Basketball Prospectus: Unfiltered Everything Else is Fluff.

February 2, 2010

Tournament expansion isn’t a done deal, it’s just inevitable

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 2:52 am

It just is. I’ve said it before but I buried it under headlines like Is One and Done Done?

The NCAA gets the lion’s share of its revenue from selling the broadcast rights to the Division I men’s basketball tournament. The current contract with CBS is winding down and one of the most important agenda items facing the NCAA men’s basketball committee is deciding how many teams to include in future tournaments. This is information the NCAA needs well in advance to negotiate the next contract. In those negotiations the NBA’s minimum age requirement is very likely to be a non-issue. The advertisers don’t care, therefore the networks don’t care.

Or under a headline like Unfiltered Post of the Decade!

All postseasons expand; authentically exciting postseasons expand exponentially
The college basketball Story of the Decade has clearly been this month’s discussion of expanding the NCAA tournament field to 96 teams. Whether the final number turns out to be 96 or 128 or something else, I think it’s next to inevitable that the field will indeed grow. Networks love postseason sports because they draw large DVR-impervious and demographically-attractive audiences. The more hours of this content the networks (old-school or cable) can get the happier they are, and Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA have all been delighted to inflate their postseasons accordingly over the past two decades. Now it’s the NCAA’s turn, and when a primal force of sports-business nature like this is combined with a warm and fuzzy but no less true statement like “it will mean more mid-majors get in,” resistance is futile. Watch. 

Which brings us to yesterday, when the small world of college hoops types on Twitter was put on red-alert. Sports by Brooks quoted “sources at ESPN and at a powerhouse NCAA basketball school” as saying that the tournament expanding to 96 teams was “a done deal.” The story at SbB may have been the inciting incident in yesterday’s kerfuffle, but I was surprised to find that the Sports Business Journal was reporting they had something far more substantial than anonymous quotes, namely, a copy of the Request for Proposal the NCAA put out to networks vying to win future broadcast rights for March Madness. “The NCAA has set its sights,” John Ourand and Michael Smith reported, “on expanding from a 65-team tournament to either 68 or 96 teams if it opts out of the CBS contract, according to the 12-page RFP.”

All of the above hit the web yesterday around midday Eastern time. By late afternoon the expected sound bite from NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen had arrived: “Nothing is a done deal.” Shaheen also said that his organization is merely conducting “due diligence” and that the NCAA has to “look at what our membership wants.”

What the NCAA’s membership wants is more teams getting into the tournament and more money in their pockets. Expanding the field satisfies both wants. Due diligence requires looking at all contingencies, but if Ourand and Smith are correct none of the scenarios that the NCAA is currently reviewing involve what is usually the baseline course of action, the status quo. Keep in mind an RFP is the least spontaneous and most vetted document known to humankind. Add to that the fact that an RFP coming from a bureaucracy like the NCAA would be even less spontaneous and even more vetted. And add to that the fact that an NCAA RFP concerning an event that will bring in several billion dollars over the 14-year term of the contract would be even less spontaneous and more vetted. If Ourand and Smith have what they say they have, expansion is a fait accompli.

Get your torch and pitchfork
The idea of expanding the tournament past 65 teams has pretty reliably met with intense outrage and, no surprise, it did again yesterday. I won’t even bother to do one of those one-link-per-word sentences. If you don’t believe me just do a Google blog search for “tournament expansion” or something similar.

To the depths of my sports being, I am hard-wired with the same protective impulse that drives this outrage. No, the 65-team tournament isn’t perfect but then again neither are any of us. Good grief, I watched this tournament for years–decades–when it was announced by Billy Packer. Need I say more? March Madness is quite simply the gold standard to which all other American team-sport postseasons are held. (Ask college football.) You don’t trifle with that gold standard lightly.

And yet even a die-hard like me can see ruefully that the outrage is being voiced precisely by those of us who will be most likely to watch a newly-expanded NCAA tournament. The outrage is categorical. But when in the course of human events we move from the categorical to the specific, things will be different. Maybe I oppose 96 teams in the abstract, but if my team gets into the tournament in 2011 as, say, number 81, will I really boycott watching their first-round game?

That sound you hear is the expansion trap snapping shut. Expanding the field to 96 teams means I’ll be watching along with even more of those strange beings known as casual fans, interlopers from no fewer than 31 additional universities who will suddenly be much more interested in the tournament. If the NCAA and, more importantly, the networks thought for a moment that yesterday’s outrage might actually translate into reduced viewership, this idea would be dead on arrival. But they don’t think that’s true, and history backs them up. Since the NCAA tournament went to a 64-team format in 1985, the other American team sports have expanded their postseasons to find that viewers, for all their churlish talk of “devaluing the regular season,” are there waiting for them in force and ready to watch ads when championships are at stake.

So I’ll leave you with this voice of doom
Coaches, be careful what you wish for. It’s widely assumed that you all want an expanded field so that more members of your profession will make the tournament and thus not suffer from the stigma of being left out. Fine. But remember that said stigma will redouble with particular virulence for a major-conference coach who can’t get his program into a 96-team event. Maybe major programs hiring a coach will as a matter of course expect the new guy to get their team to the tournament that first year. If anything firings may become more frequent.  

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