The Road Ahead for the College Football Playoff
Bill Hancock was the first full-time director of the NCAA Final Four, the first executive director of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and the first executive director of the College Football Playoff (CFP).
Bill’s five-decade career began in 1971 when he became assistant sports information director at the University of Oklahoma. He spent 16 years with the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, 13 years as its director. In 2005, he was appointed administrator of the BCS. He became executive director in 2009 and was named to the same role for the playoff when it was created in 2012.
Bill also has served on the USOPC staff at 15 Olympic Games and two Pan American Games.
He provided podcast host Jim Andrews with an update on the state of the playoff and what’s next for the organization, its brand and fans. Below are edited highlights of the conversation.
Jim: To start, I would be remiss, given recent developments, if I didn’t ask you about expansion. We know the playoff is staying at four teams through the 2025 season, but there are lots of people who want to see it grow after that. So where does that discussion stand and what happens next?
Bill: Our board decided not to pursue expansion before the end of the current 12-year contract. The contract was signed by 18 different entities and the only way to break the contract is for all the entities to agree to break it and start all over. We had a few people who said, “We’re just unable to agree to change.”
So we will stand down now and at some point in the future we’ll begin to focus on what the format might be for the CFP beginning with the ’26 regular season.
Jim: I guess the silver lining then may be that you have a few years to line up all the ducks that have to be lined up and have all of those conversations without the Sword of Damocles deadline hanging over your head.
Bill: Yes, we have a lot of ducks!
Jim: Beyond expansion, what do you consider the top challenges or issues facing the CFP in the coming years?
Bill: Just to continue to grow the event and draw more fans. We do very well. This is a first-world problem. We are the second-highest rated program on television behind the Super Bowl—and maybe behind the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving—certainly the second-highest rated sports program in terms of ratings. But we all want to bring more folks into our sphere. And those of us who love college football—and have forever—need to understand that there are people out there who still need to be brought into the family.
Further, we also want to enhance the brand. In our ninth season, people are coming to know our brand, but we’ve got some more work to do on that and it will continue. We’re off to a really good start in our first eight years and we’re looking forward to continuing an event that has become exceptionally popular among sports fans.
Jim: You mention bringing in new fans and expanding the tent, to use the political term, and there is so much conversation in sports today about developing the next generation of fans. We know that young adults and youth consume sports and media so much differently than previous generations, and they have different needs and desires. Is that something that is either a concern or at least something the CFP is addressing directly?
Bill: My generation consumes sports differently than my dad’s generation did! If there’s one constant, it’s the fact that there is change. So yes, we need to figure out whether we have the right delivery system to reach that coveted 18-49 demographic. I don’t know what the answers are and I don’t feel like we have a major problem, but you’re right that it is changing and as while we attempt to make sure we are relevant in the year 2022, we also have to be thinking about whether we will be relevant in the year 2042.
Jim: The CFP is now nine years old and in that relatively short period of time, the organization has been able to build quite a strong brand. Can you tell us a bit about how you were able to do that and how you plan to continue to build on the strength of what you already have?
Bill: I love talking about this, because if you think about it, we are the only major sporting event that has come online in America in the last 50-plus years since the first Super Bowl. That was an awesome opportunity for those of us who love college football and get to work with this event.
But we started off with nothing. We had me! So certainly, we had to build a staff. And while we were doing all that, we were paying attention to the brand. My belief about a brand is that you have to build a respected brand from the start.
We knew we wanted to get and maintain that respect and that the brand would be represented by the mark and by behavior—what kind of event we were running.
Creating the mark was so much fun and such an awesome opportunity. One story about the mark itself: In 2013 we decided we would have an online voting process and let the fans choose the mark from among four or five options. We contracted with a group to conduct the online poll for us. To be honest, there was one really ugly mark included in the mix. And that’s the one that surged into the lead by a lot. Just as I was wondering whether we should have left this up to the fans, the polling company called and sheepishly said there was a problem. One person had been able to vote something like 20,000 times and had voted for the ugly mark. We were able to kick those out and continue with the fan voting, which ultimately chose the gold football mark that we now use and are very proud of.
Jim: I would think choosing the mark may have been more difficult than deciding on a name, because leading up to that everyone wanted a playoff. Was it pretty much decided from the beginning that College Football Playoff was the way to go?
Bill: I have a story about that as well. We had this clean slate and we had a committee to choose the name. And we explored a lot of names that had a great deal of sizzle, but we settled on the name that we have. I conducted a news conference in Pasadena in spring of 2013 and announced that the name of the new event is going to be College Football Playoff. A reporter in San Antonio tweeted immediately: “If Bill Hancock had a dog, it would be named Dog.”
Of course, now College Football Playoff and CFP have joined the vernacular and we’re proud of where we are with the brand, even though we have a long way to go. I believe this will be the 82nd annual NCAA Final Four and this year will be our ninth year for the College Football Playoff.
Jim: The CFP is unique in many ways and one of those is the relationship with your blue-chip list of corporate partners. The partnership sales—and the revenue—all fall within your media partner, ESPN. So the benefit the CFP receives is not directly monetary, but I imagine there is still a real benefit to having brands such as Dr Pepper, AT&T, Allstate and others in the mix. Am I correct?
Bill: You want major companies in the family and ESPN understands that. I have a particular affinity for the companies that choose to activate, that spend a little extra money in addition to their media to activate their sponsorships. I love what Dr Pepper does of course, starting with Larry Culpepper back in the day and now with Fanville.
Several of our sponsors have chosen to activate and be an active part of who we are, and we really like that.
Jim: There are many voices at the CFP table between the conferences, universities, ESPN, bowl games, I’m wondering if any of the corporate partners ever try to exert any influence what they would like to see happen, or do they remain at arm’s length?
Bill: They really don’t try to exert influence. Not with us anyway. They may have casual conversations with ESPN expressing a wish for expansion or something else, but never to us.
Taking a step further with that, ESPN does not try to have any influence in terms of the format and how we operate with the selection committee, etc. They are heavily involved in the branding, of course, but as far as the administration of the event, they are not involved and they don’t want to be involved.
Jim: Obviously, the big change in college athletics over the last year as been the introduction of NIL and the ability for the athletes themselves to monetize their involvement. Do you see that having an impact going forward on the CFP?
Bill: You have to remember that all we do is decide a national champion. We are three games to decide a national champion. We’re in college athletics, so we are certainly watching what happens—and my opinion is I wish the NCAA had been able to get more on top of this earlier and maybe had some parameters under which NIL could have operated—but as far as the national semi-finals and the championship game, we haven’t seen any effect yet.
We have made it available to student athletes to monetize around the game itself. We haven’t lent our marks to any of that. We had some activation on the part of student athletes around the events, but not a lot. I think that will probably build over time as we see what the NCAA does to perhaps get some parameters around what NIL means.