Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 7, 2010

Bring On The Nutty Ninety-Six.

As the calendar turns to March and this year’s NCAA Division I basketball tournament approaches, the sports world is in an uproar over the future of March Madness. Of course, since for some time now the tournament’s Final Four weekend of games has been played during the first weekend of the following month, isn’t the all-important climax really April Anxiety? But I digress.

Several years ago then-NCAA President Myles Brand, aware that the current tournament’s eleven year television contract with CBS included a penalty-free opt out clause for the Association at the end of year eight (i.e. 2010), asked NCAA senior VP Greg Shaheen to begin exploring options for the tournament. Now the opt out deadline is just months away, and suddenly we are awash in rumors and predictions about the tournament expanding to ninety-six teams or more. And it seems like everyone with a microphone or a keyboard has an opinion about it.

Coaches are overwhelmingly in favor. Duke’s Mike Kryzewski, Florida’s Billy Donovan, and Syracuse’s Jim Boheim are just three prominent members of their fraternity who have advocated for an expanded tournament. North Carolina’s Roy Williams stands out as a rather lonely opponent. Of course, given the way UNC is playing this year, Williams would probably prefer just eliminating the tournament altogether, so that he wouldn’t have to feel bad about missing it. Of course support for expansion from coaches is no surprise. After all, their contracts and salaries are determined by performance, and getting into the Big Dance is one obvious measure of performance.

Be it coaches, university officials, or other proponents for expanding the tournament, the first argument in favor is that doing so will allow for participation by quality teams who are now shut out due to the fact that many spots in the tournament automatically go to minor conference champions. This ignores the fact that trashing the selection committee for failing to invite one’s favorite squad is an important spring ritual for many fans. Supporters also note that while an actual majority of Football Bowl Series Division teams go to bowl games, less than twenty percent of eligible basketball squads make it into the current sixty-five team field. Perhaps they should take just a second or two to think about how many fans actually cared about what team with a 6-5 regular season record won that thirty-fourth bowl game last December before advancing that argument.

But the most important factor for proponents is the prospect of increased competition and greater chances for Cinderella stories to play out on HD TV’s all across the country. Of course “increased competition” is another way of saying “more games;” and I find it downright funny that some of the same collegiate characters arguing for increased competition in basketball are dead set against increased competition in the form of a football playoff system. The latter is supposedly impossible because of the deleterious effect more games would have on the study needs of the student-athletes. Setting aside the question of whether student-athletes exist even in the Ivy League anymore, since these opposing arguments are set forth with equally straight faces, I guess the one thing we can conclude is that college basketball players are smarter and need less study time than their pigskin-playing classmates.

As for Cinderella, that whole notion is something of, well yes, a fairy tale. Of course there are upsets, and lower seeds sometimes advance through a round or three. But the lowest seed to ever actually play for (and as it happened, win) the national championship was #8 Villanova in 1985. Meaning that no team from the bottom half of the draw has ever made it to the final game.

Meanwhile opponents to expansion are legion. A USA Today poll had 80% of fans opposed to expanding the tournament. Their principal complaint is that an expanded tournament will take even more of the spotlight from the regular season. This argument surprised me, since I thought the regular season had been eliminated several years ago, and that teams just practiced and negotiated pro contracts for their latest “one and done” freshmen up until Selection Sunday. I really need to start paying closer attention.

The reality is that all of the heat on both sides is fairly pointless, and arguments about increased competition or damage to the regular season just ignore the $6 billion elephant in the room. The Division I basketball tournament, and its television contract, account for ninety percent of the NCAA’s annual revenue. It enables the Association to administer regular season play and post-season championships in eighty-eight other sports, many of which don’t have a prayer of making it to ESPN2 on tape delay at two in the morning. Expanding the tournament means more games and more games means more television revenue. Doing it now offers the NCAA two additional advantages. First, while they will be going into the market in an obviously bad economy, they will be doing so alone. Waiting until the current contract’s expiration in 2013 means competing with Monday Night Football and Major League Baseball, whose current television contracts also expire that year. Second, since 2005 the NCAA has also owned the once-mighty and now mighty irrelevant NIT tournament, which has a, wait for it, yes, a thirty-two team field! That money-losing affair has a television contract with ESPN that also ends this year.

In the end, as seems to always be the case with the highest level of collegiate athletics, it’s not remotely about competition or young athletes, and it’s certainly not about the fans. It’s about dollars. So while an organization the size of the NCAA does nothing quickly, I would be stunned if a decision to opt out of the current contract isn’t made by the July 31st deadline. Once that’s done, bidding by assorted consortia of broadcast and cable networks on a long-term deal to show even more games at even more sites can begin. Bring on the ninety-six team tournament. Or why not follow the advice of Duquesne coach Ron Everhart and double the size of the field. The Obese One Thirty! Oh what the hell, why don’t we just let them all play. I mean, seeing as how they did away with the regular season several years ago, it only seems fair.

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