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April 22, 2010

Tournament salvation, punditry-fail

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 11:17 pm

Today the NCAA announced a new 14-year, $10.8 billion deal (which I immediately saw misprinted as $10.8 million) with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for the rights to the men’s D-I basketball tournament. Ironically it took the NCAA three whole paragraphs to get to the part that everyone’s been talking about for months:

Last Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee unanimously passed a recommendation to the Division I Board of Directors to increase the tournament field size to 68 teams beginning with the 2011 championship. The Board will review the recommendation at its April 29 meeting.

In other words, expansion has at last reared its ugly head. In the form of three additional play-in games.

Upon hearing the news my first reaction was a shout of joy. My second reaction was that, with the shining and outstanding exceptions of John Ourand and Michael Smith of the Sports Business Journal, the college hoops punditry was absolutely dreadful at their jobs throughout this entire 80-day saga, one that started with a report on February 1 saying expansion to 96 teams was “a done deal.”

Since then it’s been all downhill. Don’t get me wrong, I include myself among the underperformers:

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.

Fortunately I wasn’t alone. Here’s Gene Wojciechowski on February 11, holding forth sagely on the economics of the matter:

Someone at the NCAA needs to take a business course or call Warren Buffet. Since when do you offer a one-of-a-kind basketball oceanfront property on the cheap?

Always sell high, not low. That’s what the NFL does. It understands the value of its product, waits until the economic timing is right and then opens the bidding.

Meanwhile the NCAA is considering an opt-out during the middle of a recession. How shrewd. 

Again, the NCAA announced today that it will receive $10.8 billion from CBS and Turner over the next 14 years, an average of $771 million a year. This represents roughly a 41 percent increase in average yearly revenue over the organization’s previous 11-year $6 billion deal with CBS. And they did it without expanding to 96 teams and enraging me. Sounds pretty shrewd from where I’m standing.

Or consider Dana O’Neil‘s bill of indictment from three weeks ago:

Essentially, this is what we learned from NCAA head honchos here Thursday afternoon:

They don’t care about fans.

They don’t care about the regular season.

They don’t care about conference tournaments.

And they sure don’t care about student-athletes being bothered by that pesky “student” portion of their hyphenated moniker by going to class.

What do they care about? Cash.   

To her credit, O’Neil opened her piece today by saying “I have put the spatula away after scraping the egg off my face and can now admit that I was wrong.” Well, pretty much everyone was wrong in terms of forecasting what the NCAA would do. Speaking as one of those erroneous forecasters myself, however, I can say that my problem with O’Neil’s indictment and with so much of what I read over the past 80 days was that it was all so needlessly focused on why the NCAA was doing something (it ended up not doing). Greed! Stupidity! There were two insuperable flaws with the Greed!-Stupidity! meme from the outset. First there’s the fact, shocking though this may sound, that NCAA employees are in truth no more greedy or stupid than any other group of professionals.

But the larger problem with yelling Greed! and Stupidity! at the NCAA was that it was entirely beside the point. The tournament could have been expanded by wholly selfless and highly intelligent people–and it still would have been a terrible and needless mistake. Not because we know for a fact that a 96-team field really would be such an unwatchable mess but because there is no earthly reason to jeopardize what an amazing number of people already agree is a nearly perfect thing. In their haste to hit the trusty and well-worn “LOL NCAA” button, many writers lost sight of this story’s central truth. The tournament is the thing.   

I make fun of political pundits for excessive Howard Kurtz-style navel-gazing, and rightfully so. Political pundits are indeed guilty of excessive Howard Kurtz-style navel-gazing. But say this for inside-the-beltway types. When they screw something up badly, they positively revel in the autopsies and self-recriminations. In this one instance the college hoops punditry could stand to do likewise.

BONUS fodder for conspiracy theorists! But wait! Does having 68 teams in 2011 really mean the tournament is safe? After all, the NCAA noted today that it can revisit the issue of expansion anytime they wish, and there’s already speculation that “they’ll jam [96 teams] down our throats eventually.” Of course if they do the irony will be just too delicious. The TV deal has been signed and the dollars are locked in for 14 years. Expanding now to 96 teams won’t change those dollars, meaning the NCAA would be acting to placate coaches, give more teams a shot, whatever. If they do so I will of course be enraged and you’ll find me back in my tree outside NCAA headquarters with my trusty bullhorn. Just don’t call it “a greed grab,” please.  

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