Alexander: CFP director Bill Hancock has good news for Pasadena

LOS ANGELES — The Tournament of Roses Committee, and those throughout Southern California who revere the Rose Bowl’s traditions, can breathe easy.

Assuming that College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock has a wee bit of influence, at least one of those hallowed traditions will remain safe as the Rose Bowl transitions into its new place within an expanded College Football Playoff.

“Any game that we play in Pasadena, we intend to have at 2:00 Pacific on New Year’s Day,” Hancock told me this week, during a wide-ranging conversation at a downtown L.A. hotel to discuss the playoff and where it’s headed.

The Rose Bowl will be the site of a CFP semifinal game on Jan. 1, 2024, the final year of the four-team playoff. Beginning at the end of the 2024 season, when the 12-team playoff is implemented with the six top conference champions and six at-large teams, Hancock said the first round will be held in the third weekend of December, hosted by higher seeds.

The quarterfinals and semifinals will be at bowl sites, at least through the ’24 and ’25 seasons. Three quarterfinal games will likely be on New Year’s Day and the fourth either on Dec. 31 or Jan. 2, with the semifinals a week later and the championship game on Martin Luther King Day.

“We always wanted the Rose Bowl to be part of this,” he’d said earlier in the conversation. “And it’s a two-step process. The first step was getting 2024 and 2025 lined up, which we have now done. And then the next step will be getting ’26 and beyond lined up, which we have not done yet. But we’re delighted to have the Rose Bowl continue to be a part of the College Football Playoff and we certainly hope they will continue to be for a long time.”

An indication of why the Rose Bowl’s inclusion in the CFP is really a no-brainer? Monday’s TV rating for the Utah-Penn State matchup in Pasadena was the lowest ever for a Rose Bowl game … but at 10.2 million, was also the highest-rated non-CFP game in the current postseason. Give Pasadena its traditional start time and a game with championship implications, and see what happens to that number.

There is, of course, a more immediate championship game to look forward to. Georgia and TCU will play for this season’s national championship on Monday evening at SoFi Stadium, and the suspicion is that the edifice built by Stan Kroenke will become a regular part of the CFP rotation, much as it seems destined to be a permanent part of the Super Bowl rotation.

Monday’s game, and the surrounding events in the community, suggest that the college championship apparatus has modeled its championship week after that of the NFL, with a fan fest (Playoff Fan Central at the L.A. Convention Center), free concerts at Banc of California Stadium (the Jonas Brothers on Saturday and Pitbull on Sunday) and the traditional on-site Media Day with players and coaches (Saturday).

L.A., and specifically Kroenke’s people, reached out early to express their interest in hosting this game and invited Hancock to tour what was then a construction site.

“I came out, put on a hard hat, walked around, feet in the mud, and you could maybe envision, sort of, what the magic was going to be,” he said. “They showed us a lot of photos and renderings.

“But I tell you, I had no idea how fantastic the stadium was going to be that day in the hard hat in the mud. I’m so glad we decided to come here. It’s a world-class facility, frankly, and a world-class city.”

And part of the experience, he added, was giving college players the experience of playing in an NFL building, especially those who will never reach the next level.

But there’s one catch.

In this iteration of the process to determine a national champion, which began with the 2014 season, only two of the 36 participants have come from the Pac-12 – Oregon in 2014 and Washington in 2016. More often, it has been a closed shop, with 11 teams from the SEC, eight from the Big Ten, and seven from the ACC.

There was almost a third Pac-12 team to reach the semifinals before USC broke down in its conference championship game against Utah last month, but you get the point.

And no, we haven’t forgotten that this will be Big Ten country two seasons from now.

The push for expansion, and inclusion, went back to January 2019 when “members of our board … told the conference commissioners we really want to see more teams in the playoff,” Hancock said. “And so the commissioners got to work at it.”

Not surprisingly, COVID-19 threw a wrench into the works. Hancock said a 12-team playoff might have been instituted sooner but for the pandemic. As it was, the CFP’s committee of university presidents voted in September to expand beginning in 2026, concurrent with a new media rights deal, and then asked the board of conference commissioners to investigate expanding the field sooner. That decision, to begin in 2024, was finalized in November.

Playoff expansion should help with the regional imbalance, just as it can provide Group of Five schools opportunities to assume the Cinderella role we see so often in March Madness. Only one of those programs has ever reached the four-team playoff, Cincinnati last season, but one conference winner from that group will be assured of a spot come the 2024 season.

(Then again, TCU probably would qualify as a Cinderella candidate on Monday night, as a double-digit underdog to Georgia.)

I asked Hancock about the importance of making sure all regions have an opportunity instead of just a couple.

“It’s extremely important,” he said. “College football needs to be vibrant coast to coast. And I’m so happy for my friends in the Pac-12 for the success during the regular season. My goodness, what a season they had. Just step back and look at the quarterbacks. Wow!

“So I’m very happy for them. But college football is truly a national sport. And one thing the expansion will do will be to bring in teams from all parts of the country.”

That will mean more parts of the country watching these games on TV. And the media rights negotiations for the next set of years up for bid, beginning in the 2026 season, almost certainly will be huge.

Hancock said ESPN was “not influential at all” in the expansion decision, which is not to say they were disinterested.

“The fact is that their contract is to televise a four-team event and bowl games besides that,” he said. “And they’re happy with that contract. But they were happy when we went to them and said, ‘We’re going to expand. Are you going to be interested?’”

ESPN has the right of first refusal for the four first-round games next year and the year after. And in 2026?

“We all start from scratch,” he said. He wouldn’t speculate on the potential numbers, saying that those who have thrown out figures “don’t know. No one knows.”

But if you have to guess, guess big. It is college football, after all, with a gravitational pull only one other sport can match. (Hint: It’s the one that ultimately welcomes all of those college stars into its league.)

“The NFL is the NFL,” Hancock said. “But there’s nothing like the passion and the drama with college football. People here are going to get to experience that this weekend.”

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