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Winners and Losers: The 5+7 College Football Playoff Format Explained

Updated: Apr 3

The path towards college football’s most coveted title—the College Football Playoff (“CFP”) National Champion—will be much longer in 2024. On February 20, 2024, the CFP Board of Managers unanimously approved a 5+7 playoff model, which grants entry to the top five highest-ranked conference champions and seven at-large teams.[1] The 5+7 model expands the playoff field from four teams to twelve, and introduces a first-round bye for the four top-seeded conference champions,[2] first-round playoff games played on college campuses,[3] and quarterfinal and semifinal matchups played as the New Year’s Six bowl games.[4] 


Several clear “winners” emerge under the expanded playoff format. The biggest winner undoubtably is the media: ESPN and the CFP recently reached a six-year, $1.3 billion annual contract extension, which would allow ESPN to maintain the exclusive rights to the expanded CFP format through the 2031 season[5] Conferences also stand to earn up to $20 million[6] per member team selected to the expanded playoffs.


However, there is one clear “loser” under the expanded playoff format: The players. The players won’t receive any additional compensation or benefits from participation in an expanded playoff because they are not considered employees of the universities they attend under Section 2(3)[7] of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).[8] The impact of classifying college football players as non-employees is two-fold: First, players cannot receive revenue distributions.[9] Second, college football players cannot utilize a collective bargaining unit under Section 7[10] of the NLRA.[11] Thus, the players were not directly represented during the expanded playoff negotiation.[12] 

This reality is antithetical to how the National Football League (“NFL”) operates. Unlike college football players, all NFL players are employees of their respective teams.[13] As employees, they are represented by the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”)[14] in negotiating Collective Bargaining Agreements ("CBAs”) with the NFL.[15] During negotiation for the 2020 CBA, the NFL sought to expand the regular season and playoffs.[16] Although some NFL players expressed concern over how the extended season would take a toll on their bodies,[17] the 2020 CBA provided players higher minimum salaries, larger distributions of NFL revenue, and improved benefits in exchange for the prolonged season.[18] 


In contrast, the glaring lack of athlete representation and compensation in college football[19] leads to a problematic reality: Players whose teams make the National Championship game would play seventeen games—akin to a regular NFL season.[20] The extended post-season will inevitably increase the hours of training, and thus, opportunities for injury.[21] Despite these enhanced risks, the players are not being directly compensated.  


In sum, the lack of representation at the bargaining table and their non-employee classification puts college football players at an increased chance of injury without direct compensation or benefits. As evinced in the 2020 CBA negotiations, the treatment of college football players as employees of their universities and access to a collective bargaining unit under the NLRA would almost certainly yield direct player benefits as a result of the CFP expansion. Fortunately, players may soon be given the opportunity to collectively bargain and receive compensation from their universities through the ongoing litigation involving Darthmouth University.[22] 



[1] 5-7 Format Confirmed for 12-Team Playoff, College Football Playoff (Feb. 20, 20204, 10:15 AM), https://collegefootballplayoff.com/news/2024/2/20/5-7-format-confirmed.aspx. 5+7 model modifies the 6+6 model, which was created prior to the collapse of the Pac-12 Conference from twelve teams to two. Ralph D. Russo, College Football Playoff Delays Tweaking 12-Team Format to Decrease Sports Reserved for League Champs, AP News (Jan. 8, 2024, 3:23 PM), https://apnews.com/article/cfp-expansion-b13376a4452edca04bf6c7693ba5b035.

[2] College Football Playoff, supra note 2.

[3] Id. (stating that teams seeded five through twelve will play at the home field of the higher seeded team, with the #5 team hosting the #12 team, the #6 team hosting the #11 team, the #7 team hosting the #10 team, and the #8 team hosting the #9 team).

[4] Id. The term New Year’s Six bowl games include the Rose Bowl, Allstate Sugar Bowl, Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, Capital One Orange Bowl, Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

[5] Heather Dinch, College Football Playoff, ESPN Agree to Deal Through 2031-32, ESPN (Mar. 19, 2024, 2:47 PM), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/39766079/college-football-playoff-espn-agree-deal-2031-32.  

[6] Heather Dinich, Questions Surrounding Future of College Football Playoff, ESPN (Feb. 4, 2024, 1:30 PM), https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/39444442/questions-surround-future-college-football-playoff (stating that Conferences will receive $4 million for each team that makes the playoff field and an additional $6 million for every team that reaches the quarterfinals, semifinals, and championship game). 

[7] NLRA § 2(3) defines an employee as “any employee, and shall not be limited to the employees of a particular employer, unless the Act [this subchapter] explicitly states otherwise. . . .”).

[8] Northwestern Univ. & College Athletes Players Ass’n (CAPA), 13-RC-121359,

2014-15 NLRB Dec. P 15781 (2014) (holding that it would not effectuate the policies of the NLRA to decide whether grant-in-aid scholarship players are employees within the meaning of Section 2(3) of the NLRA).

[9] See generally Ben Portnoy, College Sports: Getting What You Pay For?, Sports Bus. J. (Nov. 27, 2023), https://www.sportsbusinessjournal.com/Articles/2023/11/27/college-sports-landscape (discussing various revenue sharing models that may be implemented to allow for revenue to be distributed to athletes).

[10] NLRA  § 7 grants employees the right to self-organize, to form, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.

[11] Northwestern Univ., supra note 8.

[12] Jay Paterno, Now More Than Ever, College Football Players Need Collective Bargaining, StateCollege.Com (Jan 5, 2023), https://www.statecollege.com/articles/opinion/now-more-than-ever-college-football-players-need-collective-bargaining/.

[13] Anurag Rao, Are NFL Players Employees, NFL World (Jun. 20, 2022), https://www.nflworld.org/are-nfl-players-employees/.

[14] Id.  

[16] Mark Maske, NFL Players Ratify New CBA with Expanded Playoffs, 17-Game Season, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2020, 7:13 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/03/15/nfl-completes-new-cba/ (stating that the NFL proposed extended the regular season from sixteen to seventeen games and expanding the playoffs from twelve to fourteen teams).

[17] NFL Players Agree to New Deal, Opening Way for 17-Game Season, Guardian (Mar. 15, 2020, 11:33 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/mar/15/nfl-players-cba-17-game-season.

[18] Id.

[19] David Rumsey, Making Sense of What More CFP Expansion Would Mean, Front Off. Sports (Feb. 22, 2024, 6:20), https://frontofficesports.com/making-sense-of-what-more-cfp-expansion-would-mean/#:~:text=The%20CFP%20will%20retain%20all,on%20a%20home%20playoff%20game.

[21] Rumsey, supra note 19. 

[22] See generally Trs. of Darthmouth Coll. and Serv. Emps. Int’l Union, Local 560, Case No. 01-RC-325633.

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