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Members Only: By 2039, the NCAA tournament will look very different

Members Only: By 2039, the NCAA tournament will look very different Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty

This article appeared in the Aug. 18 edition of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

The 2039 edition of the Slive-Delany March Madness Cup Presented by Uber is upon us. Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament ceded supremacy as college hoops’ capstone event. But it happened, just as the NIT long ago yielded to the NCAAs, and don’t things that come to pass have a way of seeming inevitable in retrospect? So follow along as we trace just how college sports got here.

Football had always been an enterprise unto itself, ruled by an oligarchy content to ignore the arriviste mid-major. Yes, Appalachian State beat Michigan in 2007, but that game signified little in a sport where only the elite could go to a meaningful bowl game. Yet basketball was different once upon a time. For decades the NCAA tournament benefited from a kind of mutually assured construction: Big schools offered up their names, followings and Goliath profiles; smaller ones got a shot at the role of David, with the chance of an upset guaranteeing that attention would be paid. But two decisions, rendered on back-to-back days 25 years ago, broke the equilibrium that had made the Big Dance the perfect sporting event.

The first, a vote by the NCAA’s board of directors on Aug. 7, 2014, permitted the 65 schools in the five most powerful conferences to fold several thousand extra dollars annually into scholarships to better reflect “the full cost of attendance.” A day later U.S. chief district judge Claudia Wilken, in her decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA, ruled that schools that used players’ names on jerseys and likenesses in video games had to guarantee an athlete at least $5,000 a year in licensing revenue, paid into a trust fund that could be tapped once he used up his eligibility. Those developments would disfigure the NCAA tournament. And it all happened the way Hemingway described going broke—gradually, then suddenly.

Indeed, the other 286 Division I members soon met with financial ruin. Post-2014, when a mid-major recruiter offered a scholarship covering just tuition, books and room and board, prospects would laugh him out of the living room. And when the big boys bumped up their support every few years -- “Just keepin’ up with inflation,” cracked Birmingham pork-rind baron Jocko Broadwad in ’18 -- other schools were forced to follow, or at least try to. First with cash. Then with cars and clothes, because those are part of “the full cost of attendance” if a college bro’s to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, the efforts of the 27 other leagues to consummate jersey and video-game deals were unavailing. Anyone condemned to play for a mid-major knew that his school had a Billiken’s chance in hell of delivering any trust-fund cash upon graduation.

So the unraveling of the NCAAs continued apace. Such former mid-major powers as Butler, Gonzaga and VCU, with no football revenue or windfall from massive TV contracts, lapsed into mediocrity. Schools like Princeton, Bucknell and Mercer, vanquishers respectively of UCLA, Kansas and Duke during Marches past, made a mess of their tournament cameos. With the upset virtually gone from the NCAAs, CBS drastically cut back its rights payments. A cluster of buildings in downtown Indianapolis have served as Section 8 housing ever since the NCAA moved what was left of its operations to Bangalore.

What marked the moment when things came completely a cropper? Some historians point to the eclipse of two schools that once belonged to a league called the Big East, Georgetown and Villanova, contestants in perhaps the most memorable NCAA final of the 20th century. With no football TV deal, neither could even afford to take a priest for the bench on road trips and both fell into irrelevancy.

By then the nonscholarship schools of the Ivy League had seen enough. Alarmed by the adoption of an SEC proposal to supply every football and men’s basketball player with an amanuensis so he could simply dictate irritating term papers, Harvard president Chelsea Clinton sniffed, “We already ask our athletes to pay their own way. Now we’re supposed to compete with schools that don’t require athletes to write?”

Oh, back in 2014 a few clairvoyants saw the decline coming. They decried the disconnection of it all from even the most expansive definition of education. Pointed out the lunacy of more professionalization when only 20 athletic programs ran in the black. Foresaw the brawls between men’s nonrevenue sports and women’s programs midwifed by Title IX over fewer and fewer scraps of funding. Called out the hypocrisy of the NCAA leadership—which trumpeted dedication to “fair” and “equitable” competition in its statement of “core purpose”—for letting the conferences that already enjoyed every advantage, from extravagant training tables to palatial athletic dorms, claim an even more pronounced edge. Instead of paying another assistant football coach a million-plus a year, the haves might have kicked a little of their bounty back to the NCAA, to be redistributed to the have-nots in the name of competitive equity. But despite the howls of populist radio host Paul Krugbaum, the crusade against inequality went nowhere.

And so fans steadily abandoned the event that had once been known, simply and definitively, as “the tournament.” It was one thing for Cinderella to go to the dance but quite another for her to show up wearing a barrel, her feet too dirty for crystal footwear. As lower seeds suffered blowouts every March, it became rare for a secretary to fill out an office pool bracket. By 2031 most of the 27 lesser leagues cried uncle and fled for refuge in Divisions II and III.

Enter the Slive-Delany Cup. Five years ago it even delivered what people had waited decades to see: a 16th seed knocking off a No. 1. That it wasn’t Yale beating Kentucky, but rather Clemson topping Baylor, took some shine off the moment. As did the Tigers’ victory coming after the Bears’ starters missed tip-off when their stretch Hummer got hung up in game-day gridlock on the strip in Las Vegas, which the Student-Athlete Welfare Committee of the rump NCAA had successfully lobbied the Slive-Delany to use as a first-round site.

But, hey, it is what it is. Sixty-five schools make for integrity—of the numerical kind, anyway. It’s enough to fill out a draw that a whiskered basketball fan would recognize: a field of 64, with one entry to spare. Just in case some school gets sidelined by the APR.

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