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The New Economics Of College Football Playoffs


It's here - the big moment for college football fans. Tomorrow is the first ever playoff championship game. The Oregon Ducks take on the Ohio State Buckeyes. And while fans are excited about the football, we're going to talk about what the playoffs mean for the economics of the game. Joining us now is Mike Pesca, host of "The Gist" podcast on Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: So this is about money. Break it down.

PESCA: Of course. To quote Jessie J, it's all about the money. The number one most-watched game in the history of college football was one semi-final last week. And the other - number two most-watched game in the history of cable television was the second semi-final. People are into college football. And it wasn't ever really realized until the NCAA got its act together and said we're not going to do the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl. I mean, we'll still keep them, but we'll have the structure of a chairmanship, of a playoffs. Americans love playoffs. And guess what? This championship game is selling for - a 30 second ad spot is selling for a million dollars. Now the Super Bowl is selling for 4 million, so it's not quite there. But...

MARTIN: But still.

PESCA: I wouldn't be shocked if the ratings for this championship game rival the Oscars, if it was the second most-watched thing on television of the year.

MARTIN: But I still don't understand. It feels more legitimate to have a playoff before a championship. So fans wanted this to happen. If this is so economically viable why didn't it happen before?

PESCA: Well, there were fiefdoms. So the answer was economics before, but it was more of the cartel of the college bowls. And there was people who made money on the college bowls, even though they're all considered nonprofits. But the college bowls had a lot of power within college football. And it's an old boys club. So it's very hard to get the ball rolling on change even though people who enjoyed competition and people enjoyed sports and people enjoyed making as much money as you could from an enterprise that America is crazy about wanted it to change.

So now that it's changed, and now that those semifinals prove that people are really into college football, I think that ESPN has got - even though they spent, you know, billions of dollars on a 12-year contract - they are getting what amounts to a great return on investment. I don't see how this doesn't expand to, say, an 18 playoffs. There are so many weeks between the end of the regular season which ends in early December. Hey, look at the date on the calendar. It's getting to mid-January.


PESCA: So you could fit three weeks' worth of games there. And the games get better, too, when you think about it because the national championship used to be after, like, a 40-game layoff. Now they only played 10, 11 days ago. So the games will be better.

MARTIN: Real quick because we have talked with the NFL. But really quick - are the players - are the college players themselves getting any of this cash?

PESCA: A little bit. It was just - it would be too guilt inducing if you had the specter of their families not being able to afford to go to these games because the players have amateurism impressed upon them. Right? I consider them indentured amateurs. So now there's a stipend so families, two family members, can go and a few thousand dollars can be spent on hotels. That's about it, though.

MARTIN: OK. OK, can we talk about the game last night? I mean, I know there were a couple NFL games last night. But the Patriots and the Ravens, there was this awesome play.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. So OK, so the Panthers lost to the Seahawks. And then in the other game...

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

PESCA: The Patriots were hosting the Ravens. And it was - Ravens go out to an early lead, but back-and-forth. Play of the game - Tom Brady, who had thrown for three touchdowns, or would go on to throw for three, swings it out. So it looks like a throw, but it's really behind him which means that it's a handoff, essentially. Throws it to Julian Edelman, who played quarterback in college.

MARTIN: But not a quarterback now.

PESCA: Normally a wide receiver - throws it for a 51-yard touchdown to Danny Amendola, proves to be the decisive play of the game. There is parallelism. It was the longest postseason touchdown thrown by a non-quarterback since a game called the Ice Bowl in 1967. That was when the Packers hosted the Cowboys. For the second time ever, the Packers are hosting the Cowboys today.

MARTIN: Whoa, weird. Bringing it all together.

PESCA: There you go. We're going to see another wide receiver throw a touchdown, for sure.

MARTIN: I hope so. It was awesome. Mike Pesca, host of Slate's podcast "The Gist." Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.