NCAA Tournament expansion: Division I board to discuss merits of 80- or 90-team field, but would power leagues agree?
Jan. 11, 2023 Updated Wed., Jan. 11, 2023 at 10:03 p.m.
The NCAA’s governing board is expected to consider the expansion of major postseason events, potentially including the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, when it convenes Thursday in San Antonio during the association’s annual convention.
Two possible outcomes exist for March Madness: Kicking the expansion can far down the road, or stomping on it.
There is zero chance of the Division I Board of Directors emerging from its meeting and pronouncing the imminent creation of an 80- or 90-team NCAA Tournament field.
For starters, the NCAA doesn’t work like that. Any decision to expand March Madness ultimately would be made by the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee (i.e., the selection committee).
Also, expansion is immensely complicated and would take years to formulate and model.
It’s far more intricate, for example, than expanding the College Football Playoff, which took three-and-a-half years.
The CFP isn’t beholden to NCAA bureaucracy; the 10 major conferences (and Notre Dame) control the football postseason. March Madness is run by the NCAA, with its sprawling, diverse and deeply conflicted membership.
“The expansion issue isn’t as hot as people are saying right now,” a source told the Hotline.
The reason for the heat? Last week, the NCAA’s transformation committee, charged with crafting a new blueprint for college sports, recommended the expansion of championship events for sports with at least 200 participating teams. Specifically, championships should accommodate up to 25% of the total.
With approximately 360 schools currently playing major college basketball – and more in the queue for membership – the March Madness field would need 90 spots to meet the 25% recommendation.
That makes sense in one regard: When the tournament expanded to 64 teams back in 1985, there were 282 schools in Division I – a participation rate of 22.7%.
Because so many universities have joined Division I over the past four decades, the current 68-team field accounts for just 18.7% of total D-I membership.
Access to the Madness is more restrictive than it used to be.
“Division I is a different world,” a source said.
And if structured properly, a massive NCAA field could serve the one-bid conferences at the bottom of the D-I revenue scale.
Instead of a straightforward adjustment of the bracket, by which the No. 1 seeds would face the No. 20 or No. 22 seeds in the first round, the opening weekend could become a mini-tournament unto itself featuring the bottom 30 or 40 seeds.
That would give teams in the smaller conferences (the Big South, the MEAC, the Ohio Valley, etc.) a fighting chance to play more than once and extend the NCAA experience that is so valuable for the schools and meaningful for the athletes.
It’s the concept behind the First Four writ large, with the survivors advancing to face the top 40 or 50 seeds in the main event.
But there are issues with expansion … so many issues.
That list of issues, of course, starts with the money. The NCAA’s broadcast contract with CBS and Turner runs into the early 2030s. Would the networks agree to open the deal and pump money into the event for additional games that wouldn’t generate meaningful ratings and could dilute the brand?
How would the extra rounds work logistically? Would the Final Four get pushed into the second weekend of April, when CBS broadcasts the Masters? Or would the tournament start earlier, thus squeezing the regular season?
What’s more, any expansion of the men’s tournament would require similar growth for the women’s event, thereby adding massive operating costs to the NCAA’s budget.
Also, a larger field wouldn’t guarantee a better event. If anything, it could kneecap March Madness magic by weeding out the Cinderellas before they face the blue bloods.
And how does expanding the field serve the conferences atop the Division I food chain that are responsible for the ratings that generate the dollars?
Revenue from the tournament’s TV contract (about $900 million annually) funds athletic departments throughout the NCAA, all the way down to Division III.
Duke is subsidizing sports at Baldwin Wallace University.
UCLA is helping support Albertus Magnus College.
Unless expansion substantially increases revenue for the power leagues specifically, and isn’t distributed across all NCAA divisions, why should they agree?
They won’t, but that doesn’t mean the tournament field will remain fixed at 68 forever.
Ultimately, March Madness expansion is intertwined with the future of major college football, and both are at the mercy of external forces: The reality of name, image and likeness; and the potential for athletes to be declared employees by the National Labor Relations Board, the court system or some entity lurking in Mark Emmert’s closet.
Economic pressure will require systemic change, with the power conferences taking their ball, their money and their audience – as they have with football.
In that scenario, sketched by multiple Hotline sources, the top leagues would create their own basketball tournament, with a size and structure of their liking, and refuse to share the revenue with Division II and III and possibly even with the lower end of Division I.
After all, Kansas is currently subsidizing Tennessee Tech.
That day, if it comes, remains years away, but it’s no longer a fanciful notion.
What happens in court could very well dictate what happens on the court.
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