Leaders of the College Football Playoff issued an ultimatum to the Rose Bowl this week, giving a self-imposed deadline of Wednesday to determine whether the CFP can expand in time for the start of the 2024 regular season, and if the game's most storied bowl can't agree to the terms, it's possible it could be excluded from the New Year's Six bowl rotation in the next contract, sources told ESPN.
"We want the Rose Bowl," a CFP source said. "We have a good partnership with the six bowls we are affiliated with. We do. And we want to continue with that. I hope the Rose Bowl will be part of that, but there's no guarantee in any of that. None."
If the CFP doesn't expand in time for the 2024 season, it will lose roughly $450 million in potential gross revenue. There is mounting pressure to make a decision this week -- possibly as soon as Tuesday.
While the Rose Bowl's position in an expanded CFP isn't the only obstacle that slowed the process, it is the last and most complicated. The discussion centered on one of the most lucrative television windows in college sports. Laura Farber, the chair of the Rose Bowl management committee, told ESPN earlier this month the game wanted to maintain the exclusive broadcast window on Jan. 1 at 2 p.m. PT in years that it would also host a CFP semifinal.
The Rose Bowl was willing to temporarily concede its relationship with the Big Ten and Pac-12 to host a quarterfinal game in 2024 and 2025, but in return asked for assurances in the new contract. There is no contract in place beyond the current 12-year deal, which runs through the 2025 season.
"We continue to have daily conversations with the CFP board of managers, and we remain hopeful we can come to an agreement," a Rose Bowl spokesperson told ESPN on Tuesday.
Farber told ESPN in November the bowl was willing to be flexible.
"For anyone to say that the Rose Bowl Game is the sole reason right now that expansion may not happen before the current cycle runs out is categorically wrong," Farber said. "Yes, we need to work through the details of our contract and our separate broadcast agreement, but we remain open to that."
A CFP source said it was fair to call it an ultimatum, but not a threat. CFP leaders are asking the Rose Bowl to reconsider some of the guarantees it's seeking in the next contract. When the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick negotiate the next TV deal, they are unanimous in their desire to have multiple TV partners. ESPN is currently the sole rights holder through the 2025 season. A source said the CFP has assured the Rose Bowl it will do everything it can to work around the Jan. 1 2 p.m. PT slot, but has asked all of the bowls to take a leap of faith because the commissioners can't be bound to promises that will or won't impact the value as they're trying to negotiate the next deal.
"We're to the point where we've got to make a decision moving forward," a source said. "That's where we are."
For the CFP to expand during this current contract, everyone involved -- including all New Year's Six bowl games, the CFP and ESPN as its exclusive rights holder -- have to unanimously agree. Multiple sources told ESPN the calendar had been determined -- the presidents and chancellors met Nov. 16 and figured out the revenue distribution, according to one source. The last piece of the puzzle was the Rose Bowl. When the next contract is negotiated, it doesn't have to be unanimous -- making it much easier to move on without the Rose Bowl and/or the Big Ten and Pac-12 votes.
The self-imposed deadline of Wednesday was issued because the host cities are running out of time and have bent over backward to accommodate the CFP to this point while they try to work out the details. In mid-August, the CFP announced Atlanta will host the national championship game in 2025, followed by Miami in January 2026.
With pressure mounting to make a decision quickly to expand in time for the 2024 season, discussions intensified Monday morning, when several members of the CFP's board of managers held a meeting. The 11 presidents and chancellors who comprise the board of managers have the ultimate authority over the playoff.
In the proposed 12-team format for 2024, the Cotton and Orange bowls would stay true to the current agreement and host semifinals, and in 2025, the Fiesta and Peach bowls would also host semifinals as currently planned.
On Sept. 2, the CFP's board of managers unanimously voted to expand the CFP to 12 teams in 2026 but encouraged the sport's commissioners to try to implement it as soon as 2024. The original 12-team model, first made public in June 2021, includes the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams.
The rankings of the teams will continue to be determined by the CFP selection committee, which will remain largely unchanged.
The four highest-ranked conference champions will be seeded one through four with each receiving a first-round bye. Teams seeded five through 12 will play each other in the first round. The quarterfinals and semifinals will be played in bowl games on a rotating basis, and the championship game will be at a neutral site, as under the current four-team format.
"I don't want it to just come down to the Rose Bowl as the reason we don't start it early, I really don't, but it may be," a CFP source said. "We said this from Day 1 -- there may be any number of reasons we can't. We're really down to one remaining issue."