Change is hard. It gets even more challenging to implement changes when a dozen or so different groups — owners, players, coaches, referees, media, central administration and others (sure, maybe even fans) — have competing priorities for how things should shift.
However, change is a necessary component of progress. What is fascinating, though, is when seemingly all stakeholders are rallying for the same change — and it still takes forever to implement.
When it comes to football, without change, we would still be living in a world without a forward pass. The incremental improvements in how the game is structured and officiated have made football safer and more profitable through the years. While some changes remain controversial despite their obvious benefits (like how some like to gripe about targeting rules despite their objective of reducing concussions), others make so much sense that their lack of implementation is almost painful.
As an example, the NFL — after literal years of consideration — finally changed its overtime rules this week to allow for both teams to have one offensive possession in playoff overtime periods. Finally, after consternation surrounding the conclusion of one of the most epic NFL games in recent memory (maybe ever) when the Buffalo Bills fell to the Kansas City Chiefs in a one-possession overtime, the NFL’s owners collectively agreed to change how overtime will be structured moving forward.
It’s a great change that’s been a long time coming. The only folks who might be unhappy about it would be the Chiefs — except they themselves were the ones who’d advocated for such a rule change in 2019 after their loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. The shift ensures a better quality game that allows both teams to have a chance at winning in extra minutes.
But of course, this wasn’t the first change to NFL overtime rules. The league changed its sudden death overtime rules back in 2010. Before then, a successful field goal on the opening possession would end the game — an even worse OT structure than the one which was just revised this week. The 2010 rule change meant that a field goal would perpetuate the overtime period. In other words, only a touchdown on the first possession could win the game. Once again, this rule change was for the postseason alone initially and only was implemented in the regular season in 2012.
It’s a token example of the conservative, incremental change that conservative commissioners like Roger Goodell have implemented over the years. Rather than recognizing that NFL overtime, on the whole, is the absolute worst and winners and losers are predicated on the result of a coin flip, the league opted just to change the rules for playoff games. If it works, we can presume that, in a few seasons, the change might come to the regular season.
It makes sense as a sort of pilot, which brings us back to the dysfunction of college football and its governance, and the palpable frustration this offseason as what should have been a widely agreed on structural change to the postseason stalled.
After all, what was the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014 if not a pilot for a broader Playoff system? And yet, here we are, eight, four-team playoffs under our collective belts, and talk of expansion in the near future has been silenced.
Like the common-sense change to NFL overtime, it seems at first glance like everyone wins when it comes to an expanded CFP, which makes the discussions around its implementation and the perennial kicking of the can down the road mind-numbing.
No one wants to go back to the BCS (please, no), but there’s no denying the host of issues that are built into the structure of a four-team playoff bracket — most notably, that the Power Five is called the Power Five because there are five major conferences vying for just four playoff spots. Throw in Group of Five contenders a la Cincinnati and independents since Notre Dame insists on being a special snowflake and the CFP picture is almost always a murky scenario. The regular discussion of two SEC teams incites further anger — at least for people not in the southeast.
The expanded CFP would also serve to increase parity in a sport where just six teams (including Ohio State) have earned most of the 32 Playoff berths in the last eight seasons.
When it comes to stakeholders, there are few sitting on the anti-expansion bandwagon. Fans want it. ADs and presidents want it. The media wants it. Players, if they don’t want to participate, have the option to opt out just as they’ve always had.
The benefits of expansion go beyond the spirit of inclusion and fair competition, because of course there are financial implications at stake. In fact, one analysis of an expanded, 12-team playoff estimates an additional $450 million in revenue. There’s certainly precedent for that kind of number. The expanded NFL Playoffs this past season, which featured one extra game each in the AFC and NFC, resulted in an estimated $150 million in incremental revenue for the NFL.
Moreover, the impact of NIL rule changes can only serve to make expansion even more lucrative. Playoff games become even more compelling for sponsors as games feature more star power.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that CFP expansion requires unanimous approval. The proverbial naysayers could ruin the fun for everyone. Perhaps even more frustrating, the challenge is less that expansion itself is a divisive issue, but rather that there is significant disagreement as to its implementation. Things like the number of teams, the timing of games, the format of things like automatic bids and byes, and even preserving the date and time of the Rose Bowl game — all have effectively stalled the decision to move forward with expansion. Most recently, the alliance of ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 presidents served as the official stallers of this offseason’s expansion effort.
If we’re to learn anything from the NFL, however, it’s that change is possible — we just may have to endure more years of beating our collective heads against the wall in frustration before it finally happens.