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(Reuters) - Oregon and Ohio State will play for the national championship on Monday but the clear winner in college football's first playoff has already been crowned: ESPN.
The two semifinal games on New Year's Day brought in more than 28 million viewers each, making the telecasts the top two programs in cable television history.
"Clearly fans who were clamoring for this change have responded to the new format," said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice president of programming acquisitions. "Fans have voted with their remote controls.
"To have this kind of response in the first year of 12 (of the ESPN deal) is something that makes us optimistic about the future."
The old format, the Bowl Championship Series, relied on a combination of polls and computer selection methods to narrow the field to two teams to play for the national championship.
ESPN has a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal to televise the two-game playoffs, a steep price tag but one that could be a bargain if the format is expanded to more than the current four teams.
"This is a way for ESPN to up its game," said Randy Grant, a professor of economics at Linfield College in Oregon. "ESPN sees this playoff system developing into if not something that rivals the Super Bowl, more realistically rivals March Madness (the NCAA's basketball tournament).
"Even if, in the short term it loses them some money, they're trying to position themselves long-term for what should be a good pay-day for them."
Grant said he was certain there teams ultimately would be added to the playoff field. He said there has been talk of expanding the field by to 16 teams or higher.
"I could very much see them going to eight next year," said Grant, author of the book The Economics Of Intercollegiate Sports. "My sense is that eight is the optimal number for the event, although you may see some push to go higher than that."
Grant said he believed eight would satisfy enough people that anyone with a legitimate shot at the championship would be included.
In the meantime, ESPN is delighted with the numbers so far. Ratings prognosticators believe as many as 45 million people might watch Monday's final.
"I learned a long time ago to stay out of the prediction business," Burke said with a laugh. "If we get a good game on the field, we're optimistic we'll get another huge audience."
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg