It seems like a great idea — at least financially. The Group of 5 — read non power conferences a.k.a. Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt and Independent Schools — are now publicly throwing around the idea that they could hold their own playoff. Again, this could be a good idea financially. These conferences and schools — outside of Independent Notre Dame — really have a minuscule shot at making the College Football Playoff. So short term in makes sense to have it’s own “playoff.” Tournaments — especially college football — can be easily branded and sponsored. It can be sold to constantly hungry rights bidders — what TV rights bubble? — in ESPN, NBC, and Fox. The problem is that it would probably be the death knell to smaller bowls.
Go flip on your television and you can probably count the exact number of fans at the ‘fill in the bowl sponsor here’ game on ESPN. You also probably helped viewership numbers immensely by turning the game on. Nick Saban was probably right when he said the College Football Playoff have watered down some of the smaller bowls. A Group of 5 playoff, or tournament, or whatever they want to call it, will continue to water down smaller bowls and make them irrelevant. After all, a lot of these smaller bowls attempt to take the best Group of 5 teams to gin up ratings and interest. That doesn’t happen if the best teams are taken into whatever Group of 5 leaders want to name the tournament.
There’s other problems as well. The top ranked Group of 5 school is contractually obligated to play Cinderella in one of the major six bowls in the CFP rotation. Either the Group of 5 school’s wagon turns into a pumpkin or the glass slipper fits, but the top schools currently has to play in one of those bowls — this year it is the Cotton Bowl — until 2025. The Power 5 could theoretically let the Group of 5 out of that responsibility, but what if a Group of 5 school is a legit contender? And before we even get to anything else: no Notre Dame is not playing in a secondary tournament against the MAC champion even if Notre Dame isn’t any good that season.
So yes, financially a Group of 5 playoff — let’s call it what it really is a tournament — could make more money. It is most likely financially viable. It’s just everything else associated with the tournament seems to be bad. Smaller bowls will mean less and struggle to get sponsors and eventually die off. That’s less content for television and advertising partners. The best Group of 5 team may not even be in the tournament. Everything else about it is bad. It’s penny wise and pound foolish. Of course, those decisions are made pretty often, so the Group of 5 playoff will be floated a few more times. At worst it’s a nice negotiating point for the smaller conferences versus the Power 5.