrate, consider that there have been about 25 million television viewers for the CFP championship and 20 million for the semifinals, which totals roughly 65 million TV viewers per year.

If the playoffs expanded to eight teams, four games would be added to the inventory with a likely audience of 15 million viewers each — another 60 million in total.
Based on the average payout by ESPN on a per-TV-viewer basis, we estimate that an expansion to eight teams would bring in at least another $420 million per year, and expansion to 16 teams would add another $560 million annually.

That’s tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue for the conferences — and millions for the individual schools.

Combine that with the current payout for the four-team event, $467 million per year from ESPN, and the total for eight teams would be $887 million per year.
A 16-team event would generate up to $1.45 billion per year.

These estimates don’t include the potential lift in TV viewership from a greater overall interest in each round from fans and non-fans.

There is also precedent for playoff expansion creating more interest and meaningful games, such as:
  • MLB – Since the Wild Card rounds where added, 13 Wild Card teams have reached the World Series and seven have won the World Series, showing that teams not expected to win championships under old formats can still excel in a championship tournament format.
  • FCS – Expanded playoffs from 16 to 20 teams, and then to 24 teams. But the increases have not resulted in too much parity: North Dakota State has won seven of the last eight championships despite having to win more games
  • Rose Bowl – Before the Rose Bowl was part of the playoffs, TV viewership was around 18 million. Since the change to a semifinal game, viewership has risen to well over 20 million, and sometimes over 25 million.
  • Sugar Bowl – Similar to the Rose Bowl, viewership has increased from 16 million to 20+ million as part of a playoff.
Expansion or restructuring of the postseason is not as simple as it appears from the outside. With major changes come major challenges for administrations, coaches, and most importantly, student-athletes.

Below are some common objections raised by those who want to maintain the current system, along with some initial counterpoints for each.

*** Since conferences are all independent and control their own rights and TV deals, expanding a playoff would require consolidation and giving up some rights. But with a few dominant TV players and conferences that operate fairly closely to each other, these hurdles can likely be overcome
*** An extra round would mean extra games for the players, which is important to consider when student-athletes are already spread too thin. But the recommended eight-team playoff really only adds a single, incremental game for a few teams.

*** Some administrators worry that final exams in December would be more complicated if football players have a potential extra game, but even now these same players are completing final exams while juggling bowl games and other events, so this likely wouldn’t create any new problems.

*** Many school presidents and chancellors balk at the thought of the football season crossing into the winter semester, making a championship game the week before the Super Bowl counter to their desires. But many sports, including college basketball, cut across multiple semesters. Again, this is an issue that has been solved before with other sports.

*** The Rose Bowl has a lot of brand equity, and potentially moving the date and significance of the game with an expanded playoff could jeopardize its standing. However, not making an important change in order to protect the history of a single game is not in the best interest in of college football. And the game has remained significant after changes to the BCS and the CFP, so it would likely maintain a very strong reputation under any structure.

Even though college football is one of the most popular leagues in the U.S., the sport has a championship problem.

The good news is that it can be solved with limited challenges; fans are ready and willing to adapt.

For now, the most logical next step is expanding to an eight-team playoff that starts with the conference championship games or the existing New Year’s bowls as the quarterfinals.

Move the championship game to the week before the Super Bowl, and leave open the potential for future expansion to 16 and 32 teams.

The path is clear — and it definitely passes the eye test.

NFL Military Appreciation Day...For a Price

Navigate Research - Thursday, May 14, 2015
While #DeflateGate has been the face of all sports news lately, the topic of the U.S. military paying for tributes at sporting events, particularly in the NFL, has certainly not gone unnoticed. Recently, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake expressed his disapproval of using government military funds to publicly thank soldiers for their service at sporting events. When you put it that way, it does seem rather unnapreciative and disrepectful, but is that actually the case and reasoning for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to associate with an NFL team? Are NFL teams really that cutthroat when it comes to making money that they won't even honor our country's soldiers without compensation? 

When the business agreements between the military and NFL teams are broken down, that is not exactly the case. Sports Business Daily recently posted an article revealing the amount of revenue teams have received from the National Guard over the past 3 years with the Atlanta Falcons coming out on top at over $1 million. Additionally, National Guard Maj. Earl Brown said that the organization is to invest $1.266M to NFL advertising during the 2015 fiscal year alone. He states the purpose of this investment is to aid the organization in the recruitment process through advertising, signage, and website presence. 

This may be the missing piece in this issue. Teams are not being paid specifically to honor their "Hometown Heroes" or honor deceased soldiers. Atlanta Falcon's owner Arthur Blank's position in this debate mirrors the idea that this agreement is to be beneficial for both parties involved, as in any business transaction. The Atlanta Falcons, along with many other NFL teams, are paid to advertise in conjunction with the military's recruiting efforts, not to only show support to U.S. military soldiers. Many teams have argued that action would occur without being paid to do so. 

