On college football: New CFP revenue model puts Big 12 on equal footing with ACC (when they are, in fact, very different)

It has been two weeks since the College Football Playoff formalized a new contract with ESPN and created a revenue model that declares, with no pretense or shame, that the Big Ten and SEC are better than everyone else.

No matter how many teams from each conference qualify for the playoff in a given year, no matter where they are seeded or how they perform, the Big Ten and SEC will receive hundreds of millions of dollars more annually than the Big 12 and ACC.

That, folks, is March madness.

The Big Two conferences are expected to collect 59 percent of the $1.3 billion available annually during the six-year agreement, which begins in the fall of 2026.

Meanwhile, the revenue model assigns second-class cash to the Big 12 and ACC, which are set to receive 32 percent of the total revenue each year.

(Other details of the playoff’s next chapter remain undetermined, including the number of participants, automatic bids, at-large spots and opening-round byes.)

In a sport that traditionally treats its power conferences as equals, the change in revenue distribution is unprecedented  — the first visible evidence of The Great Split, with the Big Ten and SEC consolidating authority following the latest realignment wave.

But as the process plays out in surreal time, a second dynamic, far less tectonic in nature but equally fascinating, is unfolding: The CFP contract negotiations have cast the Big 12 and the ACC as necessary partners, the strangest of bedfellows.

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Aside from the outsized role basketball plays in their cultures, the two leagues could not be more different. Yet they have been forced to grab the hind legs of the CFP cash cow and hold on, together, for dear life.

The ACC is based on the Eastern Seaboard with a slew of small private schools and some of the nation’s academic powerhouses. The Big 12 is loaded with massive universities and centered in the Southern Plains.

The commissioners are different, too. The ACC’s stately Jim Phillips has spent a lifetime in college sports while the Big 12’s hard-charging dealmaker, Brett Yormark, is a relative newcomer to the space.

The conferences are also dissimilar in the valuation levels of their football programs.

Were the SEC and Big Ten to hold an expansion draft, the top four picks would come from the ACC: North Carolina would be the first off the board — it’s the Caitlin Clark of realignment — followed by some combination of Virginia, Florida State and Clemson. Heck, Miami might even give the ACC a clean sweep of the top five selections.

In that regard, the revenue distribution within the CFP’s new contract doesn’t reflect the competitive stature of the two leagues.

The model is based, in part, on CFP participation over the past 10 years using schools in their new conferences, which makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is the Big 12 ended up with an annual revenue share of approximately 15 percent of the ESPN deal while the ACC is collecting 17 percent.

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The difference in percentage is slight; the difference in performance is substantial.

After all, the new ACC can claim seven playoff appearances to date, thanks to Clemson (six) and Florida State (one). But the new Big 12 has just two CFP appearances to its name, courtesy of Cincinnati and TCU.

Seven is a lot more than two, just as Clemson and Florida State (and North Carolina) are a lot more valuable than any program in the Big 12.

Yet the revenue shares are essentially equal.

Step back and examine the full CFP canvass, and the Big 12’s share looks even better relative to the other conferences.

Number of participants over the first decade of the playoff based on new conference configurations:

SEC: 17Big Ten: 12ACC: 7Big 12: 2

(Notre Dame also has two.)

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The revenue model wasn’t based entirely on the CFP participation. But that was a central component, and the Big 12 isn’t close to the ACC in that benchmark, much less within range of the SEC and Big Ten.

To that end, it appears Yormark negotiated deftly, securing a higher percentage than his conference deserved.

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Granted, this could all change sooner than later.

According to multiple sources with knowledge of the CFP’s agreement with ESPN, there is a series of “openers” that allow for changes in the early years of the contract cycle.

One of those openers shifts the revenue shares if a particular conference outperforms its baseline participation figure.

Another accounts for additional conference realignment — a distinct possibility given the lawsuits filed against the ACC by Clemson and Florida State and the silent salivating over North Carolina by the Big Ten and SEC.

If the most valuable football brands depart the ACC, a new playoff structure could arise.

And it’s not difficult to envision several schools seeking refuge in the Big 12, prompting the strangest of bedfellows to join together in unholy matrimony.

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