Would a bigger NCAA tournament be better?


March Madness, a college basketball junkie’s heaven on Earth, is finally here. Never mind that the madness spreads into April. March Madness sounds better than March Madness and April Sadness.

There is talk that the NCAA might bump the field from 65 to 96 teams as part of a new TV deal.

Most forget that the NCAA Tournament started with eight teams, expanded to 16 after a decade, then existed for 20 years with just 24 or 25 teams.

Those expansions look miniscule compared to what has happened in the past 40 or so years. The tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975, to 40 in 1979, 48 a few years later and finally to 64 in 1985. A few years ago it expanded again to include one more team, for a current total of 65 teams.

So following that trend, we appear to be long overdue for the NCAA Tournament to expand again, right?

In defense of the NCAA, the number of Division I teams keeps climbing—it’s up to 347 after sitting closer to 300 a decade ago.

I don’t remember if there was a public outcry when the field expanded to 64, but maybe that’s because of a shortage of memory in my head. Who couldn’t use another memory chip in the brain?

It’s hard to find many coaches opposing expansion. After all, it always looks better on the resume and to alumni when your team makes the Big Dance.

In Kansas, all high schools are eligible for postseason play, whether you win 16 games or two games. It doesn’t matter if you finish first or last in your league. Does that render the regular season meaningless? I don’t think so. But that’s one of the arguments for not expanding the NCAA Tournament.

It isn’t unreasonable, though, to look at why there’s interest in expanding the number of teams in the NCAA Tournament. The adage of “follow the money” is applicable here.

The NCAA’s current deal with CBS is heavily back-loaded. More than a third of the total value—$2.13 billion—is due to the NCAA in the final three years, according to Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.

According to the article in the Sports Business Journal, “The NCAA clearly expects that the added week of games would significantly increase the tournament’s rights fee. A larger field would mean more content, more scheduling opportunities and theoretically more revenue for the broadcaster and the NCAA, which derives more than 90 percent of its total annual revenue from the tournament’s media deal. Nearly all of that revenue passes through the NCAA and is distributed to its member institutions.

“The NCAA also believes a move to cable could increase its revenue, especially given last year’s deal ESPN signed with the BCS, which agreed to move its five annual games to cable in exchange for a 50 percent increase in its rights fee. ESPN paid $495 million over four years for those rights.”

From the standpoint of determining a champion, we don’t need a 96-game tournament. But then, you really don’t need a 65-team field either. In almost every case, there aren’t more than 32 teams with a legitimate shot at the national title. Until a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1 seed, it’s a hard sell to say all of the teams could win the championship.

Adding another 32 or so teams is not going to make for attractive matchups in the opening round. A diluted opening night might eventually damage the quality of the entire show.

Would an additional NCAA tournament weekend replace conference tournaments? That might be a net loss, both in interest and TV revenue.

And could the NCAA justify adding another week of basketball? That would seem hypocritical when its argument for not having football playoffs is so student-athletes can spend more time in class.

I’m ambivalent toward tournament expansion. However, if expanding the field means adding the ninth and 10th place teams from major conferences like the Big 12 over the second- and third-place teams from mid-major conferences, I’m not interested.

One appealing aspect of the tournament is Cinderella knocking off a favorite. Let Cinderella have her day, even if she never makes it to the championship game.

In reality, though, expanding to a 96-team field will guarantee only one thing: cries of anguish from fans of the 97th team.


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.