While money is being spent in order to advertise with the NFL teams, it is not used for what is to be a genuine appreciation for soldiers' service. Once people can fully understand the impact that sports sponsorships have on military organizations, the more at ease people may become with the military's decision to invest in sports sponsorship. At Navigate Research, we can assist in the understanding of the ROI and impact of sponsorships and aid in making smart and effective marketing investments. Let us help your organization or brand. 

How Strong is the NFL's Love for Tom Brady?

Navigate Research - Friday, May 08, 2015

4 Super Bowl Rings, a supermodel wife, a pristine image, and enough money to go to the Kentucky Derby and the #FightoftheCentury in the same day...sounds like the perfect life to me, right? It likely was for Tom Brady until he recently went under scrutiny for his involvement in the New England Patriots' "DeflateGate" investigation. If you missed the verdict, it can be summed up with the phrase "More probable than not." These words were used to describe Brady's "probable" awareness of the deflated footballs. Is that enough to harshly punish the NFL's "Golden Boy?" The answer to this question is not so simple.

Any avid football fan cannot deny the work ethic, leadership skills, and raw talent of Tom Brady. Both on and off the field, Brady has kept a rather clean image. Sure, he had a child out of wedlock, but most people can look past that. He's now a father of 3 (2 with current supermodel wife Giselle Bunchden) and happily married. While his peers still see him as the Tom Brady they've always known, the revealing of the verdict has caused the media to heavily scrutinize the integrity of Brady. Obliged to react, the NFL is now faced with yet another punishment case in which they must handle extremely carefully while keeping the most important fact in mind...the NFL is a business. Do they really want to suspend the 4-time Super Bowl champion that all general football fans tune in to watch? On the flip side, do they want to potentially risk losing fans, sponsors, and league supporters with too soft of a soft punishment?


For Tom Brady as in individual, marketing experts say he will unlikely lose sponsors. Brady remains to much of an iconic figure for brands to cut ties with him, especially those in which he endorses, such as Ugg and SmartWater,. These luxury brands are less affected by on and off the field antics than those brands who solely associate with sports. His current situation, also, does not involve the harming of another human being or living creature, like some of the other cases the NFL has dealt with in the past. So in the eyes of his sponsors, they likely do not see his current predicament to greatly affect consumer's views of their brands. 

The NFL, on the other hand, will have to tread lightly. While the recent cases that have been said to tarnish the NFL's brand have all been off the field, Brady and the Patriots' case is smack dab in the middle. The integrity of the game and sport has been violated (not to mention twice by the same team under the same coach). Not only fans, but current players, coaches, and league officials expect justice to be served, but what does that entail? 1 game? 4 games? A whole season? While there are many varying opinions on the matter, the NFL, again, must remember they are a business and have many stakeholders to please. No single answer will make everyone happy, but one can only hope for the majority. 

Chicago Hosts the NFL's First Draft Town

Navigate Research - Friday, May 01, 2015
For those die hard NFL football fans, the time between the Superbowl in February and the first official game come September, can seem like an eternity. Thankfully, there is training camp, pre-season games, and, of course, the annual NFL Draft to get fans excited for the upcoming season. While often times the first few picks may be an easy guess, there is nothing more exciting to a football fanatic than to see some of the best college football players sign with their team. 

This year's NFL Draft is currently taking place in Chicago for the first time since 1964, as it has been held in New York City every year since. While this is not the very first NFL Draft hosted in Chicago, this year marks the first NFL Draft Town festival for not only Chicago, but the league itself. What is the Oikos Triple Zero NFL Draft Town and what can you do there? For those lucky individuals who have attended an NCAA Final Four, it will look something like a Bracket Town or Fan Fest filled with activities for people of all ages (especially kids). The NFL Draft Town is a 3-day long event with activities ranging from participating in a NFL combine activities, practicing your field goal kick, floating in a wind tunnel skydive simulator, and listening to live music and dance performances, to name a few. 

In addition to the numerous activities put on by the NFL, there are several official NFL sponsor tents and activities including the Xbox One Tailgaming where fans can showoff their video gaming skills and the Wilson Football Factory, where you can see how official NFL game balls are individually produced. As an official NFL sponsor, this first of its kind event is a must for brands to display their association to the NFL. This event allows sponsors to get a jump-start on their NFL sponsorship activations and to engage with football fans sooner. 

Will the NFL continue to put on this free 3-day event for fans? According to ESPN Chicago's, Jon Greenberg, "Spending the day in Draft Town "reiterated an immutable life lesson: The NFL, through its many trials and tribulations, is still No. 1." With a statement as strong as that, it could bode extremely well now and into the future for the NFL. But is it feasible in every city? Luckily, Chicago has the means to attract thousands of football fans from all over the mid-west to attend the event, however, this doesn't necessarily mean Chicago will come out financially on top after hosting the 1st NFL Draft Town and the NFL Draft itself. However, given it's already successful start, Chicago may have a solid shot for having The NFL Draft returning to The Windy City.